2107 Days

On 20th December 2008, Fulham beat Middlesbrough 3-0, with goals from Jimmy Bullard, Danny Murphy, and Clint Dempsey. I won’t pretend to remember the game – I looked it up 2 minutes ago, but before today it marked the last time that Keith Stroud refereed a Premier League game.

Jimmy Bullard and Danny Murphy have now hung up their boots, and Clint Dempsey has returned to his homeland to be closer to Peter Walton. But having had a brief glimpse of the top of his profession (14 games over 4 seasons), Keith Stroud has tirelessly plugged away in the Football League, aiming to return (I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems a reasonable assumption).

And today he achieved that return, assisted by Howard Webb’s retirement and Select Group injury issues, and created the longest ever gap between Premier League refereeing appearances at 2107 days. By my calculations the previous record was held by Uriah Rennie, who went a mere 478 days without a game in the early 2000s, but if anyone knows better, do let me know.

Earlier promotion of younger officials means that we will probably see a few more examples of long gaps in the Premier League, and indeed Stuart Attwell will be in line to break this new record if he isn’t promoted back to the Premier League by 2017.

On Keith Stroud himself, as evidenced by this clip, he clearly has a great enthusiasm for the game. I don’t know much about his refereeing, but Mark Halsey has talked about him being promoted back to the top flight for some time. The recent games for Stroud and Paul Tierney, combined with a continuing reluctance to use Bobby Madley and Roger East, suggest that PGMOL could be on the look out for a new Select Group ref, so there’s a lot to play for.

Perhaps most important of all is the return of Keith as a Premier League referee name. In a world where there are two Lees regularly officiating in the Premier League (and there are a number of Darrens on the Football League list), it’s somehow reassuring to be reminded of the days when every top flight game was controlled by a Keith, Roger or Graham from a provincial town.

A lot of things have changed since Keith Stroud’s last Premier League game. Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, Richard Keys was about as safe a broadcasting pair of hands as you could imagine, Fernando Torres was one of the Premier League’s most reliable goalscorers and Alan Shearer was making a career as an uninspiring Match of the Day pundit (ok, not everything’s changed).

Above all, I suppose this is a moral fable about the value of perseverance and hard work (albeit a relatively dull one), and I’m sure our heroic man in black appreciated it all the more second time round. Congratulations Keith, and I hope it’s not another 2107 days before we see him back.

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The Bosses: Massimo Busacca

In the era of professional referees, there seem to be more opportunities than ever to build on a career in the middle by taking up a management position in one of the professional boards of various organisations and leagues. Refereeing standards are always a hot topic, so it seems worth taking a closer look at who some of these people are, and how they shape what happens on the pitch.

Arguably the biggest of job in what you might call ‘refereeing management’ is that of Head of Refereeing Development at FIFA, effectively giving control over how referees officiate at the World Cup, and who gets the Final. In 2011, Massimo Busacca was the man given that responsibility. Arguably most famous among internet content-sharers as the official who allegedly relieved his own vanishing spray during a game in Qatar, he was apparently named Switzerland’s non-smoker of the year in 2006 (which I’m choosing to believe despite the limited nature of available sources).

Busacca had a very respectable career, spending 12 years on the FIFA list and taking charge of the 2009 Champions League Final and 2007 UEFA Cup Final. He also went to two World Cups himself, a Confederations Cup, and a European Championship, where he took charge of a semi-final. His last World Cup did however end somewhat ignominiously after Carlos Alberto Parreira, manager of hosts South Africa, labelled his performance in their group game against Uruguay as the worst “in this competition so far”. That proved to be his last match as he was sent home after the Second Round.

The World Cup in Brazil, as we know, saw a focus on sensible game-management and allowing games to flow, rather than following the letter of the law. Perhaps what let this down on occasion, as Busacca has admitted himself, is that some refs were unable to manage games effectively. I certainly hope he was referring to Carlos Velasco Carballo’s officiating of the Quarter Final between Brazil and Colombia, but equally the failure to penalise dangerous challenges by Mark Geiger during France v Nigeria in the Second Round could have been in his mind.

As many have pointed out, the World Cup clearly benefited from the overall approach to refereeing, and it shouldn’t be underestimated as a contributing factor to probably the most entertaining World Cup of modern times (though clearly not the main reason). It did perhaps though lead to the loss of one of the tournament’s most prominent players in Neymar, so the right balance has not yet been found.

