The build up to the Manchester derby next Monday is always going to be intense and at the forefront of the media, right from the start of this week. But already, on Monday morning I see headlines surrounding the choice of referee appointed to the game. For someone who is supposed to be just an impartial person employed to officiate the game, its amazing how much coverage referees get these days.
Obviously when contentious decisions are made, managers and fans remember the person in the black who made the call. Reputations are built up over time and this is understandable due to the huge coverage that the Premier League in particular gets. But when you see headlines over which ref has been appointed for a match a week away, surely we have got to the point where too much pressure and emphasis is placed upon who will take charge of the big games. Andre Marriner was named as the referee for the upcoming Manchester derby, but it was widely (mis)reported earlier that Howard Webb would take charge of the game. As soon as the rumour circulated, Twitter was rife with jokes and abuse because of Webb’s reputation of being biased toward United in the past.
When this much controversy surrounds the appointment of officials nowadays, do we have to look at how we address the situation with the selection process? If it is deemed to be such a huge part of the game as the media make out, then it only serves to fuel the fire when a referee makes an incorrect decision, and makes the job an ever more difficult one. People will say that the officials should be able to deal with the pressure and abuse that comes with the job at this level, but it goes beyond this to suggest that certain referees have affiliations with specific clubs and puts their job at risk, despite their capabilities.
Seeing fake pictures of Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt may appear as bitter fans making a flippant point, but when it’s a Liverpool player (Ryan Babel) tweeting the image then it makes the sport look bad and has a genuine effect on the appointment of that referee in the future.
It appears to no longer be a question of who is the best referee for the game, but who is most suitable for the two teams. Howard Webb was largely expected to officiate the Manchester derby purely because he is considered the best in the country, but this was not the choice and you have to feel that Marriner was appointed instead because of the pure speculation over Webb being biased. Arguably it is sensible to avoid controversy and not select Howard Webb for this game, but at the same time it could open a can of worms and change the way supposedly impartial referees are chosen. It slightly undermines Webb’s integrity if he was indeed not selected because of prior history with United. Do we really want to put the best refs in the country under such a spotlight that they risk ostracising themselves from future fixtures because of split second decisions?
With top-level officials now becoming much more of a presence and gaining more of a personality in the eye of the fans, it means that every decision is scrutinised. But more than this, it makes it personal. Once the referee has built up such an identity they stop being the impartial judge and start becoming someone who can have a direct impact on the game, not just someone who is enforcing the rules on the pitch. It’s arguably something that we can do nothing about, but the ever-increasing media circus surrounding referees is becoming too much. I know that at such a high-level we need to make sure the beautiful game is overseen in a fair and impartial manner. But this need for accountability for contentious decisions and uproar over ‘favouritism’ detracts from the spectacle and only serves to alienate our country’s best officials.
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