The Referee Who Bit Back

by | Feb 17, 2021

Such is the nature of modern football, with its biggest clubs behaving even worse than normal and the non-league game apparently being run from a clown car, that we have to take our base humour where we can get it. All of this brings us to Portman Road, last night. This season hasn’t exactly been all laughs, for Ipswich. They were relegated into League One for the first time since 1957 two seasons ago, and there was no quick return for the club last season. A run of one win in nine games dropped them from the top of the table on the 25th January down to mid-table by the point of the season’s curtailment.

They started this season encouragingly, with five wins and a draw from their first six matches of the season, but the last few weeks have seen something of a repeat of last season’s tailing off. A win at Plymouth at the start of December put them 3rd in the table, but since then there hasn’t much for supporters to celebrate. A run of just three wins in ten matches since then, however, has dropped them back down to 11th place in the table, and while there is still time for them to rescue their season – there are just four points between Sunderland in 6th place and Crewe Alexandra in 12th, but there is little question that the team is heading in the wrong direction at the moment.

For all of this, however, a home match against Northampton Town team that travelled to Suffolk one place off the bottom of the table and having failed to win in any competition so far in 2021 felt like an opportunity to start putting things straight. This, however, turned out to be a somewhat optimistic prognosis for their evening, and with a minute to play the score was still goalless after another extremely frustrating evening. Enter stage left, referee Darren Drysdale and Ipswich midfielder Alan Judge. As the ball entered the Northampton penalty area Judge took a tumble, but Drysdale didn’t only fail to award Ipswich a penalty kick, but also saw fit to show Judge a yellow card for simulation for his troubles.

Before the card came out, though, came on of those moments that people who make their money from football always tell us is “just what we don’t want to see” while those watching are largely laughing themselves silly and hoping that the sight of grown men in polyester shirts pushing each other around is just the start of it all. In the inevitable post-melee pushing and shoving, the referee and the midfielder exchanged words before the Drysdale leaned his head into Judge like a rutting stag, appearing to square up to him.

This, in modern football terms, is frequently translated as a “head-butt” – spoiler alert: pressing your forehead against somebody else’s is not a head-butt – and can lead to players being sent off. Regrettably, though, on this occasion Drysdale didn’t give himself a stern talking to before issuing himself a card. It only took a few seconds before everybody concerned realised how ridiculous this all was and the de-escalation began. The match finished goalless, and Ipswich dropped to eleventh place in the table.

Today began the aftermath. It’s a familiar enough pas de deux. Drysdale issued a statement through the PGMOL apologising to both Judge and Ipswich for this behaviour:

I fully understand that it is important for us as referees to maintain our composure throughout the game and always engage with players in a professional manner. I’m sorry that I did not do that last night and I can only apologise to Alan and Ipswich Town.

And in turn the FA, taking a brief breather from whatever the hell it is that they actually do these days, charged Drysdale and issued a statement on the matter themselves:

Darren Drysdale has been charged with a breach of FA Rule E3 following last night’s EFL League One game between Ipswich Town FC and Northampton Town FC. It is alleged that the match official’s behaviour during the 90th minute of the game amounts to improper conduct and he has until Thursday 4 March 2021 to provide a response.

As Drysdale has already apologised to both the player and the club, it should be an open and shut case in terms of its mechanics, but to see a referee charged in this respect is extremely rare, and it will certainly be interesting to see what sort of sanction the FA issue him with. It is certainly unlikely that he’ll be refereeing any more Ipswich Town games for a while. It’s not implausible that he won’t be refereeing anywhere in the EFL for a while.

What was notable about the response to all of this was how few people were calling for Drysdale’s head. In recent years, as we’ve noted on these pages before, referees have become scapegoats for the shortcomings of others. With few prepared to back them in the media, any manager can cover up their team’s latest failure by deflecting attention away from themselves and onto the match officials. As the trigger happy nature of football clubs owners has made clear, this isn’t a policy that can be sustained in anything like the long-term, but as a quick fix, it seems to work.

When Ipswich Town have been on the receiving end of something like this, it might be considered a little unfair to even be saying this, but the question remains valid: the question of whether the specific decision not to award this penalty kick and/or book Alan Judge was correct or not palls in comparison with the fact that Ipswich Town, should they be serious about getting promotion from League One at the end of this season, shouldn’t be relying on last minute penalty kicks against teams in the relegation places at the bottom of the division.

There is now so much criticism of referees from managers, pundits, and the like that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have much sympathy with clubs who are wronged by refereeing decisions. There have, obviously, been calls for him to be fired, but what has been noticeable over the course of today has been that there has been considerably sympathy for Darren Drysdale as well, as a representative of a group of people who are, a lot of us still commonly believe, doing their best under increasingly trying circumstances to make these matches happen in the first place.

It seems that there may be some degree of support for referees, who seem to now spend every match with somebody’s whining in their ear. VAR only seems to have reduced their authority, and the media seems happy to invite further pile-ons. Even the governing bodies remain silent over the constant streams of abuse that they receive. Their integrity and competence is routinely called into question. And in an age in which it seems routine for clubs to demand that certain referees aren’t given their matches any more byt pearl-clutching fans and managers with tunnel vision, when bad faith rules the roost, perhaps the game needed a referee to bite back.

We all know that what Darren Drysdale did was “wrong”. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t understand why somebody – who almost certainly has to put up with less exaggerated versions of this sort of bullshit once or twice every week – would snap in the way that he did, or why we find the whole thing pretty funny. There may well be Ipswich supporters reading this with steam coming out of their ears by this point, but the only thing that I can say to them is: if the player involved in the incident last night had been wearing the yellow and green of Norwich City, would you have been calling for the referee’s head this morning? And those of any club persuasion who reflexively call for referees to be sacked when they make mistakes or – far more commonly – against your team, considering that the number of referees at all levels of the game is declining, what are you expecting from their replacements? To be better than those they’re replacing?