When you talk about refereeing and officiating this season, it’s easy for people to dismiss legitimate complaints by talking about club bias.
“Of course you think that, it’s for the benefit of your team!”.
And look, as much as I try and be objective, it’s impossible to argue that there isn’t an element of truth in that from time to time. Not always, but it can seep in. I think that’s true of most football fans. Our frustration and sense of injustice can lead us to believe that something that’s on the borderline of being correct or not is actually something much more egregious.
But what about when it’s not your team? There can’t be any bias there, so let me have a go. This morning I don’t know how Gary O’Neil hasn’t driven to PGMOL HQ to set up camp there, demanding something be done about these officials. Already this season the victims of two of the worst penalty decisions you will ever see, they were once again robbed of precious points by garbage decisions which once again highlight the abject standard of officiating in the Premier League.
Fulham’s first penalty was soft, to say the least, and the Wolves player got something on the ball too. VAR checked but decided the referee hadn’t made a clear and obvious error. Which, by the way, is a definition that provides a get-out clause for officials, and no clarity for the rest of us. Can the referee in real time actually see that touch? Probably not, but is it a ‘clear and obvious’ error? Perhaps not, because how could he be expected to see something which we need super slow-mo replays for. Which is why it’s useless terminology.
Wolves got a penalty of their own, and the foul by Tim Ream, already on a yellow card, was worthy of a second. Hwang Hee-chan is going through, it’s subtle but deliberate, and it should be a red card. Not given, although the officials admitted afterwards it should have been. As for the second Fulham penalty in injury time, the one which saw Wolves come away with nothing, Harry Wilson went down and the referee rightly waved play on. But VAR decided he’d made a clear and obvious error, made him go check it, and Michael Salisbury buckled under the pressure and gave it. Nonsense. It’s a dive, anyone can see that. Nor was it clear and obvious.
On top of that, there was a ‘headbutt’ incident in which Carlo Vinicius caught Max Kilman, and the referee actually described that to Gary O’Neil as a ‘soft headbutt’, and deemed it not worthy of a red card. There wasn’t much contact, but we’ve seen them given before, when you do that with your head you are asking for trouble. There are shades of Bruno Guimaraes on Jorginho in that decision making. “Yes it was violent conduct, but not violent enough”, as if that’s in the rules somewhere.
We discussed the headbutt, which it was, but he debated that a little bit with me as well and he said that it was a soft headbutt. Which I just said that that’s crazy. He’s absolutely crazy. So we can headbutt people as long as it’s deemed soft or not hard enough? So my son at home watching that — millions of children watching that — we’re telling them that you can headbutt people on a football pitch, as long as it’s not too hard?
Perfectly reasonable. He went on to say:
You can phone me and tell me I’m wrong. You can phone me and apologise, you can send me flowers if you like, but the difference from 22 points to 15 is huge. I’m managing a big football club here and the difference that you’re making to my reputation, to the club’s progression up the league, to people’s livelihoods, it’s huge.
It can’t be like this with all the technology and all the time in the biggest league in the world that we’re getting so many wrong. It can’t be ok. We should discuss the game, but, unfortunately, we have to discuss these because they’re such big decisions.
The reality is what he said here is very much in the same ballpark as what Mikel Arteta said after Newcastle. The focus then was on his immediate post-game comments, because they make the most headlines and generate the most clicks, but his more measured comments a couple of days later echo what Gary O’Neil is saying here – that for the good of the game, shutting down reasonable discussion of refereeing standards doesn’t benefit anyone. Especially when it dressed up with a veneer of respectability in the guise of the Daily Mail’s absurd, hypocritical campaign around respecting refs, as if we can’t all see that’s been bought and paid for by Howard Webb.
You have a problem and you put it there in a drawer, the problem is that the drawer is going to stink at some moment. If we have a problem, let’s talk about it, let’s try to improve it and let’s try to in a very constructive way, try to improve it. That’s it. That’s what we are trying to do. Nothing else.
We’re still waiting for the decision on Arteta’s FA charge to be released, by the way. It may well be a case that as Wolves come to visit this weekend, he could be in the stands. I don’t think what he said merits a touchline ban, but it wouldn’t surprise me either. It’s probably just par for the course that the comments from an Arsenal manager get a bit more traction than those of his counterpart at Wolves, but neither of them have done anything more than reasonably raise legitimate questions about the refs, VAR, and some of the awful decisions we’ve seen this season. Not just for their own team but so that standards across the Premier League are improved.
Gary O’Neil has more reason than most to be fuming with what has been done to his team this season, so let’s hope his words resonate beyond the tabloid headlines which have obscured what Arteta said after Newcastle. Ultimately, if it’s deemed unacceptable to even raise the idea of talking about officiating standards, nothing will ever improve. And that drawer will stink for evermore.
There’s some Premier League listening for you over on Patreon, in a new episode of The 30, recorded yesterday so we obviously don’t have last night’s game. However, we’ll also have a bit of a Champions League preview podcast for you later on too, so we might have a little chat about it. You can sign up to our Patreon for instant access to everything for just over a fiver a month here – patreon.com/arseblog
Till tomorrow, when we can preview the Lens game, and all the rest.