Most people haven’t attended a refereeing course, but we can only assume that Lesson One covers what to do when a player hits the round thing between the two white posts – or maybe not if Crystal Palace’s recent trip to Bristol City is anything to go by.
It did not take long for the season to witness its first truly calamitous piece of refereeing, or for those in favour of introducing technology to aid officials to re-issue their orders to drag the game into the 21st century.
Neil Warnock is rarely without an opinion following a game, but the Palace manager was justifiably infuriated after watching his team fall victim to a piece of refereeing incompetence that would have tested the patience of a saint, let alone one of football’s perennial wind bags.
Palace’s on-loan striker Freddie Sears thought he had put them ahead against City having slammed the ball into the back of the net only for the referee Rob Shoebridge, after consulting both his assistants, to say he had failed to find the target.
A simple mistake for those who are visually impaired, but sadly for Shoebridge, who has been removed from his post for the next two weeks, the gift of sight is a pre-requisite for a modern football official.
Those in favour of the introduction of technology cite such bizarre incidents as obvious reasons to remove some of the burden away from referees and hand it to a computer or at least a fourth official with the aid of a monitor and a television replay.
The argument is often put forward, usually by those who have been wronged by some refereeing injustice, with incredulity as if having Hawk-Eye monitoring the goal-line is part of the natural progression of human history.
“We can put a man on the moon,” grumbled Warnock, “but we can’t have cameras on the goal posts.”
Of course the Palace manager has a point, but he is also perhaps missing one, which those who promote the ever-expanding use of technology often neglect.
Unbeknown to the Palace boss, a giant leap for mankind has been made in this field. But the question is not whether we could use all manner of devices to help referees but whether we should? And whether the introduction of even limited technology would be the beginning of an insidious invasion of gadgetry and replays that leads to the slow destruction of the beautiful game?
On the surface no one would object to some form of device that could tell if the ball had crossed the line, providing the decision was almost immediate. You would not want the intervening moments to be punctuated by a game changing event such as a sending off, an injury or a goal at the other end.
But what of other decisions: offsides for example – should controversial goals where a player may have just strayed behind the last defender before finding the back of the net be referred to the fourth official to view again on the monitor?
And should the referral be the decision of the referee or the team who feel they have been wronged? Imagine the fuss if a ref refused to refer a decision and it later turned out to be wrong. Anyone who thinks this sort of technology would clean up the game is likely to be disappointed.
This type of pressure on referees would inevitably result in players being the ones who decided if the video was going to be called into play, and the unseemly haranguing of officials would become more and more commonplace. You can bet your boots, a gaggle of players would gather round the ref every time a goal was scored demanding it be referred to the fourth official in the hope the video would unearth some previously unseen infringement.
And what about incidents that are not objective matters of fact? If we accept that offsides should be referred to a video arbiter, the next step will surely be penalty decisions, serious fouls, or violent conduct.
The obvious answer is that you must draw the line somewhere, to avoid the game degenerating into a long and drawn out affair, but the question is where do you rake that line in the sand?
Many other sports of course successfully manage to make use of video technology to the benefit of the game, but perhaps none are similar enough to provide a model which football could successfully employ.
Rugby is perhaps the nearest in structure and the one from which football could learn the most. Officials refer matters to video referees with questions that return to objective matters of fact such as whether or not a player has managed to touch the ball down over the try line.
Football referees could conceivably do the same. So rather than refer a penalty decision or a foul to a video referee, they could ask a question such as did the defender get a touch on the ball, or did the ball make contact with his hand.
This would seem to make a lot more sense than a system such as that in tennis where opposing players can each stop play three times to challenge a decision. If applied to football, this could easily lead to abuse with unscrupulous captains choosing to arrest their opponents in full flow at opportune moments, while waiting for a break in play to make a challenge could result in the game carrying on for some minutes before the action was recalled.
The introduction of technology into football is perhaps not inevitable, and certainly not while staunch opponent Michel Platini remains at the Uefa helm, but it becomes more and more likely with every passing piece of incompetence from officials.
