In recent months, we’ve more than had our fill of anger and outrage aimed at referees after they’ve made poor decisions. In September last year referee Stuart Atwell was widely condemned after his decision to award Reading the so-called “phantom goal” in a Championship match at Watford when the ball had flown five feet wide of the post. Atwell and his assistants blamed the goal on an “optical illusion”. Earlier this season in similar but opposite circumstances referee Rob Shoebridge was derided after failing to notice that a shot from Crystal Palace’s Freddie Sears had entered Bristol City’s goal before bouncing out off an internal stanchion in a match at the same level at Ashton gate, instead waving play on. We’re also often outraged by decisions of referees to send off players, or indeed not to. Only this weekend, Wolves striker Stefan Maierhofer was shown a second yellow card and dismissed, his crime, standing his ground with Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was only booked for aiming a swinging arm at Maierhofer’s head. The official at the centre of the controversy was once again, and almost certainly not for the last time, Atwell.
However, for me, all these terrible decisions are trumped by another that was made in a Premier League match this weekend, Liverpool’s visit to Sunderland. Five minutes in, Sunderland’s Darren Bent shot at goal. With the ball heading straight for Liverpool ‘keeper Pepe Reina, it struck a beach ball that had been thrown onto the pitch by the travelling fans gathered behind the goal. Taking a heavy deflection that completed wrong-footed Reina, the ball found the net and was allowed to stand by referee Mike Jones. It proved to be the winner.
In the aftermath of the match, there has been much controversy over the goal, particularly as the exact wording of the FA’s laws of the game came to light, clearly stating that, “the referee should stop, suspend or abandon the match because of outside interference of any kind”. Outside interference is defined as any action that has an effect on the match caused by an agent that wasn’t on the pitch at the start of the game, such as an invading fan, a runaway dog or indeed, a beach ball. It’s clear that the goal shouldn’t have been allowed to stand. In such circumstances, restarting the game with a drop ball from the edge of the Liverpool penalty area would have been appropriate.
I’ll happily admit that I wasn’t aware of this rule. On first hearing about the incident I though of it only as terrible luck for Liverpool. Then again, I’m not a Premier League referee and I’m not paid six figures a year to learn and apply the rules of football. Mike Jones is, and his team of two assistants and a fourth official are all deemed to be amongst the best officials we have. For all four of them to be ignorant of this rule and allow the goal to stand is therefore disgraceful. Failing to notice that the ball has or hasn’t crossed the goal line, incorrectly sending a player off or being fooled by a player’s dive are all frustrating from referees, but they can all be put down to human error, and are therefore to a degree excusable. We cannot expect to have officials who never make mistakes. We should, however, expect to have referees who are well aware of the intricacies of the rules of the game. At the Stadium of Light on Saturday, we did not.
The most worrying aspect of it is that there’s no obvious way of rectifying it. After many of the other bad decisions I mentioned there was a collective outcry from a large proportion of football fans in favour of video replays to aid referees, or at least goal line technology to tell them when the ball has crossed the line. Human error can, and probably will at some point in the future, be corrected by technology. Negligence and failure to properly know the rules on the part of the referee cannot. That’s why the decision to award Bent’s goal should be used to say far more about the state of our refereeing than any of the other decisions that have caused such scandal.