Bizarre decisions shine unflattering light on English refereeing

By Paul Gardner

How can this happen? How can Phil Dowd -- one of the English Premier League's most experienced referees -- make a call as atrociously bad as the one he made at the 34th minute of Saturday’s Everton-Liverpool game?

We know -- because we are constantly reminded -- that the EPL is the greatest league in the world, and we also know -- because there are plenty of people around who keep telling us -- that English referees are the best in the world. Yet, despite all the brilliance (I mean, it couldn’t be just hype, could it?) we get moments like this: Everton’s Kevin Mirallas launching himself violently at Luis Suarez, slamming his raised right foot, studs up, into the back of Suarez’s right knee. Nowhere near the ball, of course.

If, by EPL standards, that is not a state-of-the-art red card foul, then one despairs for the EPL, which will be revealing itself as the wild west of global soccer.

We had to wait to find out what the call would be. Dowd, well-placed, whistled for a foul. But did not show any sign of getting out a card. He called the Liverpool physio on. A mass of players, from both teams, gathered and Dowd spent his time raising his arms and flailing them about, evidently trying to wave the players way. Ineffectually.

As is his custom, Dowd was also busy chatting merrily away -- on his head piece, and to any player within earshot, and then -- accompanied by some nice smiles -- to the physio. We got over two and half minutes of Dowd doing his best to make out that nothing untoward had happened, a hammy performance that he capped by finally delivering a card. A yellow card, as Suarez limped off the field.

I’ll tell you how utterly, almost criminally wrong, Dowd was on this one. Even the TV commentators -- Brits, all of ‘em -- disagreed with him. The on-site guy -- former Liverpool defender Jim Beglin -- thought it “bordered enough for a red.” But back in the NBC studio at halftime, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe were not in a mood to mince their words. “Excessive force, endangering an opponent,” said Mustoe, “Absolutely a red card.” Earle agreed and stirred things up nicely with a provocative -- but relevant -- comment: “If this was the other way round -- Suarez on Mirallas -- we’d be talking about banning Suarez for life.”

As for the coaches, you can pretty much guess what they thought of the tackle. Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers said it should have been a red card: “He [Mirallas] caught him [Suarez] on the back of his knee and that can end your career.” Undeniable. Everton’s Roberto Martinez came up with: “I don't think it is a red card because it is not a malicious incident, he [Mirallas] tries to win the ball but gets there late.” Which shows, yet again, that coaches either don’t know the rules, or believe that they don’t apply to their own team. (Martinez has experience here -- he it was, in March of this year, when he was coaching Wigan, who defended another awful knee-high tackle. That time it was Callum McManaman who sent Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara to hospital -- but for Martinez “It was a challenge with no real intent. It was an unfortunate incident that happens on a football pitch”).

There may be -- there should be -- repercussions from this dreadful example of poor refereeing from Dowd. But what might we expect? A comment or two from Mike Riley, the referee chief in England? An apology, even?

That is not such a dumb idea as it sounds, because just this past week Riley took it into his head to call up West Bromwich Albion and offer an apology -- presumably on behalf of the Professional Game and Match Officials, of which he is the head -- for a penalty kick that was awarded against WBA earlier this month, a PK that allowed Chelsea to tie the game.

This is a troubling move. This was not the game-referee (Andre Marriner) who was apologizing, this was his boss. As it happens, there was an earlier EPL incident, in October, involving a referee apology. This time it was the match-referee himself who called the club (the same club, poor WBA again). Howard Webb admitted he should have given WBA a PK during its game against Stoke City. Another apology.

Should referees be doing this? Should they, or their boss be calling clubs to admit they got it wrong? It sounds good, a move toward the much-advocated transparency. It can equally be seen as a poor move, one that will open up an unmanageable can of worms. For a start, an apology certainly doesn’t do the aggrieved club any good. In fact, it’s likely to increase the feeling of being victimized. And the club that got the benefit from the wrong call will hardly give a hoot -- what are they expected to do, offer to cancel the points they gained from a bad call that wasn’t their fault?

Webb’s call to WBA may well have been to clear his troubled conscience. Which is admirable, but really doesn’t help anyone but himself. Riley’s call is less explicable. Maybe he’s trying to give the PGMOL a human face, but he’s on highly dangerous ground here.