Good intentions are never enough to justify any change in the rules, with football being the mega-money industry it is, the application of technology into the game needs to be carefully thought through.
And perhaps the first scientific experiment the game’s governing body could undertake should be a simple eye test for referees – first up Rob Shoebridge?
Most people haven’t attended a refereeing course, but we can only assume that Lesson One covers what to do when a player hits the round thing between the two white posts – or maybe not if Crystal Palace’s recent trip to Bristol City is anything to go by.
A Liverpool legend once sang money cant’t buy you love, but there is one man on Merseyside who would probably disagree.
As Liverpool prepare to face Stoke at Anfield on Wednesday, looking to put their first Premier League points on the board in the new campaign, manager Rafa Benitez has managed to fit in a spot of bargain basement shopping to fill a gaping hole in the Reds defence.
European journeyman Sotiris Kyrgiakos is likely to be recruited at a cost of around £2 million and boasts a CV that includes Rangers, Panathinaikos and Eintracht Frankfurt – hardly a collection to set the pulses racing of expectant Reds fans.
The arrival of the Greek international will almost certainly come too late to prevent Liverpool fielding 18-year-old Spaniard Daniel Ayala – who looked hopelessly out of his depth in last season’s FA Youth Cup final mauling by Arsenal - in the heart of their defence against a physically demanding Potters side.
With Martin Skrtel struggling to recover from a jaw injury sustained against Tottenham at the weekend and Daniel Agger back on the treatment table – a home from home for the Dane – the lack of depth in Benitez’s current squad has been crudely exposed with the season barely begun.
Hull’s Michael Turner and Wednesday’s opponent Ryan Shawcross are both seemingly out of reach, leaving Benitez to turn his attention to a player who is unlikely to have been top of his shopping list when the reliable Sami Hyypia first announced he would be leaving Liverpool to play out his career in Germany.
The Liverpool manager, who was reportedly promised £20 million on top of anything he raised in player sales when he signed his new contract, is currently sitting on an £8 million profit for his summer trading to date. The departures of Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sebastien Leto, Jack Hobbs and Paul Anderson have generated around £40 million, while Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani have cost the Reds in the region of £32 million.
The Spaniard, who is never shy in volunteering an opinion, has so far refrained from criticising co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks for failing to make funds available, but should The Reds fail to pick up maximum points at Anfield on Wednesday, we can expect him to bite his tongue no longer.
Benitez has a history of making principled stands that have brought his tenure at his previous clubs to unseemly premature ends.
He walked out of Real Madrid, where he coached the youth team, following a dispute with the president, he quit Extramadura for the same reason, and he famously left Valencia claiming promises had been broken over transfer policy – he wanted a sofa and they bought him a lampshade.
Kyrgiakos will not enjoy the analogy, for he has been scouted in football’s lighting department rather than its more luxurious soft furnishings section. And as guaranteed as a sale at DFS, the Americans are playing with fire and risking not only the wrath of their manager but also his future at the club.
The Reds looked dangerously short on creativity in their season opener against Tottenham, with only the late introduction of Yossi Benayoun providing any penetrative spark.
But long-term Benitez target and Valencia playmaker David Silva is unlikely to be winging his way to Anfield despite reports claiming the Liverpool manager had all but secured a deal only to be told the money was not there by the two men guarding the purse strings.
Results will dictate whether or not Benitez directs his ire at his employers or decides to quietly make-do with the players at his disposal. But should he decide the current financial state of the club is preventing him from doing his job, he may just decide he would be better off elsewhere.
This may seem hard to believe, but the Premier League does actually have rules governing who can gain control of a Premiership football club. You see, not just any Tom, Dick or deposed despot can put on their wellies, wander into top paddock and milk the Premiership cash cow. No, they must first pass what is known as the ‘fit and proper person test’.
