Sealing football’s cracks: Christmas in September

Justin Gent comments on the explosive opening to the new Premier League season and calls for changes to be made to football to seal the cracks.

I was certainly buoyed by the display of one of Liverpool Football Club’s younger line ups on Thursday night. However this was always the teaser to what would be the main course of Sunday’s headliner of Liverpool and United squaring off at Anfield.

In truth Liverpool dominated every aspect of the match, this much is clear, given the meager reactions of both Ferguson and his trusty sidekick Gary Neville, there is an evident need for a stark improvement if United are to avoid another trophy less season.

Even the most devout Manchester United supporter would agree they were lucky to leave Anfield with anything at all, let alone all three points. This could have been called Christmas in September for the red half of Manchester, and the man in the fluffy suit, steering his slay towards Old Trafford’s chimney with Christmas cheer in the form of 3 points, was no other than Mark Halsey.

Halsey had a shocker. Every key decision he made would turn out to be wrong, and more than that it would dramatically affect the outcome of the game. I have a fundamental problem with this, as would anyone were they on the losing end of those very same decisions. Murmurs and theories about who controls the FA and the impact of player “talking up” the ref have been heard. There may be a valid point in all of that, but the truth is, games like we witnessed on Sunday came across as a gamble, where every decision could be won or lost, no matter what actually happened.

I must ask the question to the collective football consciousness; how is this allowed to happen? We are told that football is the widest played sport on the planet, if player’s salaries and transfer fees are a measure it is certainly one of the richest. How on earth is it one of the most technologically defunct sports?

Roberto Martinez has been charged for comments he made towards the refereeing at Wigan’s last visit to Old Trafford. As a supporter I commiserate with the Spaniard. I looked on, disappointed and frustrated, as Liverpool’s performance remained unrewarded because of the referee. How must a player like Glen Johnson feel, when he produces a heroic track back to prevent a goal, after playing nearly fifty minutes with a man less, he is wrongly judged to have fouled an opponent, and penalized?

The time, effort and money that is poured into a game like Sunday’s, only for it to be dismantled by a refereeing performance that lacked just about every fundamental aspect of good refereeing, and yet there is an expectation that players and managers should not react when they are falsely penalized?

But, we are told, it’s easy for us, the ever critical supporter. We have ten TV cameras and ultra-slow motion to review every decision. Mark and his band of merry men have literally a split second to make these decisions. The kind of decisions that can impact a team’s morale, that can win or lose a match (or a season) and even affect the squad’s recovery time.

Why? Why are the referees given this power, but so little information to base their decisions on? You wouldn’t give your doctor a split second to examine your chest and then ask for a decision on the condition of your heart. And if you did, it would be a guess wouldn’t it? And half the time that guess would be wrong. And guess what? On Sunday, just like every other Sunday, Mark Halsey was guessing, as is every other referee in every other game.

This is not Mr. Halsey’s fault, he has to make do with what he is given, but on this evidence it is clear, we need to give the referee’s more. We certainly have the technology, if Opta can tell us when Jordan Henderson last cut his toe nails and how that has affected his completed pass percentage in the final third, there is a way that a referee on the pitch could seamlessly consult with a TV referee.

Quite simply, if a decision could directly impact the outcome of the game, red cards, penalties, disallowed goals, it goes upstairs for review. Extra time is added or the watch is stopped. The incentive to dive is vastly decreased, as is the inevitable back lash from supporters. The players stop badgering the referee, the game is contested fairly, and finally managers are not charged for comments on decisions because there are fewer bad decisions and even fewer comments.

I find it hard to see any counter argument that could keep the management of a football game in such a dark age. The decision needs to be taken to empower the decision makers on the pitch and improve the quality of refereeing; it is time to take a leaf out of the rule books of Tennis, Rugby and Cricket.

I’m not sure I have the patience to watch another player produce a well timed stumble to the floor and ultimately win a game of football, followed by Andy Townsend dismantling the replay trying to find the tiniest piece of contact which vindicates the decision.

The FA needs to earn the respect they crave, and reward positive football. They need to modernize the game. Here is an easy way to do it, watch cricket.

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