Andre Marriner’s decision to send Kieron Gibbs rather than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain off this weekend was shocking and embarrassing, but all too familiar to those scrutinising refereeing performances so far this season. Predictably, like after every bad decision made by a referee these days, managers, pundits and ‘football experts’ immediately called for ‘more help’ for referees following Arsenal’s defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Refereeing ‘clangers’ in the past have resulted in a similarly hasty address of officiating as we know it. Frank Lampard’s infamous goal that wasn’t against Germany, along with other similar instances, have led to the introduction of goal-line technology. This is where the reduction in ‘power’ of the on field referee should end.
Video refereeing is not the answer. Video refereeing works in other sports, and those sports are better for it. In cricket it adds another dimension to the tactics, in terms of when to challenge the decision of the umpire. The stop start nature of rugby means that the video referee is not ‘interrupting the flow of the game’. This is one of the major arguments people use against video refereeing in football, a game loved for its free-flowing, high tempo nature. However, this is not why we should avoid the use of a video referee at all costs!
The drama associated with waiting for the decision of a video referee in cricket, rugby or even tennis, would not be so calmly observed by your average football fan in the terraces. The tension of waiting for a replay or a decision to appear inside a fraught derby day stadium atmosphere could prove too much for your typically fickle football fan. Even so, the drama in football stretches further now than it would with a replay on a big screen. Football fans love to argue. With each other in the pub, on football phone ins, really with anyone that will listen. Remove the prospect of a poor refereeing decision changing the course of a game, a title chase or a relegation battle and remove much of the potential for debate among football fans, which we so enjoy.
This does not mean that there should not be the desire from a referee or the FA to seek perfect officiating. But it does mean that the unpredictable, luck-driven nature of football that we love is kept at its optimum level, assuming the unlikely drastic improvement in your average referee. Referees make mistakes, some of which are the equivalent of losing possession or conceding a needless throw-in by the footballers themselves. However, when a referee makes a decision akin to a shocking own goal, they should be punished, as the players are through the loss of a game, or the way Gibbs was, so unfairly, for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s mistake. On Saturday, Marriner not only sent the wrong man off, but also refused to act on Oxlade-Chamberlain’s recognition that it was in fact he who handled the ball, leading to Hazard’s penalty. Was this the failure of Marriner himself or the FA’s failure to provide referees with the means to overturn decisions on the field? The former should result in a ban for Marriner. The latter should cause those calling for a video governed game to favour improving the on field tools provided for referees by the FA. Certainly before looking for alternatives that could bring an unwanted change to football as we know it.
A good refereeing performance is one that is less than memorable. The referee should not be the centre of attention in a game of football, as unfortunately many of the current European officials seem to strive to be. The continued reliance on the on field referee to make important decisions should not be misconstrued as a vote of confidence but as a method of preserving the elements of luck and controversy for football fans to endlessly enjoy debating.