Howard Webb and the referees' fear of the penalty kick

By Paul Gardner

First -- to make one thing very clear -- I think Liverpool can blame itself for losing its FA cup game to Arsenal on Sunday. Sure, it played well, did enough warrant a win -- but it simply didn’t finish the chances it created. The stats tell the story: Shots on goal, Arsenal 3, Liverpool 7 -- final score Arsenal 2, Liverpool 1.

That is not the way Liverpool will be feeling about the game. It will be seething at referee Howard Webb for failing, in the 65th minute, to give it what its captain, Steven Gerrard, called “a stonewall penalty” following contact between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luis Suarez. Gerrard’s description is too kind to Webb. This was a simply appalling decision by Webb. If this wasn’t a penalty, then it’s difficult to see how anything, short of an assault with a machine gun, can result in a penalty call.

Right in front of Webb, Suarez was flattened by an absurdly late, clumsy and reckless challenge from Chamberlain. Clearly inside the area. Chamberlain, of course, got nowhere near the ball.

Not a penalty? Webb is probably the only person on the planet who really believes that -- well, Chamberlain agrees with him, but he would, wouldn’t he? Even Arsene Wenger, with delicate caution, admitted that it might have been a PK: “I have seen the incident and will have to look again -- maybe, maybe not.”

Phooey. One look is more than enough to know that, as the BBC put it, “Arsenal have got away with one.” Not just the BBC -- we have Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail saying that Webb “criminally ignored” the appeals for a penalty, The Mirror talking of “blundering Howard Webb,” Henry Winter in The Telegraph calling the decision “startlingly poor” and “inexplicable,” Eurosport reporting on “a simply shocking decision.”

This was not just any old referee, this was Howard Webb, widely held to be England’s best, the man who refereed the most recent World Cup final. You don’t get that far without being a very good referee. But Webb, for all his excellent qualities, has a tendency to bottle big calls -- of avoiding giving PKs and red cards.

Earlier this season he was slammed by ManU coach David Moyes for not calling a PK for ManU in its game against Chelsea. Another pretty obvious foul that Webb somehow blacked out. After the World Cup final he had admitted that he should have red-carded Holland’s Nigel De Jong, but claimed (with some justification, I thought) that his positioning meant he couldn’t clearly see De Jong’s high-foot foul. He has also given a ridiculous yellow card for diving ... to Lionel Messi, and then (later in the same Barcelona-Bayern Munich game), simply ignored a brutal body block on Messi by Mark Van Bommel.

Webb displays, in a sometimes spectacular way, the well known fear that referees have of awarding penalty kicks (and I do not care what referees say to that, the fear is well known). He also shows the equally disturbing reluctance of referees to penalize goalkeepers.

Liverpool had another strong shout for a penalty kick near the end of the game when Arsenal keeper Lukasz Fabianski charged forward to meet a Steven Gerrard free kick -- he missed the ball completely but delivered a solid punch to the head of Daniel Agger. “Fabianski decides if he can't get the ball he'll take the man,” said the BBC. Reckless? For sure, and therefore a penalty kick. But Webb ignored the foul. Martin Keown, a former Arsenal defender -- a robust, physical one -- commented that Fabianski had “got away with that.”

But by that stage of the game, Webb seemed to be avoiding anything controversial. No doubt aware that he’d done Arsenal a huge favor by bottling the PK for Chamberlain’s foul on Suarez, Webb, 10 minutes later, did Liverpool what looked like a make-up favor by not ejecting Gerrard with a second yellow. Another bad call -- Gerrard’s foul on Chamberlain was a clear yellow-card foul. Then Liverpool got another break when Webb failed to call Martin Skrtel’s dangerous high-foot challenge on Santi Cazorla -- in the penalty area.

There is every reason to agree with the comment in The Independent that, after his glaring error in not calling a PK for Liverpool in the 65th minute, Webb was “subconsciously opting out of big decisions from there on.” Though whether his abdication of responsibility was subconscious is questionable.

It should be unthinkable for Webb, one of the world’s top referees, to fall into the trap of allowing one bad call to undermine subsequent calls. His calamitous performance highlights a major problem common to all referees. They are never keen on making calls that could “decide the game.” Which means calling penalty kicks or red cards.

But Webb has the misfortune to referee in England where the attitude to rough play is more indulgent than elsewhere, where the referees (to say nothing of the coaches) are always ready to make excuses for it, to pardon it, to ignore it. By not enforcing the rules strictly, by refusing to punish obviously reckless fouls (in particular by giving soppy little chats to players who should be carded) English referees weaken both the weight of the rules, and their own authority.

Parallel with that goes the encouragement they give to defenders to indulge in reckless tackling. Why not? Why would Chamberlain not clatter into Suarez? He knows that Webb is unlikely to give Suarez a second PK only seven minutes after the first one, and he will be aware that English referees have established, to their own satisfaction, that Suarez is a diver (they have done more, they have helped to create the player’s image as a diver). Why would Gerrard hesitate to slide wickedly into Chamberlain when he knows that Webb is unlikely to hand out the second yellow card? And why would Fabianski not risk punching Agger in the face when he knows that, if a foul is called, it will probably be called against Agger?