Refereeing in international tournaments is very different, and the power held by the man in charge is phenomenal. There is no bigger appointment, and there are some referees who would probably dismiss their own grannies for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to get it. We don’t know what instructions Busacca gave in briefings, but if he made clear he wanted a more lenient approach, we shouldn’t be surprised that some officials failed to show the yellow and red cards that they really should have at some point. That’s not Busacca’s fault, and it mirrors the over-eagerness of some to show red in the 90s when a strict interpretation of the rules was de rigeur.

What next for Busacca? A tournament that produced general praise for referees means he will surely get another go in Russia, and with an increased emphasis towards individual rather than group briefings, there still seems to be an opportunity for even better. However, one note of caution would be his tendency to pick UEFA officials in the key games, which might not endear him to Sepp Blatter and future presidential candidates. It’s probably to his credit that he went for Nicola Rizzoli in the final, presumably because he felt he was the best man for the job, rather than the equally impressive Uzbek Ravshan Irmatov, who would have been the safer choice politically.

What we can safely say is that for now the days when European and International football meant harsher punishment for forceful tackling are over, and the Swiss non-smoker is an influential part of the new consensus of leniency.

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Who’s Who In The Select Group: Part 2

Following on from yesterday’s selection of thoughts on the year ahead for the Select Group, here’s the rest of them. Michael Oliver is praised, Jonathan Moss is liked, and Neil Swarbrick is forgotten.

Andre Marriner, Age: 43, Home County: West Midlands

The die is cast for Andre Marriner. Sadly, the rest of his career involves jokes about mistaken identity/racism. You could argue he deserves it for the horror show that was Kieran Gibbs’s red card against Chelsea, but it seems harsh to condemn a man to weak Twitter jokes based on one mistake. He’ll remain in the Dean/Atkinson slot just below the top echelon, but like Phil Dowd and fatness, and Howard Webb and Man Utd shirts, will provoke a Pavlovian response whenever he makes an appearance. He hasn’t done the League Cup Final, so will be a big contender for that.

Who hates him: In recent times, West Brom fans have complained most vociferously. It probably doesn’t help that he’s reportedly a Villa fan.

Lee Mason, Age: 42, Home County: Lancashire

Lee Mason has the look of a man for whom things are about to go wrong, and as for all referees, they sometimes do. Another who probably won’t get too many key games, but will be trusted with a lot of donkey work. He will almost certainly be harangued by Nigel Pearson while leaving the pitch at some stage. Another who hasn’t done a domestic cup final – he probably won’t break that record, but might get a fourth official spot.

Who hates him: A key member of the imagined Mike Riley-led North West conspiracy against Arsenal, not helped by the fact his name rhymes with freemason.

Jonathan Moss, Age: 43, Home County: West Yorkshire

A relative newcomer, and not a high-flyer, but I thought he did a solid job last year, and is a welcome addition to the middle ranks of the Select Group. Unlikely to see too many high profile games, but will be busy. Might get to handle the numbers board at Wembley, but no more. My liking for him is in no way based on the extraordinarily childlike expression of concentration on his face of this photo of him playing FIFA.

Who hates him: No-one. I simply don’t believe it.

Michael Oliver, Age: 29, Home County: Northumberland

The boy who would be king finally turns 30 this year. With Webb out of the way, it’s now a straight fight between him and fellow and fellow favoured son of the North East, Mark Clattenburg, for top dog. It’s a fight he probably won’t win, even if he performs better – I think the feeling will be that he’ll get his chance later. His Community Shield appointment will probably be his biggest domestic game (in scale, not importance), but will be trusted with top of the table clashes. Interesting to see what sort of appointments he gets in Europe, expect him to play the advantage more often than anyone else.

Who hates him: Probably the most widely respected ref in the League among fans (even more so than Clattenburg), but I do vaguely remember some wronged Oldham fans dissenting at one point last season.

Craig Pawson, Age: 35, Home County: South Yorkshire

Rarely used last season, but a couple of late season fixtures suggest he will be in action a lot more this year. Highly-rated, he’ll probably be the next Englishman on the FIFA list. Not a contender for the really big games, but this season should see him as part of the regular rotation, hopefully cementing his up-and-coming reputation. Despite sounding like one of the 3 or 4 generic referee names on FIFA, I can assure you that he does exist.

Who hates him: Another who hasn’t been around long enough to demonstrate his surprisingly unprofessional bias against one unremarkable team, who he has no reason to have any antipathy towards.

Lee Probert, Age: 41, Home County: Wiltshire

The clown prince of English football refereeing is fresh from the FA Cup final, and is likely to be considered for a number of big games. On the FIFA list too, so may do a bit more overseas. Hard to see him getting a game anywhere near as important last year’s highlight, but expect to see him regularly on TV and doing something comical with the vanishing spray. Nice to see another ref, like Mark Clattenburg, who clearly enjoys his job.

