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- Alex Paylor -

Published: Sept 27 98

The Men In Black

Oh, how we love to hate them, although the game couldnít go on without them. They are abused by players and supporters, and can only be right half of the time in any given match. We have sung songs about their parentage, offered them the loan of our glasses, and inquired about the whereabouts of their specially trained dogs. They always get the blame for what has gone wrong in a match but rarely the credit for a job well done. Because when the referee does his job well, we hardly notice him out there.

But this, this is well out of order. What Paolo Di Canio did to Paul Alcock at Hillsborough this past weekend should see the Italian striker banned for at least a year, and maybe more, from the English game. Congratulations are due to Sheffield Wednesday for the clubís immediate response in suspending Di Canio immediately after the game against Arsenal. Following the match Wednesday manager Danny Wilson said, "I don't really know what came over the boy. The red mist must have come down. His actions were totally unjustifiable. We cannot expect our referees to come into contact with players like that. We have suspended him straight away because we felt we needed to show people we understood the seriousness of the incident."

There is only one person who knows what passed through Di Canioís mind in the second or two before he deposited the referee on his backside, and that is the player himself. Even if he believed he was being unjustly sent off, physically assaulting a match official is unforgivable. No if, ands or buts.

Much more will come out of this incident, and probably has since this column was written the day after it happened. I will be most interested to see, not only what action the FA takes against Di Canio, but also against Arsenalís Martin Keown, and Patrick Vieira.

As you no doubt know the whole ugly incident took place a minute before half time when Vieira threw Wednesdayís Wim Jonk to the floor after a tackle. Then the boots and fists started flying and at one point 18 of the 22 players on the field were involved. Di Canio and Keown were dismissed and the referee, after a sideline conversation with Danny Wilson, booked Vieira. Vieira was lucky. He probably should have seen the red card as well. And he may face further trouble over his stupid display of anger after the match when he appeared to lash out at a policeman near the Hillsborough tunnel. South Yorkshire police have opened investigation into an alleged altercation between Vieira and a police officer who tried to escort him from the field.

I have to say it doesnít come as much of a surprise to me that Arsenal was involved in this. They have an unenviable disciplinary record, and have a number of players whose tempers rest on a hair trigger.

From a purely partisan point of view as a United fan, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about Lee Briscoeís 89th minute winner.

I am often highly critical of referees. My wife says there canít be a good one alive if I am to be believed. I do believe the standard of officiating could be better, and I mean worldwide. When I was Vice president of the London Lasers of the Canadian
Soccer League the officiating left me angry and disgusted more often than not. I recall a senior Canadian referee who would have been the best in the world at his job if his level of competence had measured halfway to his level of arrogance. By and large the standard of officiating in Canada was, and remains poor. Linesmen-Sorry. Refereeís assistants-who do not understand the application of the offside rule is dependent on where players are when the ball is played, not when it is received. The best I have ever seen here is a man by the name of Angus Black, a former player who understood and showed respect for the players. For instance, if a player moved a few yards up the line while preparing to take a throw in there was no imperious waving of the arms from this man, just a request to "move back please-thatís good, thank you." Always "thank you" when players did as he requested. I never saw Angus referee a match in which he had serious problems, and I believe it was because of his attitud

Now contrast that attitude with a Welsh referee of my acquaintance. This clown wanted to stamp his authority on the players before the match had even started. While we were warming up he would approach us and announce how many yellow and red cards he had handed out in his previous match, and inform us he wouldnít be afraid to do the same that day. Why was this necessary? Why set that kind of tone for a game? Too many referees seem to think that only by flashing cards in playersí faces can they keep a match under control. In many ways the referee sets the tone for a game, and too often it appears there are three opposing forces on the field, instead of two with a neutral arbiter in the middle.

