The Rational Ref

Like all refs, Howard Webb will be remembered for his mistakes

Great as he was with the whistle, the retiring official was perceived as biased towards United and failed to show red when it mattered most

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 9:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 August, 2014, 7:58am

Loathed a lot more than he was liked, the surprise retirement of England's most successful referee, Howard Webb, has thrown up some interesting social commentary about the perceived state of officiating among fans.

Despite refereeing with distinction for a quarter of a century, being a professional full-time referee in the English Premier League for 11 years and still at the top of his game, twitter was awash with sarcastic comments and sardonic photos of the 43-year-old Yorkshireman. If the tweets are anything to go by, the majority of EPL players, coaches, commentators and fans have the perception Webb has always been biased toward Manchester United and Alex Ferguson.

Despite these impressive international achievements, most people remember Webb for failing to send off Nigel de Jong for his 'kung fu kick' on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final

Webb also set precedents on the international scene. In 2010, he became the first-ever official to referee the Uefa Champions League final and the Fifa World Cup final in the same year. Along with his trusted assistant referees, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey, no other World Cup final referee has ever returned to officiate a consecutive World Cup, which the trio did this year in Brazil.

Despite these impressive international achievements, most people remember Webb for failing to send off Nigel de Jong for his "kung fu kick" on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final.

This kind of negative reaction demonstrates just what sticks in people's highly selective memories. Nevertheless, Webb has achieved what 99.9 per cent of referees can only dream about.

Webb's experience and standing has inspired others and there are millions of men and women around the world who are passionate about being match officials. Because of his integrity, commitment and high profile, Webb will instinctively know other referees have and will benefit from his work.

Webb is expected to have more of a PR role as he takes up a post as technical director of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the company that manages the EPL's select group of 17 professional referees. This enhanced media role should help PGMOL educate players, coaches, commentators and fans about the rules of the game as well as explain how referees interpret and deal with incidents on the pitch.

Webb's first task was to respond to specific personal allegations, namely that he is a Manchester United supporter, by saying: "There's no element of truth in it. It's not something that affected me or played on my mind at all. It wasn't hurtful."

Webb's humour, as well as his integrity and honesty, comes through. "What does play on my mind is when I've made a mistake, particularly an influential one that has affected the outcome of a game. I'd be dishonest if I said it didn't bother me," he said.

These mistakes are inevitable and Webb has admitted the use of video technology to help referees may not be too far away and believes many top-level referees would embrace it.

"Anything that will make the job easier and make us more accurate is worth being looked at," said Webb. "But we really need to be careful not to change the high intensity and fast flow that makes football such a good spectacle. I'm not anti anything that would make the life of a referee more easy and more credible. Practically, it is going to be really difficult to implement."

With hindsight, Webb acknowledged he would have sent off De Jong if he - or a colleague - had access to a video monitor to assess the full brutality of the challenge.

Mike Riley, general manager of PGMOL, is also open to referees using video technology. "Technology evolves all the time and there will be ways we can help referees."

At 43, Webb could have carried on as a Fifa referee for another couple of years - the official retirement age is 45 - possibly ending with a shot at the 2016 European championship.

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