This is a fairly new idea in football. Whilst other sports, such as rugby, have had vetting procedures in place for many a year, football has always been a free market. If you had the money, you could have a slice of the action. Well, not any more. About a year ago, some bright spark at Soho Square decided that given the trend amongst foreign billionaires to invest in Premiership football teams – you don’t get that rich without doing something wrong – it would be right and proper to introduce rules to safeguard the beautiful game from an influx of undesirables; hence the ‘fit and proper person test’.
It is probably jumping the gun to try and second guess how the Premier League goes about deciding what constitutes a so-called ‘fit and proper person’ - after all, if the bigwigs who govern the top tier of our national game had the same sense of justice and moral obligation as you or I, West Ham would have been relegated months ago – nevertheless, one would hope that the scope of their criteria extended so far as to examine the financial propriety and human rights record of whosoever tries to gain control of a Premiership club.
Now this brings us on to the former Thai Prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra whose bid of £81 million to buy Manchester City was yesterday recommended to shareholders by the club’s board. It would appear, therefore, that only the minor obstacle of being deemed both ‘fit and proper’ now stands in between Shinawatra and his dream of taking control of a Premiership team.
So, is Mr Shinawatra a fit and proper person? Well, up until yesterday, the only information that I had on Thaksin Shinawatra was a series of allegations of financial impropriety – he’s alleged to have profited to the tune of £1 billion following a deal made possible by his own legislation - and Amnesty International’s repeated concerns vis-à-vis over two thousand uninvestigated murders, the use of excessive force against demonstrators, torture of detainees, and the impunity enjoyed by state officials for alleged human rights violations.
One would have thought that all this would be sufficient to disqualify Mr Shinawatra from taking over at Man City, but having recently seen an interview with the man, I have to admit that he comes across as quite a cheerful and congenial chap. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he has a certain teddy-bearish quality about him. My media-induced lack of cynicism has, therefore, led me to turn my attentions away from the fact that Mr Shinawatra’s government was frequently challenged with allegations of corruption, dictatorship, demagogy, treason, conflicts of interest, human rights abuses, acting undiplomatically, the use of legal loopholes and hostility towards a free press and turn instead towards all the good that he achieved whilst in power – I've heard that he managed to cut poverty in half and provide near universal access to affordable healthcare.
For some reason, I’ve got a funny feeling that the Premier League will also choose not to focus on the negative, and Mr Shinawatra will be deemed both fit and proper to become Chairman of Manchester City.
If I were the head of the Serbian Football Federation, I’d be worried. The racist chanting by Serbian fans during their U21 team’s final group match against England has really landed them in it. UEFA don’t mess about when it comes to serious matters like this; they operate a policy of ‘zero tolerance’.
Or at least that’s what UEFA's clownish spokesman, William Gaillard, would like us to believe.
Among the besuited, champagne-quaffing footballcrats at UEFA, ‘zero tolerance’ is something of a hazy expression. For it can imply numerous eventualities, to which if you or I were pushed to give a numeric tolerance-value, it would certainly not be zero. For example, when Ashley Cole was subjected to monkey chants at the Santiago Bernabeu, when England played Spain three years ago, the Spanish FA were fined £30,000. Considering gate receipts for that game would have been upwards of £1.5 million, the fine imposed was not zero-tolerant. I would probably place it somewhere in the region of 6-tolerance, which is fairly tolerant, given that my scale only goes up to 10 and 10 would have involved letting the Spanish off scot-free.
So, following the embarrassing events of Sunday night, what punishment can we expect to see meted out to the Serbian FA?
Those of us who don’t ride to work on the UEFA gravy train would expect to see Serbia expelled from the competition. No ifs, no buts, no questions. That way, in any future tournaments, fans who come to support their team or country would know that racist behaviour was counterproductive to their cause. This is the commonsense solution. So will it happen? Of course not. UEFA have already said that nothing will happen before an investigation takes place on July 12th.
An investigation is presumably required to establish that the monkey chants were actually monkey chants and not some inoffensive noise that sounded just like monkey chants. By the time this investigation takes place, the tournament will have been over for nearly three weeks.
