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Sunday, Jan. 12, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Media should learn from refs, not rip them


LONDON -- One of the attractions of football is the argument that controversial incidents can provoke.

Christopher Davies

Show 10 supporters a contentious penalty decisions and five will say it was a good decision while the other five will say the referee was awful.

Did Wayne Rooney, the Everton striker who starts a suspension this week, lunge at Birmingham's Steve Vickers from the front using one leg with excessive force and endanger the safety of the opponent?

The answers are "yes," "yes" and "yes" according to video evidence, so referee David Elleray was justified in making Rooney the youngest player ever to be sent off in the Premiership.

Yet the arguments raged on about the rights and wrongs of the red card with Everton manager David Moyes even suggesting Elleray should have been lenient because Rooney is only 17.

Vickers, who required eight stitches for a leg injury as a result of "youthful aggression" may disagree.

Sky Sports and ITV, which have the monopoly on bringing the Premiership to the nation, are happy to pay goodness knows how much to professional anoraks to tell us this was Andy Cole's seventh league goal at Anfield or how long it has been since Charlton last won four consecutive away games.

Yet they have nobody to advise on what is invariably the main talking point of a match -- the referee.

Tune in to any phone-in or eavesdrop on post-match conversations between supporters and chances are decisions by the referee and his assistants will be near the top of the agenda with a little knowledge proving to be a dangerous thing.

Whatever players, managers, TV pundits and fans may think nobody knows the laws better than referees. How they are interpreted is a different matter but ask any referee who has officiated in the Premiership or Nationwide League 20 questions on the laws and you can safely bet they will all be answered correctly.

Would that be the same of those who are so swift to pass judgment on the men in black?

Unlikely. In fact, make that a no.

If the television companies paid a former referee to be part of their backroom team -- not on camera but helping with details for the program as the statisticians do -- it would eliminate the situations where those "experts" in the studio are clearly unaware of the laws or the guideline interpretations.

We hear managers saying that "he did not deliberately intend to make contact with the player" -- the word "deliberate" was removed from the laws apart from handballs because FIFA was afraid of litigation. No one can prove a player's intentions so the laws were adapted to say, for example "if in the referee's opinion the tackle was of excessive force . . ."

Going back to Rooney, Law 12 states that "any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play."

The punishment -- a red card and Elleray got it right.

It would make the TV pundits or those who ask the questions far more credible and knowledgeable if they had an expert -- a former referee -- advising them. He could tell them that you cannot say "it wasn't deliberate" or "if you raise your hands you will be sent off." You will be sent off only if the referee believes you raise your hands in a violent manner.

The collective scratching of heads in the Sky Sports studio when Derby played Manchester United last season was embarrassing. United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez had one hand on the ball as Malcolm Christie slid in to "score."

Referee Steve Dunn correctly disallowed the goal but no one in the studio -- they owned up to not having a clue -- knew the ruling that "the goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball by touching it with any part of his hand or arms."

A referee would have known that and could have told the "experts" who could in turn have informed the viewers.

Those who cover -- and play -- cricket, golf or rugby union appear to know far more about the intricacies of their sports while one could never imagine tuning into a National Football League broadcast and hear commentators stumbling over the rules -- and there are 36 different hand signals by officials for a start but ex-players seem to know them all.

Few journalists have bothered to make any effort to learn the laws of football, the late Brian Moore of ITV and Sky Sports' Martin Tyler notable exceptions in the world of television. There is one BBC radio commentator who is forever belittling referees when in fact it is he who does not know what is going on or what he is going on about.

Of course referees and their assistants as human beings, whatever some may think, make mistakes but they are honest errors and they will make fewer than any player.

They have a split second at real speed to make a decision without the luxury of slow-motion replays seen by those who are paid to criticize.

Blaming the referee for a team's defeat has become as boring as it is predictable. Teams lose because they have not been good enough, their forwards have missed chances or their defense has been caught napping.

But a manager cannot come out and say his center-forward is useless or his goalkeeper could be Mr. Magoo in disguise. So he blames the referee and the pundits are happy to go along with this because too often they know no better.

OF COURSE, commentators are not exempt from the occasional mistake or outbreak of foot in the mouth disease as a recent program on BBC local radio highlighted.

Radio Cumbria's Derek Lacey reporting on Carlisle's game at Luton. "The cross comes in . . . Steve Solet scored . . . terrible mistake by Luton but who cares? Unbelievable scoreline -- Luton 0, Carlisle 1."

At halftime the studio announcer said: "Let's return to Kenilworth Road where the score is Luton 0, Carlisle 0."

Over to Lacey: "You are quite right, 0-0 . . . I'm sitting here with egg on my face because I was certain Luton had kicked off after Solet had put the ball in the net. No indication of a free-kick but it is 0-0."

Ah, those invisible free-kicks.

Dave Gibbins of Radio Humberside offered: "Kelly sprang out like an outgrowing radish."

A right turnip for the book.

Graham Richards of BBC Derby describing Paul Gascoigne's sending off: " . . . a thumping great tackle from Gascoigne . . . and it's a good night Gascoigne. He has behaved like an oik from the beginning of the game to the end . . . a spoiled fat brat and he has not been sent off."

Definitely all red-card commentaries.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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