The problem with apologising to keep the peace is that sooner or later someone else wants the same treatment. In the case of Mike Riley, the man in charge of referees in the Premier League, it took three days from Steve Clarke disclosing that Riley had apologised to him for Andre Marriner’s penalty award at Stamford Bridge for Gus Poyet to demand the same.
The Sunderland manager gave an extra twist to the decision by Kevin Friend to dismiss Wes Brown at Stoke on Saturday by pointing out that Clarke was a “British manager and I think it is time for them [Riley’s referees’ organisation] to call a foreign manager to apologise.” Before the international break, all Riley had to do was ride out one wrong call in a game that ended in a draw. Now he faces accusations of anti-foreign manager bias.
That is nonsense, of course, the kind of thing a manager says when he should know better. But it brings home the folly of what Riley did in calling Clarke after Marriner’s duff decision to award a late penalty for Chelsea against West Bromwich Albion two weeks ago. Neither referees, nor their bosses, should be under any obligation to apologise.
It is a peculiar modern phenomenon, this demand for a referee to say sorry. As if he is a four-year-old who has just crayoned the new curtains, rather than an experienced professional trying to keep control of 22 men who do occasionally show all the self-control of the pre-school generation.
The ref will always be the easy target. The one for whom no one in the stands is rooting and the worst-paid man on the pitch. And while there is a perception among the great football public that human fallibility is part of every players’ performance – indeed in some it is considered pretty much the norm – it remains strangely unacceptable in a referee.
Listening to managers in the aftermath of games, you hear plenty of calls for referees to explain and apologise. Yet very few of those managers make the same demands of their players when they cock things up, much less of themselves.
It was not Marriner’s intention to get it wrong when Ramires launched himself over the leg of Steven Reid with West Bromwich moments from victory at Chelsea. In that second he has to weigh up five different factors when adjudging whether an act of simulation has taken place. It is not simply enough to say there was contact; it is whether that contact is fair; whether the challenging player could legitimately have avoided it; who initiated it and whether the player challenged exaggerated the effects.
That is not to say the referee cannot get it right, just that inevitably, there will be times when he gets it wrong. That has always been acknowledged in private. To start issuing apologies to aggrieved managers only contributes to the mood that referees are there to please Premier League managers. They are not. They are there to apply the laws of the games as best they can.
For Riley, there is some sympathy. If there is one thing worse than dealing with certain managers for 90 minutes, it must be mollifying them all week on the phone. After the furore over his apology to Clarke, Riley needed a good weekend. What he got was that erroneous red card at Sunderland. A booking for Everton’s Kevin Mirallas when his studding of Luis Suarez in the Merseyside derby merited a dismissal. Then a yellow for Wayne Rooney when he should have been sent off for kicking out at Jordan Mutch.
But the situation will not be changed by an obligation to apologise or to explain their decisions. A mistake is a mistake, everyone can see that. The rest is just a witch-hunt. If it is punishment the critics are so keen on they should be aware there are already significant repercussions for referees who make mistakes.
Once a referee finds himself dropped from the list, he misses out on his match fee. With 18 referees for every 10 games, that can be a long wait. For example, Roger East has not been given a Premier League game since Fulham’s win over Stoke on 5 October, a game notable for him awarding a free-kick instead of a penalty when a foul on Jon Walters was clearly inside the area.
Marriner has issued four red cards this season. Two against Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena in Sunderland’s defeat to Hull. Another to Steven Taylor for his forearm swipe at Sergio Aguero, an incident that turned into a classic example of the instant exoneration a player can expect. “I can’t really say any more except he is an honest player who made a mistake,” was Alan Pardew’s response. Marriner also sent off Newcastle’s Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa last month against Liverpool
All four were correct. Marriner is in most experts’ top three Premier League referees, along with Howard Webb and Mike Dean. He is on the Fifa list. He also has the first apology of the season to his name which, given it was handed out on such an ad hoc basis, goes against everything else in the strictly regulated world select group referees inhabit.
After each game they are marked out of 10 in three different categories by the match delegate, a former player or manager who consults both managers as part of his assessment. That conversation takes place the day following the game, or even later, but, nevertheless, it matters. Those marks contribute to where the referee finishes in the table that dictates whether he gets an end-of-season bonus.
Referees make between 300 and 350 decisions every game. There are the humdrum throw-ins and the last-minute collisions in the penalty area. There are good referees and not-so-good referees. Insisting that they constantly apologise in a game where no one else is ever forced to say sorry, is just a weird persecution exercise.
After Artur Boruc cost Southampton the first goal against Arsenal on Saturday, Mauricio Pochettino said that his goalkeeper had simply made one of those mistakes that can befall a footballer and that there was no need to apologise. There were no doubt a few referees, Marriner included, wondering when someone will point out their good performances rather than say sorry at the first hint of trouble.
Premier League competition comes at a high domestic price
As the two European competitions begin again this week, a glance around the major leagues tells its own story. Only the Premier League does not have a leader that is undefeated. In Germany, unbeaten Bayern Munich saw off third-place Borussia Dortmund 3-0 away from home on Saturday. Barcelona are top and undefeated in Spain. They and third-place Real Madrid scored nine between them without reply at the weekend. In Italy, undefeated leaders Roma play Cagliari tonight.
The competition in England is as good as it has been in some years. Yet when Manchester City pick an XI without an Englishman in it, as they did yesterday, and Chelsea and Arsenal muster just five between them, it is obvious where the problem lies.