‘Just how bad is this guy?’ I asked myself of the referee, Martin Atkinson, 30 minutes into the Chelsea-Burnley game on Saturday. I have always tried to keep a level head when it comes to referees. They get a quarter of a second to make a snap judgement on something which the viewers are shown three or four or five times at perfect angles and in supreme slow motion. They have to deal with irascible fans and argumentative players, all while keeping a level head themselves. Also, they have to be in a good physical condition to keep up with a match all game. But one thing I cannot abide is when the FA send an obviously blind referee to do a game.
Because it wasn’t just one or two small decisions that Atkinson got wrong yesterday. At least one clear penalty was turned down. Ashley Barnes’ tackle could have broken Nemanja Matic’s leg. Matic’s reactionary push, which, unless rescinded (unlikely), will suspend him for the League Cup final against Tottenham on the 1st March, was below the neck, so should have been a yellow card. Full credit to Burnley though, for hanging on and getting the equaliser and a deserved point, but really the game should have been over in the first half. Compare this to the late game. Manchester City were awarded a penalty in the first 28 seconds of the game. A definite penalty, given without hesitance. Full credit to the referee, who had a solid performance.
So why is there such a difference in refereeing performances? Atkinson is less than 10 yards away in every instance of his incorrect decisions. He has plenty of experience at this level. He has blindly accepted that Chelsea have some history of diving, or surrounding the ref, or getting favourable decisions, and maybe he’s trying to balance it out. Maybe he’s giving Burnley the benefit of the doubt. After all, Michael Kightly is an ex-Wolves player, so they have enough troubles on their plate. But he should be more professional.
There’s no wonder that Jose Mourinho is still complaining about this campaign. On Sunday, he appeared on Goals on Sunday on Sky Sports, gave a frank, outraged interview on the treatment of his team and his players. While it is not at all unlike Mourinho to be melodramatic, it does show that he has a point. Diego Costa was booked in his first game, also against Burnley, for a non-existent dive. Chelsea have had two penalties this season, Manchester City seven.
I’ll make this clear. I don’t think there’s a campaign against Chelsea. I do think that Chelsea games get more than their fair share of terrible decisions, and I think it’s due to the pressure on the referee. He can’t really give out red cards, because he knows that would kill the game. The fans are constantly at his back. This problem extends against Chelsea as well. Gary Cahill should have received a red card for his foul of Alexis Sanchez earlier on in the season.
On the other side of the coin, Danny Welbeck should also have received one for a two footed tackle. What if that game had been West Ham-QPR? Would the referee have been so hesitant with his decisions? Because these games have less interest, the decisions aren’t as big. Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, these teams have players that can change the game in a second, the decisions by the referees are orders of magnitude more important.
This is a problem endemic throughout English football. Look back at the any game of the weekend. At Tottenham, a very soft Harry Kane penalty salvaged a late 2-2 draw against West Ham. In the same game, Mark Noble somehow avoided a second yellow card for a late challenge on Nabil Bentaleb, for which he then received a push in the face from Jan Vertonghen. I don’t want to see a player sent off for a moment of madness, but if Matic was deserving of a red card, Vertonghen was equally at fault. Even more so, in fact. Matic had just suffered a horrific challenge. Vertonghen had watched a team mate receive one. The punishment laws of the FA are arbitrary and ill-defined.
And that’s to say nothing of retrospective punishments. Diego Costa was rightly given a three match ban for the alleged stamp on Emre Can. Can we expect the same of Barnes? The FA haven’t made any statement yet. It took them less than 24 hours to ban Costa. What about diving? Persistent diving is becoming a much bigger problem. Even Gary Cahill, a 6 foot plus centre back reverted to diving against Hull.
It’s embarrassing to watch. Foreign players are generally condemned for diving, but it’s a problem for players in every team. There’s a difference between going down easily and diving. Against Preston in the FA Cup, Wayne Rooney went down with no contact. That is a dive, and should be punished retrospectively, even if it’s with a yellow card. The FA need to start taking a stand. At the moment they are a laughing stock.
But why are we still putting up with it? We have the technology to prevent these poor performances. Complaining that it will slow down the game is a concern, but, like in cricket or tennis, give each team a number of available reviews, and only use it for penalty decisions. It’s not fair to be constantly at the wrong end of another bad performance, and performances by referees in the Premier League are growing consistently worse. Even Swansea manager Gary Monk was earlier this season writing to the FA about the poor quality. Where is Howard Webb when you need him? This is the Premier League, the most watched, most vibrant, best League in the world. Why can’t we officiate like it?