Football: Hunting season for the men in black

Riches and rules are turning referees into an endangered species, says Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS always a fear for football after the Taylor Report. The fences had to come down - 96 deaths at Hillsborough made that an imperative - but what was to stop disruptive and dangerous encroachments on to the pitch?

Now it is no longer a dilemma, the problem has arrived. A linesman was punched unconscious by an irate spectator at Portsmouth recently, while Saturday saw a fan invading the pitch at Goodison Park, and ugly scenes at Oakwell where the game twice had to be suspended. Only the intervention of the Barnsley players protected the referee, Gary Willard.

Even rugby league, which was spared the ugliest of football's crowd problems, was violated when a spectator wrestled a referee to the ground during Saturday's Challenge Cup semi-final between Salford and Sheffield at Headingley.

All this added to the dreadful news from Gillingham where a Fulham fan was killed. Suddenly, we are back in the wretched days of the Seventies and Eighties when to be a football supporter seemed to endorse the worst elements of British society.

One can only hope that the murder in Kent is an echo of the dark days and not a harbinger of renewed violence among football followers. It was sad but not new. What is different is the change from words to deeds in the increasing hostility being directed at officials.

The referee is there to be derided, it is part of the territory, but it is turning into something more than mere antipathy. On Saturday referee Willard, who had sent off three home players, had to be slipped out of a side door at Barnsley 6.35pm, a police guard ensuring his safety. There was a similar security operation last season when Mike Reid wrongly gave a penalty for Chelsea against Leicester. It is an increasing and depressing trend.

Why? The governing body of world football, Fifa, has not helped by imposing an inflexible regime where referees risk censure if they show restraint. The red cards for fouls and dissent that were waved at Barnsley's Darren Barnard, Chris Morgan and Darren Sheridan were unique only in that they befell the same team in one game. Willard may have been harsh, but it would be difficult to build a case that he was wrong.

Fifa has helped create a system which is bound to bring the referee into disrepute, but there are other forces in play here that owe nothing to the meddling of the law-makers. Jealousy, the need to belong, an anxiety to share in the increasing cash and prestige that come with being part of the elite; they are basic emotions and they are summed up in two words: the Premiership.

So many hours of television time, so many miles of newsprint devoted Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool etc have increased the profile of England's top division and also debased other competitions.

It is the Premiership, or nothing now. Which is partly why you get a paltry crowd of 15,940 when Sheffield Wednesday played Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup and why emotions become contorted in the relegation and promotion zones.

It is no coincidence that the trouble on Saturday occurred at Barnsley and Everton, whose Premiership membership is threatened, or that it was a man purporting to support promotion-chasing Sheffield United who attacked the linesman at Portsmouth. Those are manifestations of the Premiership effect.

Outside Oakwell on Saturday there were supporters who talked of a conspiracy to save bigger clubs like Newcastle United and Everton at the expense of Barnsley. Rubbish, of course, but those opinions are replicated elsewhere. They are dangerous thoughts that you hope will be dispelled by reason.

As the Premiership gets richer the penalty for failure will get bigger. This will lead to an increased risk of pitch invasions, which was why the fences were erected in the first place.

There is only one answer. Some of the millions which are being poured into players' bank accounts will have to be diverted to increase the number of stewards and police on duty. Expensive and unwanted, but the security of the personnel on the pitch has to be paramount.