Who hates him: Bit of history with Man City, but mainly people who don’t appreciate his style of comedy.

Neil Swarbrick, Age: 48, Home County: Lancashire

I know I’ve seen games that Neil Swarbrick has refereed. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen and considered decisions made by him. But I can’t recall any of the details, or ever having had a particularly strong opinion about anything he’s ever done. They say that’s the sign of a good referee, but I suspect it’s the sign of a reasonably competent one. Expect to see him continue to referee the sort of games covered by Steve Bower and Martin Fisher on Match of the Day, and then instantly forget you’ve done so.

Who hates him: There are probably people who hate him momentarily, but it never lasts.

Anthony Taylor, Age: 35, Home County: Cheshire

Either the next big thing, or the future subject of a Jose Mourinho rant. He’ll likely fluctuate between the two, turning in strong performances, while annoying a few. Has certainly stepped up to become a key part of the Select Group, and over the next ten years will most likely do all of the big domestic showpieces. Probably not this season though.

Who hates him: Another key player in the shadowy conspiracy depriving Arsenal of their rightful title. Someone should really do something about that.

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Who’s Who In The Select Group: Part 1

It’s a week away from the Premier League big kick-off, and while there is no new blood in the Select Group, we will see a few less familiar faces as Howard Webb watches from the sidelines. Craig Pawson, Roger East and Bobby Madley only took charge of 20 games between them last year, so there’s no urgent need to promote anyone from the Football League. Here’s a bit on what to expect from the Atkinson to Madley portion of the list.

Martin Atkinson, Age: 43, Home County: West Yorkshire

The long-serving Yorkshireman has been generally regarded as a safe pair of hands for a number of years, with the shortness and whiteness of his hair providing a handy guide to what season of Premier League Years you’ve switched on halfway through. He remains on the international list, and while there was a time when he was in the shake-up for international tournaments, his star has faded a little. With all the domestic showpieces crossed off, the odd hard to handle Premier League fixture and the Drighlington Christmas Lights are likely to be his big appointments unless something changes drastically.

Who hates him: Didn’t referee a Man Utd game for a year, after Sir Alex Ferguson expressed his desire for a ‘fair referee’.

Mark Clattenburg, Age: 39, Home County: County Durham

England’s new number 1 referee after the retirement of Howard Webb. His first big appointment this season is the Super Cup, but expect to see him in the middle for more European games at the business end of the season, and any Premier League games that call for a really top referee. Has occasionally got into trouble for his jokey style with players, and had a few off-field problems earlier in his career, but undoubtedly the best referee in the Premier League.

Who hates him: Hurt Adam Lallana’s feelings, and David Elleray doesn’t seem to be a fan either.

Mike Dean, Age: 46, Home County: Merseyside

Constantly irritated, if he was in the crowd he would no doubt be blowing every whistle. His main irritation seems to stem from the fact that a number of footballers are playing through his refereeing performance. A generally strong performer despite his officious manner, now his international days are over, he will be needed to fill some of Howard Webb’s sizeable void. Incredibly still only 46, despite making his top flight debut in 2000/1, expect him to get some of the bigger games and be the subject of a number of entertaining Vines showcasing his vanishing spray technique.

Who hates him: His style means that when he gets a decision wrong people don’t forgive him quickly. Quite a lot of people.

Phil Dowd, Age: 51, Home County: Staffordshire

No-one sets off Twitter quite like the yo-yo dieter from Stoke. If he gets through a game without at least one fan from both sides (or Shola Ameobi) calling him a “fat c***” he’s generally had a very good day. It’s a shame that people are so shallow as while not in the top league of Premier League officials he makes some good, brave calls and will have some strong second-tier games this year, albeit laced with a few shockers. Thought he might retire this summer, but looks like we’ll have to wait another year for the hotly-anticipated Phil Dowd Get Fit DVD.

Who hates him: Seems to get a fair sprinkling of abuse from most quarters. Though unusually tends to be more about his competence and weight, rather than any perceived bias.

Roger East, Age: 49, Home County: Wiltshire

One of the 3 rarely used members of last year’s Select Group, he will surely do more games following Webb’s retirement. His main, rather bizarre, claim to fame is having shaken the hand of Muammar Gaddafi’s son after running the line in a Libyan league match at the behest of the local FA. Looks like he has almost certainly been in a Guy Ritchie film at some point, but likely to be making up the numbers in the Select Group again this season despite the increased opportunities.

Who hates him: Doesn’t seem to have built up any particular hate-figure status, but will probably have that to look forward to if he does more games.