However, once the necessary investigation has established for certain that the monkey noises were actually monkey noises, we can then expect to see Serbia banned from taking part in the next Euro U21s. Not likely! This just wouldn’t be in keeping with UEFA’s policy of burying their head in the sand and trying not to do anything too proactive.
A ban is not going to happen. It never does with UEFA. Every racist incident in European football has been met with a paltry fine and no further action and that is exactly what will happen to Serbia. A drawn out investigation will be quietly concluded and UEFA’s mouthy spokesman will claim that the fine is another example of Europe’s governing body getting tough on racism. Meanwhile, Serbia’s mediaeval fans will continue to make their presence known in their own unpleasant way.
Following the Champions’ league exits of England’s top two sides, it seems that it is now universally accepted that going for victory in all competitions is foolish, it being ‘impossible to win on all fronts’. In fact, the very use of this terminology – usually found in descriptions of failed German attempts to conquer Europe – suggests that attempting to win the Champions’ League alongside other domestic competitions is as difficult as taking an army through Russia in wintertime. As many a General has found to his cost, this is indeed very difficult and by extension, United and Chelsea are excused for their poor showing in last week’s semi-finals. Just like the armies of Napoleon and Hitler, they had become battle-weary, whereas Liverpool – who according to Mourinho have been focussing solely on Europe since January – and Milan were not better, just fresher.
Now, to anyone who actually watched both matches, this view may seem a little hard to swallow. And anyone who witnessed Chelsea lump countless diagonal balls to Drogba or Manchester United obstinately refuse to mark the brilliant Kaka may wish to suggest that the root cause of the defeats imposed upon United and Chelsea was not fatigue, but tactical naivety. Going for victory on so many ‘fronts’ is undoubtedly a tall order, but both teams played into the hands of their adversary. Traps were laid and the Premiership’s top two sides gamely fell prey to their opponent’s devices.
One doesn’t imagine that the DVD of Liverpool’s epic victory over Milan two years ago is among Sir Alex Ferguson’s personal collection, but had he thrown even a cursory glance at that game, he couldn’t have helped but notice how Kaka took Liverpool to the proverbial cleaners before the tough tackling German, Didi Hamann, was brought on to nullify the Brazilian’s wizardry. With his influence diminished, Liverpool were able to get a foothold in the game and went on to stage one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
On Wednesday night, Sir Alex Fergusson’s United refused to pay any special attention to the dynamic Brazilian. Pre-game, when asked directly how he planned to deal with Kaka, Fergusson claimed with dismissive authority that he would be dealt with by the nearest man. This was not a bluff and was quite extraordinary considering how the balletic playmaker had twice dismantled the United defence just a week previously. Ferguson’s carefree attitude was bordering on arrogance and he was suitably punished when Kaka ghosted unmarked into the United box to slot home Milan’s crucial opening goal.
The Rossoneri were certainly not going to leave Ronaldo and Rooney unattended in a similar fashion. The Portuguese was constantly tracked and hounded by two men, whilst Rooney was left isolated up front. Despite an array of attacking talent at their disposal, United failed to provide any support for England's most potent striker. As Sven found out against Portugal, Rooney is not suited to playing up front on his own: he becomes frustrated, the responsibility becomes burdensome. He is at his best when another forward is able to occupy defenders, leaving him the space to operate in front of them. The combative Smith should have started against Milan, if only to bring Rooney into the game.
Whereas United were largely undone by their failure to deal with an outstanding individual, Chelsea were bereft of ideas from start to finish in their clash with Liverpool. Due to the regularity of the meetings between these two clubs, a synthetic rivalry has developed, which provokes as much volume and fervour inside Anfield as when more traditional foes are in town. Fans have claimed that the noise during Liverpool’s semi-final victory two years ago was like nothing experienced at Anfield before. On Tuesday night, it was possibly louder. And just like two years ago, Mourinho’s men were unable to silence the Liverpool faithful.