To allow referees a certain amount of discretion in making their calls may be a sensible -- even a humane -- necessity. But when that discretion is invariably used to permit roughhouse play, it causes a major problem. The logical result of leniency is that it will actually encourage reckless play.

What that does for the game itself is more difficult to assess. Does it discourage players from dribbling? That seems quite likely, when anyone dribbling is likely to be hacked down without getting the call. Well, there may be a call, but there’s a good chance it will be the injustice of a diving call against the dribbler. When a dribbler is tripped or knocked down in England, it is now customary to allege that “he went down too easily.”

So, he should have stayed on his feet? We saw an example of this in the 33rd minute when Raheem Sterling, cutting into the Arsenal penalty area, was tripped by Carl Jenkinson. Sterling tried to stay on his feet but, off balance, wasted a good opportunity. And, of course, Jenkinson's trip was not called by Webb. As the BBC put it, “He might have been better to go down.”

The iniquities of Webb’s refereeing in particular, and English referees in general (so brutally exposed in this Arsenal-Liverpool game) can, I suppose, be reduced to the phrase “let ‘em play.” When applied to a referee -- “He lets ‘em play” -- it is considered high praise. Heaven knows why. Let ‘em play can mean only one thing: Let ‘em foul. It means the referee is ignoring all sorts of fouls in the ostensibly good cause of “letting it flow.” Does it need pointing out that this is yet further incitement to rough play?

I’ll repeat what I started with. I do not believe that Liverpool lost this game because of Howard Webb. It was done out of at least one penalty kick for sure (but who says they would have scored?), but it got a huge break when Gerrard was not ejected.

The story here concerns the abysmal performance by referee Webb. To get so many major calls wrong, and to end up with an almost “anything goes” approach is deplorable. There are huge lessons to be learned here. But the history of English refereeing tells you they are unlikely to be heeded -- if indeed they are even noticed.
9 comments about "Howard Webb and the referees' fear of the penalty kick".
  1. R2 Dad, February 19, 2014 at 1:04 a.m.

    I believe the non-call clouded his judgement thereafter, agreed. This is not something that's supposed to happen at the highest levels, but it is a human reaction. There are many worse non-calls, but Webb should take a vacation now before the world cup, where these types of mistakes are inexcusable. If his positioning in 2010 was not ideal, perhaps we can't expect better in 2014.

  2. Thomas Brannan, February 19, 2014 at 4:08 a.m.

    No big mystery here. He seen it. He just didn't want to call it. When Webb referees it is going to be a more physical/rougher game. If anyone else did it they would get disciplined in some way.

  3. Bruce Gowan, February 19, 2014 at 7:48 a.m.

    As a coach and referee my observation is that the physical level of a game is set by the team that increases the physical play and the referee that allows it. In recent years I have seen a trend for defenders to make contact in the box and for referee to "no call" the contact. A change by the referee would not increase the number of PK's because as soon as the first call was made then the message would be sent and the defenders would reduce the contact in the box.

  4. Casey Prince, February 19, 2014 at 8:34 a.m.

    We had the opposite happen in South Africa recently. A young, strong referee called 8 penalties in 2 PSL matches! 3 in one match and 5 in a match this weekend between Mamelodi Sundowns & Ajax Cape Town. Some were a bit soft, but at least he had the guts to call them. I love it. When referees start consistently punishing physical play then scoring will rise, and the game will be more exciting.

  5. Kent James, February 19, 2014 at 8:38 a.m.

    Referees, like players, have bad games. Though I did not see the game, I don't doubt Gardner's assessment is accurate. Referees should not be afraid to call more pks, or eject more players (when they deserve it). But why do they fear doing so? Because of the culture they operate in, which condemns such actions. So the referees are not the only ones at fault. The referees can nudge the game in a less violent direction, but they need support to do so. And while PG is clearly trying to push the game in that direction, his blind spot is not condemning diving, which adds to the violence (by frustrating defenders) and makes the referee's job much more difficult.

  6. beautiful game, February 19, 2014 at 8:53 a.m.

    Mr. Webb swallowed the whistle in an incident that he historically can't handle properly. Question is, what kind of pre-game discussion does he have with opposing teams. Both sides should know what will not be tolerated before they step on the pitch.

  7. ROBERT BOND, February 19, 2014 at 8:59 a.m.

    Webb? BPL? What is your point? He doesn't pick favorites,& you did not mention Podolski was properly(& I am a Gooner)assessed for a PK? Myself, when I see that bald head, I know the match will not be boring......

  8. feliks fuksman, February 19, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

    Agree with Kent James' statement above 100%!!!! Moreover I will add coaches to the list of humans who make mistakes and not the right decisions at times.

  9. Amos Annan, February 20, 2014 at 7:39 a.m.

    Referees have bad games too.

    If soccer people care, have a video review process.... or else you have to live with it.

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