Steve Lodge, the referee in charge of Unitedís meeting with Liverpool last Thursday, annoyed me. I read before the game that Lodge was standing fourth in the table measuring how many cards Premier League refs had handed out so far this season. Lodge ran the match as if he was desperate to be number one at gameís end. Some of the bookings he handed out were unnecessary, in my opinion, and his interventions disrupted the match. Graham Poll is another card-happy referee, and I feel a bit of a let down as soon as I see his name down as the match official in any game I am about to watch.

After the game Liverpool manager Roy Evans took some shots at Lodge, mainly over the Jason MacAteer handball which led to Unitedís first goal.

Said Evans "The decision for their penalty was diabolical. Jason was being mauled by Scholes and there was no intent there when the ball hit his hand. I am sick to death of coming to this place and watching everything go against us. Our claim for a penalty was much more clear-cut and the referee did nothing." Hey, Roy, now you know how other clubs feel about going to Anfield and having referees give Liverpool dubious penalty decisions, because the Kop howls loudly. The "Anfield" penalty is well known in football circles, and those who live in glass houses...

United manager Alex Ferguson is in trouble with UEFA, for his remarks about the Italian referee Stefano Braschi. In this case the truth is going to hurt Ferguson, instead of his target.

Ferguson unloaded on Braschi after the official sent off Nicky Butt for handball and awarded Barcelona a second controversial penalty.

Match statistics show the Italian official gave United only 3 free-kicks compared to Barcelona's 16. Ferguson called Braschi's handling of the game a "shocker" and some of his decisions a "disgrace".

Ferguson also said: "After the game I saw the Barcelona president go into the referee's dressing-room. He certainly had cause to be happy with him."

Jaap Stam claimed the penalty given against him was a bad decision, saying the Barcelona player he was tackling did a triple gainer with a backward pike of Olympic proportions. It is obvious the referee played a large part in Barcelona gaining a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford, if UEFA does see fit to sanction Ferguson, let us hope they also take some action against Braschi, who has proved himself a poor choice to officiate at this level.

So what is the answer? Referees do have a difficult job, trying to keep an eye on 22 players at once, watching their positions on the field, and judging their intent when going into a challenge. I donít believe in the introduction of "video review" in football. American Football abandoned it because it slowed down the game, a sport already made up of more stoppages than action. Video review has slowed play in the National Hockey League to a crawl, with decisions sometimes taking 2 minutes or more to be reached. And this in the sport which bills itself as the fastest team sport in the world.

I think, at the lower levels anyway, better training of young referees would help. While coaching my sonís team this year I saw a referee fail to call a goalkeeper for handling the ball outside of his area. The ref was within 10 yards of the halfway line at the time of the incident. When I yelled "Heís out of the box" the free kick was given, and the official said, and I quote "I couldnít see it from back here." My advice to "keep up with the play, then" seemed to strike the young chap as novel. Indeed, after the game when quizzed on this point by my coaching colleague, the ref said he had been told by a more experienced referee to "Stay within 10 yards of the halfway line at all times, so as to not tire himself out."

If thatís the kind of advice young officials are getting from their mentors, then it is obvious why refereeing standards are poor.

At the World Cup Sepp Blatter had the referees so confused they didnít have a hope of doing the job right. After an initial week in which I thought the officiating was pretty good, Blatter opened his mouth, saying the refs were too lenient and then the cards started to fly. If Sepp had only shut up, we would have had a much more enjoyable World Cup, because referees who thought they had a pretty good handle on what was required of them at the start, wouldnít have been so lost for the last 3 weeks of the tournament.

It seems to me the most important requirement for a referee is common sense. Weed out those who donít have out, and allow those who do to use their discretion in games. Work on getting some measure of consistency from the officials. That way the players know what to expect week in and week out.

But the first thing I would like to see is Di Canio suspended for a long time. Referees must be able to do their job without fear of being assaulted by hotheaded prima donnas. No official should be required to think twice before making a decision for fear of what players might do in reaction. The FA has the opportunity here to make an unequivocal statement on how players who assault officials will be treated. I hope the folks at Lancaster Gate take that opportunity because, when push comes to shove, no player has the right to lay hands on a referee the way Di Canio did.


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