The Rational Ref

Sorry seems to be the easiest word for referees' boss Mike Riley

The man who should be standing up for match officials is instead offering apologies for alleged 'mistakes' on the pitch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 9:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 9:25pm

Should referees apologise for their decisions? Should players say sorry for taking a shot from a reasonable distance that just misses the target? Should coaches be apologetic for making substitutions in an attempt to affect the match dynamics? The context is that all these processes on the pitch are not mistakes or grave errors; they are sincere decisions made by individuals when a situation occurs.

Making decisions is what everyone does, whether they be players, coaches or match officials. Even not making a decision is making one. As referees, making calls is one of the main responsibilities of the job. It has been estimated a referee makes about 800 voluntary decisions in a single match.

English Premier League referee Andre Marriner was put under the spotlight for his decision to award a last-gasp penalty to Chelsea last month.

Riley's sign of weakness has riled many match officials because it has apparently opened the gates of the asylum
William Lai

This was because privileged Chelsea were staring at the jaws of a 2-1 home defeat by unfashionable West Bromwich Albion, which would also have snapped Blues manager Jose Mourinho's non-losing streak at Stamford Bridge.

The penalty decision, where Marriner adjudged defender Steven Reid to have fouled midfielder Ramires in the penalty area, enabled Chelsea to equalise from the spot and claim a point.

Let's not forget that making calls is what referees do in the moment, and offering opinion is what commentators do after they have had time to review, reflect and re-analyse the moment in the comfort of their armchairs.

Let's also not forget that Marriner is one of the better referees in the EPL. He had the honour of officiating last season's FA Cup final between Manchester City and Wigan, which is the English game's traditional recognition of a top-performing referee.

The rules of the game state: "The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, is final". Marriner made a decision in the moment, and it was final.

Despite this, Albion manager Steve Clarke had his own opinion, saying: "I'm flabbergasted at the decision. I can't believe he gave it. I saw it at the time. I've been in the game a long time and I knew he [Ramires] was already on the way down before anyone was near him.

"The referee has to be 100 per cent sure. How he can be 100 per cent sure is beyond me. It was not the correct decision."

Unsurprisingly, Mourinho had his own contrary opinion: "The penalty came at a moment when it's difficult for the team who are winning to accept … but this one was a penalty. From the bench, I didn't know, no idea; but on the screen, no doubts."

At times like these, unless one is a blind supporter of either of these clubs, no one should care about the opinions of the biased and prejudiced. The only opinion that counts is the referee's. End of story.

However, the surprising twist to this oft-repeated saga of constant whining about referee decisions is that several days later Mike Riley, the head of the group of professional referees who officiate in the EPL, apologised to Clarke for Marriner's penalty call. This has set a dangerous precedent, which begs this column's opening question.

Riley's sign of weakness has riled many match officials because it has apparently opened the gates of the asylum.

Immediately, Mourinho asked whether Riley had offered apologies to other managers. He provoked further by saying: "The referees now know one thing: if a controversial decision - and I'm not saying a mistake - hypothetically favours Chelsea, they know they will be publicly exposed by their boss."

By muddying the waters where referees make sincere decisions, Riley's precedent may be a portent for disaster to the already highly scrutinised and frequently criticised match officials.

Make no mistake. Marriner's penalty call was not a mistake, only a decision. No matter whether the decision was correct or not, he doesn't need to apologise for making it.

Apologies from match officials can be constructive and potentially useful only in cases where a significant error of law has occurred. This is when the media can truly use the term "blunder" without any exaggeration. For example, an apology would have been helpful for the infamous "beach ball" incident where the ball struck a foreign object on the pitch and deflected into the goal. In that incident, referee Mike Jones incorrectly awarded a goal to Sunderland against Liverpool when a drop ball would have been the correct application of law.

Another example is when a controversial last-minute goal was scored by Norwich City against Cardiff City from a throw in. In that incident, referee Jones (again) incorrectly ordered a retake instead of allowing the legitimate goal to stand.

Both these two examples are clear-cut mistakes or "blunders" of a technical nature that all self-respecting referees would be embarrassed to make because it would reveal their lack of knowledge of the rules. Instead of EPL referees maintaining "media silence" about these gaffes, perhaps better relations would have resulted had Riley apologised and explained these genuine mistakes. That is how real apologies to bona fide mistakes should be made.

And if apologies are necessary for the Chelsea and WBA penalty saga, then the most-appropriate apology would have to be one from Riley to Marriner.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com