Like United, Chelsea left the focal point of their attack isolated up front and persisted in lumping aimless diagonal balls forward from Ashley Cole who seems to have lost all of the marauding instincts that characterised his game at Arsenal. In the vain hope that Didier Drogba could reproduce some of the magic that has enabled Chelsea to emerge unscathed from many a tight squeeze this season, they persevered with this tactic throughout the match. It was only the late introduction of Wright-Phillips and Robben that enabled Mourinho’s side to pose any attacking threat at all. However, by this stage, the tie had degenerated into an exhausted slugfest, with both sides hoping for a mistake rather than actively trying to create an opening.
For all Mourinho’s sound and fury before the game, his team exited with a whimper. They came to Anfield intent on preventing Liverpool scoring, but when the goal came, there was no plan B for them to fall back on.
So, simple as it is true, fatigue was not to blame for the Champion’s league demise of United and Chelsea. They just got it tactically wrong on the night.
It is common for football writers and pundits to heap praise upon players and managers whose media profile far outweighs their achievements or abilities. It is, however, rare for inappropriate superlatives to survive the test of time. In a rather strange inversion of a common assumption regarding the veracity of historical accounts, the more time that separates the lauding of a player or manager from their heyday, the more accurate the description is likely to be. If somebody writes in glowing terms about the achievements of Brian Clough or Bob Paisley, we know that this opinion has had time to mature and is firmly founded on years of perspective. Sure, we all have a tendency to romanticise the past, but this tendency is eclipsed by our ability to indulge in the present and ignore everything that we will come to reflect upon in time.
It is now less than a day since the unfathomably popular ‘Big Sam’ quit Bolton and already the hacks are busy shovelling praise left, right and centre. Perspective will, no doubt, come in time, but at the moment we are being subjected to a big, fat, Big Sam love-in.
Although we shouldn’t take away from his achievements – he took Bolton Wanderers from Division One and turned them into an above mid-table Premiership side - we should remember one thing above all else: during his reign, Sam Allardyce won nothing as manager of Bolton. His best Premiership finish was 6th and he qualified for the UEFA cup only once with the ensuing European adventure ending two rounds prior to the quarter-final. He is a good, solid Premiership manager, but not a great one, by any stretch of the imagination. Great managers win trophies even when handicapped by the subject of an interminable Allardyce whinge: an unlevel playing field.
To coin a popular expression, great managers make the impossible possible or at least turn the unlikely into an eventuality. Now, it is very difficult to imagine even the greatest manager usurping the big four and turning Bolton into title contenders, but an FA Cup, a League Cup or even a UEFA Cup was certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.
Arsene Wenger recently commented that if managers were all given equal resources, he would regularly come top of the league. Big Sam, however, disagreed and snorted his disapproval, claiming that the winner of this hypothetical championship would not be Wenger but Allardyce.
The former Bolton manager likes to indulge in this fantasy that he is champion among underdogs. Take out the big spenders and there he is, sitting pretty at the top of the tree. But the facts tell a remarkably different story. Even if we take the big four out of the equation, Allardyce’s premiership record is not a succession of titles but a 12th, 13th, 4th, 2nd and 4th place finish. This is hardly the record of one of the game’s greats. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if any of the ‘big four’ managers had this return after 5 years in the Premiership, they would be struggling to hang on to their jobs.
Many fans of the beautiful game will not be at all upset to see an end to this particular Bolton era. Under Allardyce, the team played their own unique brand of hoofball: they were dirty, scrappy, and downright unpleasant to watch. They were like Revie’s Leeds, but without the success. Predictably, though, their combative approach was a rather touchy subject for their former manager. When anyone dared question his chosen style of play, he would launch with unerring regularity into yet another whinge about how the team had to compensate for their lack of investment in the transfer market. Yawn.
Why Big Sam still remains such a popular choice for the England job is, quite frankly, beyond me. Perhaps the public are attracted to that gruff, rhinoceros-like personality: the northern toiler, doing everything he can to stay afloat whilst other top managers are gifted with the footballing equivalent of a silver spoon. Myself, I see only a grumpy, rancorous excuse-maker, whose teams play with all the style of lumbering heavyweight boxer.
