Inconsistency is not always what it seems

The complaint of inconsistency is frequently levelled at referees and a major topic that was discussed by Europe’s top referees in Turkey this month, was uniformity of decisions. The Laws of football are the same where ever it is played but it is easy to see that with different cultures, variable approaches can occur. For these top referees who officiate across the continent and indeed beyond, they have all got to have a consistent approach. Consistency of course is what everyone wants, what the clubs want, what players, spectators and managers want. Certainly it’s what Tony Pulis, manager of Stoke City wants. He is reported to be producing a DVD of decisions from Stoke’s matches, which, he will claim, show inconsistency in decision making by referees, presumably with his team being the losers. In Turkey, the referees the referees watched videos of various games and then discussed the decisions that were made or should have been made. The aim was not only to improve their own decisions but consistency across the continent. Consistency however, if it can ever be achieved, can be like the poisoned challis. When Philip Don was the premiership referees supremo, he tried to lay down a detailed consistent approach for every eventuality. However, the clubs complained that common sense was taken away from referees and the referees themselves felt they were in a straight jacket. What’s not always recognised by non-referees is that the referee’s action can sometimes be influenced by matters other than the actual incident. I remember running the line at a County Cup Final, when in the dying minutes a defender brought down an attacker, which in other circumstances could have been a yellow card. But it had been an uneventful game with few fouls and no antagonism. The assessor agreed afterwards that the referee was right to let the culprit off with only a reprimand. Had the same foul been earlier in the game or there had been a feisty series of fouls, it would have affected his control had he not produced a yellow card. There are other incidents when the players perceive that the referee has been inconsistent but which is not the case. I remember penalising a player for a high foot in a crowded penalty area but later in the game I allowed an opponent to raise his foot high without penalty. He was in the centre of the field without another player within ten yards, so there for no danger to anyone but my detractors couldn’t see the difference. In Reading’s game against Burnley, a Burnley player played on after the whistle had gone for offside and blasted the ball into the crowd, without penalty. When Reading’s Noel Hunt did the same thing he was cautioned. The difference was that the Burnley player did it early in the first half whereas Hunt did it late in the second half with Reading hanging on to a slender 1-0 lead. The referee obviously considered he was deliberately wasting time, delaying the restart of the free kick, which is the cautionable offence. In a recent Premier League match the referee refused a penalty at one end but gave one at the other although the tackles looked similar. With the benefit of the television replay, we could see that in the first tackle the defender had played the ball and the attacker had tripped over his other outstretched leg. No foul. At the other end however the defender had also played the ball but brought down his opponent with his trailing leg from behind. A subtle difference but to the aggrieved club it looked like inconsistency on the part of the referee. It is only right that referees, locally, nationally and internationally should strive for uniformity in decisions but even so, consistency may never be seen to be achieved.

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