Why did he pick that one incident? Every week there are likely to be incidents of wrong calls, calls that decide games ... now that Riley has set a precedent, he’d better explain why some clubs may get an apology and others will not.

Will Liverpool get a call from Riley apologizing to them because Dowd did not eject Mirallas -- after all, that would have given Liverpool the advantage of nearly an hour of play against a 10-man Everton.

There is a comical side to that Chelsea incident. Because the Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho had previously announced that he had studied the PK call and declared that referee Marriner had got it right. So Mourinho is now at cross purposes with Riley, who says that Marriner got it wrong.

Of course, Mourinho is not going to change his mind, not least because he knows that, even if Riley is correct about the call, he is inviting trouble by making an apology call.

It is not easy to line up alongside Mourinho, who has an unpleasant way of always wanting to excuse himself and his club from any wrongdoing, while imputing skullduggery to everyone else. This sort of thing: “At least now the referees know, they know one thing. If, in a controversial -- I'm not saying a mistake -- decision that hypothetically -- and, I repeat, hypothetically -- favors Chelsea, they know they are going to be publicly exposed by their boss. That they know. They can make, hypothetically, mistakes, favoring other teams, nothing happens.”

That is pretty smarmy stuff. But this is not: “I'm very curious to know if it was just an isolated phone call. I'm curious to know if people see that as a normal situation. I'm interested to know if this is the start, that from now on it's going to be the same for everybody."

Mourinho has a point, one that needs to be resolved. Mike Riley has landed himself and PGMOL in a mess. He needs to clear it up quickly. It looks like he may need to apologize for making that apology call.

5 comments about "Bizarre decisions shine unflattering light on English refereeing".
  1. Thomas Brannan, November 24, 2013 at 7:08 p.m.

    Absolutely, if it was the other way around people would want Suarez banned for more games than when he bit Ivanovic. However, more damage COULD HAVE been done to Suarez than was done to Ivanovic. But the decision shouldn't be made on the damage done but on the act itself.
    Was Dowd under orders not to red card anyone because of the high profile game and the people watching and the advertising that goes with it and people leaving their TV sets for a less entertaining game when it is 11 v 10?
    If Dowd took 2 1/2 minutes to make a decision and if someone takes the stance that maybe he didn't see it, why not use replay?
    One more thing, very interesting how English commentators like to use the phrase, "nothing malicious".
    Do you think this mentality has anything to do with England's World Cup performances? I am refering to the Enlgish approach to the game. Think about it!

  2. Amos Annan, November 25, 2013 at 8:51 a.m.

    He probably did not see it correctly, despite being in good position. It is easy to get distracted by the numerous things going on in a soccer game. This is what you get when one guy referees 22 players and there is no video review: human error.

  3. Kent James, November 25, 2013 at 11:05 a.m.

    Amos, good point. Referees can't see it all. To me, this also points to the benefit of using instant replay (perhaps monitored by the 4th official, with the option for the CR to review it if necessary) for all game-changing calls (goals, pk's, red cards) at the professional level. It might take 30 seconds (or even a minute or two), but if it means getting those calls right, it would be worth it (particularly since most of them require stoppages anyway).

  4. Kent James, November 25, 2013 at 11:12 a.m.

    As for PG's concern about the possibility of referees apologizing for missed calls, though (as a former referee) I understand the desire to make an apology for a missed call, I have to agree that it opens Pandora's box, and would put referees too often in the position of needing to apologize (since mistakes are made in pretty much every game). Perhaps an alternative would be for Mike Riley to publish, as a way of educating players, coaches, fans and other refs, the referee's assessment of a certain number of controversial calls (maybe 10?) each week. They could explain why some calls were made as they were (where the refs got them right) and why some were not right. It might help people understand the rules (in deference to PG's pet peeve, I won't call them "Laws") and improve consistency. It would also (hopefully) demonstrate that referees do get a lot of difficult calls right, while acknowledging that they're human and make mistakes.

  5. R2 Dad, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.

    Phil Dowd is now 50. Collina retired in 2005 at the mandatory retirement age of 45 (now 46?) for FIFA referees. There are reasons that number is not 50--perhaps the English FA should consult with FIFA on this.

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