Chris Foy, Age: 51, Home County: Merseyside

Another experienced former Cup Final referee, he rarely seems to make the headlines and will probably continue to do a solid job refereeing mainly second tier clashes (that don’t involve Everton). Like Howard Webb, a former police officer, expect to see him occasionally criticised for a marginal penalty call in Stoke v Newcastle, but otherwise staying out of trouble.

Who hates him: The ‘Kill Chris Foy’ Facebook page has 2,703 likes. Sir Chris Hoy is probably torn between sympathy and annoyance given how much of the St Helens ref’s hate mail he erroneously receives.

Kevin Friend, Age: 43, Home County: Leicestershire

Very much a middle-ranking Select Group official, his name does at least lend itself to recognition and some light-hearted jokes. Has done the Community Shield and League Cup Final in recent years, so will be in contention for the FA Cup Final if the FA Referees Committee continue to ignore Mark Clattenburg. Otherwise expect to see occasional minor controversies at the back-end of Match of the Day.

Who hates him: The Sunderland Echo once referred to him in a headline as “controversial referee”, so probably Sunderland.

Mike Jones, Age: 46, Home County: Cheshire

Arguably at the more border-line end of the Select Group, he’s nonetheless now completed 6 years on the list, and will appear regularly again this year. At best, he’ll be in the frame for the League Cup Final. At worst he’ll spend time inches away from a screaming Alan Irvine. I still probably won’t know much more about him if I repeat this exercise again next year.

Who hates him: Newcastle fans don’t seem too keen, after his decision to disallow Cheick Tiote’s wonder-strike last season.

Bobby Madley, Age: 28 Home County: West Yorkshire

The youngest referee on the Select Group, and younger brother of Football League ref Andy, he’s likely to do a lot more Premier League games than the 5 he managed last season. The third 20-something official since a conscious decision was made to fast-track young referees, he will be hoping to emulate Michael Oliver rather than Stuart Attwell. Expect to see him at all, especially in the latter part of the season.

Who hates him: Something he did seems to have inspired a Nottingham Forest fan to create a short-lived parody account on Twitter. Probably too young to have made any significant enemies.

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Howard’s End

So that’s that. After 10 years at the top, and seemingly more to give, Howard Webb has called time on his refereeing career to become Technical Director at PGMOL.

Very much coming from the slightly scary-looking bald referee school, he undoubtedly deserves to be remembered as one of the best, rather than the subject of a million crap betting company photoshops. Not many can boast so many big games, and perhaps the real testament to his ability was that from the moment he arrived in the Premier League, he was instantly rated as one of the best. For a few years, he was the man who got the nod if there was a particularly big or difficult game, and despite the sense that he wasn’t quite at his best after the bruising experience of the 2010 World Cup Final, he was fortunate enough to go out on a massive high, after an excellent performance when Brazil squeezed past Chile (ably assisted by a superb Mike Mullarkey decision).

Last week I was wondering if Mark Clattenburg might be destined to become the nearly man of English refereeing, faced with the twin threat of a not quite finished Webb and the up and coming Michael Oliver. Today’s news probably means that Clattenburg, fitness and form permitting, has a clear run to Euro 2016, followed by a titanic battle with Oliver to go to Russia.

The obvious answer to the question “why now?” is simply that he has nothing left to achieve. The international age limit, and convention that referees shouldn’t get the same showpiece final twice meant he would never do another World Cup Final, another Champions League Final, or another FA Cup Final. A second World Cup was clearly the last milestone, and everything looked to be downhill, albeit not that steep, from here. The other question to ask is whether a relatively low profile technical post starts to look quite attractive when you’ve been on the receiving end of abuse for 10 years.

The one thing that is sure is that the imposing presence of the former South Yorkshire policeman will be missed in more ways than one.

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Clatt’s Entertainment

Some of us have been made giddy with excitement (well, ok me) at the announcement that vanishing spray will be used in the Premier League this season, but also making the refereeing news is Mark Clattenburg’s appointment to officiate the UEFA Super Cup. Ok, it’s basically a Waitrose Community Shield, but it’s still a showpiece. The one thing it has always had is a sense of glamour, so it’s hard to think of a ref more likely than Clatts to be disappointed that the Monaco residency ended in 2012, and a late summer trip to Cardiff is instead his reward.

Mark Clattenburg has long been one of England’s best referees, yet despite an outstanding 2013/4 you can’t help thinking he may end up being a bit of a nearly man at the very highest level. Howard Webb has made the default best English referee spot his own with an excellent World Cup, following a couple of mediocre domestic seasons. With Webb still some way from international retirement, Michael Oliver may be the man from the North East to inherit the crown.

