A couple of recent refereeing decisions have attracted Mark Murphy’s attention and, spotting an opportunity to have a gratuitous dig or two at Sam Allardyce and others, he thought he’d attract your attention too.
The Dick Emery Show was a staple diet of my early 1970s TV viewing and amongst the Emery characters which proves that the past truly is a foreign country was an improbably-named skinhead called Gaylord, whose catchphrase was “Daaad, I fink I got it wrong again.” Gaylord’s voice has been my personal soundtrack to two particularly “alternative” pieces of recent refereeing. This week’s Stamford Bridge shenanigans involving referee Neil Swarbrick, West Ham goalkeeper Adrian and Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o. And, as I’m sure you feared, one involving my team Kingstonian. And, yes, we were the ‘victims.’
Chelsea supremo Jose Mourinho’s post-match comments about West Ham’s “19th-century” football attracted bigger headlines (although a blanket defence like West Ham’s seems sooo 21st-century – even if manager Sam Allardyce evokes more pre-historic times). But the instant reaction on BBC Radio 5 Live offered a rare moment in broadcasting history – Robbie Savage making the most sense. To briefly recap, Adrian saved a stoppage-time Eden Hazard shot and lay on the floor, ball held tight to his chest, as Chelsea’s Demba Ba chased a potential rebound. In the BBC studio, pundits and presenters agreed that Adrian wouldn’t be “getting up in a hurry.” Seconds later, the Chelsea crowd could be heard cheering as if a goal had been scored and listeners were informed by match commentator John Southall that Adrian had “put the ball down” in his penalty area “to take the goalkick” and Eto’o had rushed in to sweep it into the net.
Swarbrick disallowed the “goal” and play restarted with a free-kick. However, Southall’s co-commentator, former Hammers goalie Rob Green, noted: “I don’t think anybody’s seen him give the free-kick.” From the studio, host Mark Chapman added “we’re not sure we saw it either” to which Irish ex-international goalkeeper Shay Given replied “unless he’s just told him, because he’s whispered or spoken to the goalkeeper.” “We’ve seen a replay and there was no gesture that that was a free-kick, was there?” asked Chapman, hoping – against hope some might say – for some enlightenment from Chris Waddle. Before Waddle could speak, though, Frank Lampard was through for Chelsea’s 39th shot of the game, which Adrian saved to finally clinch the point. “We can see him mouthing to the Chelsea players ‘it was a free-kick’” Chapman said, as the teams left the pitch. Waddle suggested Swarbrick might have asked Adrian “do you want the free-kick or do you want to carry on?” And Given confirmed: “The referee didn’t gesture with his hand like it was a free-kick, he just said something and ran away.”
A second replay suggested to Chapman and Waddle that Swarbrick had just told Adrian, in t-shirt slogan-style, to “get up, carry on and hurry up.” But Given countered that Adrian would “never put the ball down and walk away” unless he was told it was a free-kick. By this stage, I’m sure I was not the only listener ready to text in an obvious point which had been missed. Then Savage was brought in to discuss a cheeky text about Mark Hughes’ fate when he got Stoke relegated. He promised to “answer that question in a minute” before adding: “I’ve just seen the replays of the Chelsea one. At no point on the replays I’m seeing has the referee blew his whistle. So, if he’s not blown his whistle for a free-kick…you have to blow the whistle for a free-kick, no?”
Cue thousands of aborted texts… and broadcasting history. 9.51pm, Wednesday January 29th 2014, Robbie Savage was right. The laws of the game note that “the whistle is needed to stop play for a free-kick.” And Savage seemed justifiably surprised no-one had even hinted that this was a more usual method of giving a free-kick than whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the ‘fouled’ player. Dispiritingly if predictably, Match of the Day offered minimal enlightenment. Their various replays revealed that Swarbrick had NOT blown the whistle before marching towards Adrian, patting him on the back and saying something to the still-sitting keeper.
This, though, was more likely “get on with it” than “Listen, I’m giving you a free-kick but I won’t tell anyone. Put the ball down and see what happens. Mourinho’s been giving the fourth official grief all night. He’ll go mental. Tee-hee.” Host Gary Lineker said Swarbrick “looks like he’s blown,” but neglected to clarify what. His whistle? His top? His chances of a knighthood? Clearly, though, someone lost concentration. Swarbrick did not give a free-kick in the approved manner. And only MOTD’s Martin Keown made the surely valid point that: “I don’t think there was a free-kick there.” Or, as West Ham’s Matty Taylor admitted in his post-match interview, there might have been a language difficulty between Swarbrick and Adrian. “It probably should have been a goal,” admitted Taylor. There was no “probably” about it.
