5 March 2008
There are 19 football referees in England who are considered the 'elite' bunch. They are the Select Group - the guys who take charge of Premier League matches. One of them gets the FA Cup final, another the League Cup final. Those with FIFA accreditation also officiate at European matches.
Occasionally, however, as if to slum it, random Select Group referees get handed a fixture below Premier League level. Last night, Hull City versus Burnley was reffed by one such official - Mike Riley.
Sometimes I do wonder why referees bother. Mr Riley was obliged, under the laws of the game, to send off four players in total. This is a freakish number - indeed, in 21 years of attending football matches I can't recall so many red cards in one game - but ultimately it was the correct number.
Yet fans who have no logical thought immediately accuse the man in the middle of "ruining the game".
Now, assuming the referee got all decisions correct according to the laws, he is the one person who is not "ruining the game" if he feels compelled to send four players from the field. The ones who are "ruining the game" are the players themselves for committing the punishable offences.
Burnley's dismissals were for second yellow cards and a little more cut and dried (although the second player to go, Joey Gudjonsson, must have been told to leave the pitch for dissent, as we could see no physical peccadillo on his part). The Hull City dismissals were straight reds for alleged violent conduct and supposedly much more controversial.
Caleb Folan was spotted by Mr Riley elbowing an opponent. Mr Riley stopped the game to issue the red card. Folan protested.
Jay Jay Okocha then also threw out an elbow and clattered a Burnley defender, who did go down as if he'd run into a lamp-post, unhelpfully. Mr Riley didn't seem to see this so he consulted his assistant - crucially, the assistant hadn't raised his flag, so presumably either he also didn't see it, or he did see something but felt nothing was amiss. Either way, a decision was reached to dismiss Okocha. This caused some anger among the supporters, as Okocha had seemingly been sent off for committing an offence that neither official had actually seen.
However, television replays later showed all four red cards, within the laws of the game, were shown correctly.
Neither manager said afterwards they intended to appeal the decisions.
So, why monster the referee?
Mr Riley is there to interpret the players' actions according to the laws. If he doesn't do so correctly or sufficiently, he is punished. His assessor in the crowd marks him down and he can be relegated, just like an ill-performing team is.
So why is he being castigated for his decisions? I heard people say in the stadium that Mr Riley "wanted all the attention". No, he didn't. He wanted to do his job properly. He is a professional referee, that is what he does.
The reason four red cards were issued is because four players committed offences of a serious enough nature, either stand-alone or accumulative, to merit a red card each. No more, no less.
I don't take pleasure from this, as Folan and especially Okocha are vital players to our team as we try to penetrate the top six in the Championship. But the reason we're without them (and are desperately short of natural cover) for our forthcoming games against Scunthorpe, Cardiff and Southampton in the next fortnight is not the fault of the referee.
One joker near me even shouted "you're rubbish Riley, f**k off back to the Premier League". Yeah, good one pal. Tell the ref he's so dreadful he should return to a division where the football is better, the stakes are higher, the game is quicker and the players are more devious. Clearly a place for an incompetent referee...