So this game, two years after he officiated the Olympic gold medal match, is undoubtedly a big moment for Clattenburg. A ‘proper’ European final is definitely a possibility, and he would be the big favourite for Euro 2016 or World Cup 2018 if Webb did call it a day early. However, despite these impeccable credentials, he has yet to blow the whistle, or even indicate how many additional minutes will be played, in an FA Cup final. While PGMOL select refs for most English games, the Cup final remains in the hands of the FA Referees’ Committee, chaired by David Elleray. With ex-Harrow schoolmaster Elleray at the helm it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that the Committee has gained a reputation for being what you might call, er, “conservative”. With some high profile media controversies, albeit some unjustified, it looks like there may be a fear that Clattenburg isn’t the right sort of chap, and he might raise a few eyebrows down at the club. Hopefully in future Clattenburg will finally be given the chance to test the pressure of the ball at Wembley, but if he isn’t, we can be pretty sure that it’s not a reflection on his ability.

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World Cup Refereeing – A Non-Topical Look Back

A few weeks ago, we all watched a World Cup commonly described as one of the best ever – certainly the best many of us can remember. I also watched some referees. I’d like to claim the non-topical nature of this blog is the result of some serious reflection, but it’s actually because I’ve only just got round to it.

Leniency

The first thing to say, and pretty much everyone already has, is that all referees, no matter what their reputation were particularly lenient during the World Cup. I personally have no quibble with letting the game flow, and I think it probably contributed to how open and attacking many games were. That said, and has been noted by others who know much more about this sort of thing, it also led to serious foul play going unpunished, and in the case of Neymar, a tournament-ending injury. Which at the very least robbed us of the sight of Brazil’s star man looking on forlornly as his defensive colleagues rolled out the red carpet for a succession of brutally simple German attacks.

Was the balance wrong? Probably, yes. In a tournament with few game-defining mistakes by referee it was still surprising to see excellent referees like Cüneyt Çakır and Pedro Proença fail to punish particularly bad challenges. Massimo Busacca clearly has to take some of the blame, but what’s interesting is how ready experienced refs were to abandon their natural style in the highly-pressurised atmosphere of a World Cup. While many refs (Mark Halsey comes to mind) have been prepared to trust their natural instincts on how to run league games, against pressure by those in charge, for an ambitious ref that simply wasn’t an option in Brazil. If you didn’t do what Busacca wanted, you went home, or worse, acted as fourth official in the 3rd/4th place playoff. And that’s probably why Carlos Velasco Carballo went against type and delivered one of the worst refereeing performances you will ever see. He thought that’s what they wanted, and maybe it was.

Vanishing Spray

For all of the end-to-end games, last minute winners and crying Brazilian children, by far the most exciting thing was watching referees deposit small amounts of foam on the pitch. It really did open up a whole new opportunity for refs to develop their own signature style. And even better, we now look forward to a Premier League season where almost no free-kick will go by without the commentator feeling obliged to point out that it’s not being used. Roll on August.

Rizzoli

FIFA broke the hearts of millions of Uzbeks by giving the final to Italian architect Nicola Rizzoli. Like the buildings he designs (hopefully) he always looked a solid choice. However, like a number of those that went before him, he let a couple of major decisions slide, and left us with the feeling that things could have been different if he’d sent off Aguero or decided to penalise that Manuel Neuer’s challenge. That latter challenge was likened, ludicrously, by some to Harald Schumacher’s infamous maiming of Patrick Battiston in 1982.

Overall, he did a pretty reasonable job, though when Bastian Schweinsteiger finally comes round he may disagree. Whether the same can be said of those setting the parameters for referee performance…well, no it can’t.

Howard Webb

Good old Howard Webb, projecting an air of competence when few English people could claim the same. Despite a shaky season, and for what it’s worth, I think Mark Clattenburg was unlucky to get the English slot, Webb was excellent and no doubt added to his international reputation. Of course he also showed how much is dependent on your assistants. As Graham Poll’s 2002 World Cup was ended by a poor decision from one of his assistants, the Yorkshireman earned his greatest praise for correctly disallowing a goal for a handball he hadn’t seen, but his assistant Mike Mullarkey had spotted. I suppose he would have taken most of the flak/effigy-burning had it been wrong, but nonetheless for those of us who long to see Mike Mullarkey embrace minor celebrity, it was a strangely wistful experience. That could easily just be me, but I felt it pretty deeply.

Those are all of the things I could think of/was mildly interested in. And now for four years without World Cup referees…

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