The pattern is familiar: a high profile game, a hotly debated decision, pundits grasping loosely for facts in an opinionated world, and irate supporters venting frustration across social media. It was no different on Monday night, as referee Michael Oliver booked Ander Herrera twice inside 35 minutes at Stamford Bridge, in one moment ruining both the spectacle and Manchester United’s chances of retaining the FA Cup. To many United supporters Oliver’s performance was an aberration; to most others, a delight.
Manchester United club-Captain Gary Neville has entered the row surrounding referees, by demanding that a small group of elite officials take charge of the biggest games. United’s manager and his players have been unhappy with decisions made in recent games against Liverpool and Chelsea, following the Scot’s criticism of Alan Wiley.
“They should use a few elite officials in the big games instead of trying to give all referees experience,” Neville told The Times just a few days after Sir Alex Ferguson’s sanction by the FA for questioning referee Alan Wiley’s fitness to officiate a Premier League game against Sunderland in October.
“Their decision-making doesn’t seem to be great in the big moments. Italian referee Pierluigi Collina always used to get the big Champions League matches because he rarely made mistakes. They should make it like that in England.
“These big games shouldn’t be about giving refs experience. They should have to earn it. The best players play for the big clubs and the best commentators commentate on the big games. That’s how it should be with refs.”
Ferguson said that the United playing squad is losing “faith in refereeing” after United’s defeat at Chelsea; a game won with a hotly disputed goal. The Scot also questioned Andre Marriner’s experience, after the 37-year-old official failed to show Jamie Carragher red in United’s defeat at Anfield.
“I don’t think it was a foul by Darren Fletcher which led to the free kick,” said Neville of Chelsea’s winner last week.
“I don’t want to say we’ve been hard done by this season because every team has their complaints, and I don’t want to jump on referees’ backs because they are under a lot of pressure.
“Nevertheless, I expect the big decisions in the big matches to be correct, which is not happening at the moment.”
Alan Leighton, national secretary for referees’ union Prospect, says that Sir Alex Ferguson may face legal action after the FA handed the Manchester United manager a two-match touchline by last week. Ferguson, who in October claimed Alan Wiley was not fit enough to officiate a Premier League game, may now face a defamation suit.
“I intend to talk to Alan Wiley to see if he wants to sue on the issue. One of the things we are saying is, is there a case these comments are defamatory?” said Leighton, who had earlier called for the FA to prohibited Ferguson from all coaching and not solely a touchline ban.
“We need to take a few steps back and see what has happened here and I would like to see more about the judgment. We never wanted to get lawyers involved but if referees don’t feel they are being protected by the regulatory bodies and someone says something defamatory sooner or later someone is going to take action over it.
“We are going to talk to the relevant authorities to see what it means for the future. I’ll also talk to our members. I think there will be a concern this isn’t an appropriate way to send a message that these comments were wholly unacceptable.”
Ferguson, who will sit in the stands for matches against Everton and Portsmouth as well as pay a £20,000 fine, later apologised for the personal nature of the comments before admitting an FA charge of improper conduct.
Yet, if Wiley sues – backed by the referees union – he will end not only his own impartiality when it comes to refereeing United’s matches but that of all referees who act under the Prospect banner. After all, if Leighton consults the union’s members on legal action, and Ferguson ends up in court, referees will be as one against the Scot and United.
Schadenfreude dictates that many rival fans will delight in court action as much as any implication of an official clamp down on United. Indeed, the outrageously poor refereeing decisions that United has faced in recent games against Liverpool and Chelsea will have found scorn only at Old Trafford.
But a refereeing union that is – literally – united against a single club is a terrifying prospect not only for Ferguson’s team but for Premier League football too. A competition in which all officialdom becomes tainted with genuine – legal – bias is good for nobody.
Indeed, legal action by Wiley will make sure that it is a genuine conflict of interest for the Staffordshire-born referee to officiate any game that involves United or the club’s rivals. Much the same might be said for the rest of the pool, if the union back’s the action.
Consistency is important too. What of the next time an Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Wrexham, Bognor Regis, Sunday league or pub team manager criticises an official? Will Prospect be compelled not only to support litigation against that coach but also orchestrate – as they have with Ferguson – a media-led campaign of misinformation.
Perhaps this newly vocal union will also act if a manager again implies deep-seated bias, as David Moyes did when he maliciously suggested Mike Riley is a United supporter prior to last season’s FA Cup Semi Final.
It somehow seems doubtful.
Or perhaps Prospect, the FA and, yes, the media have seized upon Ferguson’s comments to push ahead with their own agendas. Referees, already highly protected by the governing body, want criticism – implied or real – of their performances stamped out of the game. It’s now the only profession on the planet that is immune from any form of critical assessment.
Meanwhile, the FA is able to act decisively only when given the green light by the nation’s press, in search of a witch to hunt. It is the normal state of affairs. Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and now Sir Alex have each received unprecedented punishment from the game’s oldest institution.
Leighton now believes referees must join in the party.