It’s funny how quickly things can change in football. Until last week, Arsenal were probably the most stable and well-directed club in the country. The Emirates faithful were not burdened by concerns about whether or not their owners would be able to cope with the crippling debts they had secured against the club, or indeed, whether their manager may be sacked in an act of Stalinesque ruthlessness. They had a new stadium promising a healthy financial future, a manager who had delivered unprecedented success, and a stable board upon whom Arsene Wenger could rely.
Following David Dein’s resignation, however, amidst talk of a takeover by American billionaire Stan Kronke, the north London Club has been shaken to its core. What was once a cruise liner on a tour of success has been transformed overnight into a dinghy stranded in open water.
From beneath the mire of internet rumour, only a few clear facts have emerged. We can be fairly certain of one thing: Mr Arsenal (David Dein) was in favour of the American takeover, whilst the rest of the Arsenal board – headed by Chairman Peter Hill-Wood - were vehemently against any such proposal.
The Chairman was certainly keen to let everyone know his position regarding a possible change of ownership: ‘Why don’t we want the American at our club? Call me old fashioned, but we don’t need his money and we don’t want his sort. Our objective is to keep Arsenal English, albeit with a lot of foreign players.’
Keep Arsenal English? His sort? The temptation is to allow such jingoistic nonsense to pass without reply, but so bizarre is it coming from the chairman of Arsenal that it really does demand a few words. Had this rant spouted from the mouth of Doug Ellis before Villa fell into American hands, one could - just about - have understood it, but Arsenal are quite possibly the most cosmopolitan team in the world. The first-team is regularly made up of eleven foreign imports, the manager is French and the majority of their fans live outside North London.
One can only assume, therefore, that what Hill-wood was getting at when he said he wanted to ‘keep Arsenal English’ was that he and the other board members don’t fancy losing their jobs. So, unless of course, the ageing Chairman is party to plans on the part of the American to uproot the club and plonk them in the deep south or replace the tea lady with a coffee-pouring truck stop dame, then he comes across, at best, as a man caught up in an act of desperate self-preservation while at worst, he reminds you of a clichéd old granddad still bitter about the fact that the Americans came over here and nicked our women during the War.
Of course this doesn’t mean that Kronke should be welcomed with open arms, but claiming that he should be rejected on the basis of his nationality, when your club is quite so nationally diverse is ludicrously dumb.
In fact, Hill-Wood’s ramblings serve only to confuse the issue. There are questions that need to be asked and if the chairman had wanted to appear slightly less self-concerned and worried about his own future, he could have emphasised to a greater extent the fears that many fans have regarding the sudden influx of foreign – and in particular American – investment.
To the vast majority of Arsenal fans, the nationality of their owner will be of little concern. What they will want to know is whether or not a takeover could benefit their club. They need to know if Stan Kronke would have the money to invest substantially in the team after the buy-out. David Dein would no doubt have us believe that his support for the American is due to the club’s present – though relative – poverty. But would Kronke have to borrow substantial amounts to buy out the present owners? And would this debt be secured against the club?
These are the sort of issues that should have been brought up by Hill-Wood. He, on the other hand, obviously hoped that there would be a general agreement amongst the Arsenal faithful that selling out to an American would be a step in a terrible direction. He probably assumed that the average football fan is a barely coherent, patriotic, club-waving thug, whose tribal instincts would be so riled by the thought of imminent Yankee invasion that they would immediately jump into the Hill-Wood corner. This isn’t going to happen. Most Arsenal fans have become quite accustomed to a foreign presence and are distinctly laissez-faire in their attitude. This is probably due in no small measure to the fact that since they broadened their horizons, they have won three league titles, two FA Cups, and reached the Champions’ League final for the first time in their history. If these fans feel that new owners could help move the club forward then they will welcome them with open arms and will abstain – almost certainly - from patriotic tub-thumping.