In terms of footballing excitement, this season’s boxing day set of fixtures in the Premier League didn’t really deliver a great deal. Not that there should be any extra pressure on teams or managers to come out all guns blazing on St. Stephen’s day, but none of the games really did much to add to the festive cheer of the neutral.
Man City wobbled again, this time against a very resilient and organised West Brom side; Chelsea were unable to overcome Fulham in the West London derby, the 5th draw against Fulham in the last 11 home league meetings between them; Liverpool were unable to bash the Blackburn door down, due to some inspired goalkeeping and poor finishing; and anyone suffering from a post-Christmas lull would have been put to sleep by the utterly soporific Stoke-Villa clash.
So it’s understandable, then, for attention to be focussed elsewhere, namely the refereeing standards in a couple of the games. Firstly at Old Trafford, Connor Salmon received a red card for tickling Michael Carrick’s nose as they were about to challenge for a header, effectively ending the game as a contest and gifting Man Utd a 5-0 win. Secondly, we witnessed a truly shambolic refereeing performance at the Emirates Stadium, Stuart Attwell sending off Nenad Milijaš for a strong challenge on Mikel Arteta that was certainly worthy of a yellow card, but that didn’t look particularly vicious; it looked at worst only equally as dangerous as Alex Song’s wild swipe at Steven Fletcher’s shin that only warranted a caution.
The Arsenal-Wolves game was played at a very high tempo, and certainly leant towards the spicy side of competitive as the game drew on, but almost all the potential flashpoints were handled so poorly that the tensions between the teams rose a lot higher than they necessarily should have. Mr. Attwell’s performance lacked any sort of consistency or authority, and Mick McCarthy would have had an easy scapegoat had Wolves conceded at the end; credit where it’s due for hanging on in there; defending the 6 yard line is a difficult task but they somehow pulled it off.
Tying the two poor refereeing displays was Attwell’s yellow card given to Adlène Guedioura for flailing his arms at Per Mertesacker. The incident was almost a carbon copy of Sammon’s infringement against Carrick the previous day (slightly worse, if anything), and yet the punishments were very different. There is just no consistency. Referees have a hard enough job without deciding to interpret the rules in a laissez-faire eisegesical nightmare.
At the heart of the problem is the decision to fast track younger referees. This is not to say that a 29 year-old man is incapable of making the correct decisions. But it’s not too much of a leap of logic to posit that an older, more experienced referee would be better at diffusing inflammatory situations that they have encountered many times previously, and at keeping their head while 22 grown men revert to their inner toddler and have enormous tantrums whilst waving imaginary yellow cards in their faces.
Years of experience in the lower leagues, where the crowds are at least less populated and the tempo of the matches a little slower must surely be a rite of passage for all referees. Attwell spent just a solitary season in the Football League before being promoted to the top flight. His career, already littered with controversies (most notably, the ghost goal for Reading against Watford) should be caution enough to the relevant authorities that their “initiative” should be permanently shelved and only brought up as a reminder next time anyone has an equally stupid idea.
Unfortunately, there is little hope for improvements in refereeing while current referees’ chief Mike Riley is overseeing the development of officialdom. Riley, whose name became synonymous with controversy during his long career as a Premier League ref, is unlikely to drive any common-sense into the way matches are refereed. Accused on the record by David Moyes of being biased towards Manchester United, of being “disgraceful” by Phil Brown, and who once openly celebrated a goal in a Premier League match; this man is in charge of the nations referees. What could possibly go right?