I won’t name the referee who “got it wrong again” at Kingsmeadow on January 20th. Not to protect the ‘innocent’ but because…I can’t find the bloody teamsheet. His mistake came 40 minutes into Kingstonian’s Isthmian League game with Met Police – the then-league leaders against the then-form team (best record over the last six games). It was 0-0, with the visitors having had the clearest chance of a tight, but watchable, encounter. Ks had a free-kick 35 yards out, level with the left edge of the penalty area and took it quickly – the ball arriving at the feet of Ks prolific top-scorer Andre McCollin on the edge of the box. McCollin stopped, as if he’d heard a whistle. Indeed, nearly every player stopped, as if they’d heard it too. The important exceptions were the Police’s Elliott Taylor and Charlie Collins. Taylor swept the ball downfield to Collins who picked it up just inside his own half and, having out-muscled an off-balance Ks defender, had a clear run on goal.
Collins still had the proverbial “bit to do.” But he did it “with aplomb”, drilling a low shot across Ks keeper Rob Tolfrey into the far corner, to the cheers of at least some of the Police fans present –possibly even all three of them – and various versions of “what the ****?!!!?” from Ks fans. The Police went two-up shortly after half-time with a remarkably similar goal, though there was no doubt about this one – a clearance from a Ks corner, the terrific Bradley Hudson-Odoi outmuscling a Ks defender and running 50 yards before applying more aplomb to another right-foot finish. And it wasn’t until the final half-hour that Ks organised their whirring sense of injustice into a comeback. They pulled one goal back and were only denied an equaliser by some…well…”19th-century” defending and fine goalkeeping by Stuart Searle.
It was, therefore, a hugely entertaining game between two of the better sides in a high-quality Isthmian Premier Division, with Hudson-Odoi the star man after a display of power, pace and finishing worthy of a higher level. “He battered us,” said Dowson, correctly, in his borderline-impenetrable north-eastern accent, shell-shocked and admiring in equal measure. The game will not be remembered for the football, though. Instead, the referee’s apparent decision to stop Ks taking a quick free-kick and then stop them re-taking it dominated half-time, full-time and most subsequent-time discussion (at the time of typing, Ks haven’t played since, thanks to the rain). One Ks fan noted that Collins still had a lot to do and that Ks had “opportunities” to prevent it. But Collins would have had plenty more to do if McCollin still had the ball on the edge of the Police box. There was a consensus that the referee had blown the whistle after Ks had taken the free-kick and then shouted “play on” once he’d seen everyone bar Taylor play to that whistle. There was no consensus, or clue, as to why.
From my press area vantage point, it looked as if Ks had loused-up a training ground move and didn’t know how to rectify their error. I’d heard no whistle. But that was thanks to an ill-timed cry of “Mars or Twix?” from an adjacent press-packer (oh the glamour). And the number of players from both sides who had stopped quickly suggested to me that there had been a whistle. At that point, I looked at my notes and was reminded that after 21 minutes, I had written “I have not understood one decision this referee has given yet.” And, a couple of lines later, I’d scrawled “is he the real ref?” The subsequently-posted “YouTube” highlights revealed that the referee’s catalogue of errors was “as worse as it gets” (something I once, apparently, said about a particularly grim game at Basingstoke). He did indeed blow the whistle. And he did so at the exact moment that the free-kick was taken. He did not see this, however, as he was running away from the taker.
And worse (told you), he actually gave two short, sharp blasts on the whistle, the type which if blown in an infants’ school playground would have instantly translated as “stop what you’re doing,” with an added “at once” if the acoustics were particularly good. In my school playground, there’d always be one or two kids who’d pay no heed. Art imitating life, then. Or at least the Isthmian League imitating Buckland Road Infants School, 1973. At both Chelsea and Ks, the referee made a clear error, which – and isn’t this always the way? – was exacerbated by the cover-up. At Stamford Bridge, Swarbrick did not award a free-kick, which he covered up by pretending that he had.
At Kingsmeadow, the referee was simply not watching the game when Ks took the free-kick. But when confronted with nearly 20 players stopping in their tracks, visibly wondering what was going on, he had a perfect opportunity to stop and restart the game, without materially disadvantaging either side. Instead he covered up his error with a cheery “play on” as if nothing untoward had occurred. Referees can and do – and did this week – misinterpret what they see – Danny Rose’s dismissal at White Hart Lane, for instance. But in these two cases, the referees simply got their job, momentarily, wrong. Chris Waddle indirectly offered a plausible explanation of Swarbrick’s actions, noting, correctly, that “It would be a bit embarrassing if that was the winning goal.” And both Swarbrick and the Kingsmeadow ref were keener to avoid that embarrassment than to admit they’d “got it wrong.”
The Ks incident had an impossible-to-quantify effect. Met Police had been fractionally the better side beforehand. But would they have been two goals up seven minutes later or would Ks have produced such a stirring final thirty minutes had it not occurred? Chelsea, though, were denied two points, and West Ham gifted one by Swarbrick’s desire to avoid personal embarrassment. And both ends of this season’s final Premier League table could look significantly different as a result.
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