Danny Higginbotham: Surrounding a referee to secure a decision is pretty dumb – a quiet word works far better

As captain at Stoke, after the coin toss I might say, 'Keep an eye on their No 4 at corners, ref'

I know from one very painful early experience that football can deal you a very bad hand with referees sometimes. I’m talking about a Belgian official called Amand Ancion, who was refereeing a game I played in for Royal Antwerp – the twin club of Manchester United where I and a few others had been sent on loan – against La Louvière in 1999.

It was a play-off match for promotion to Belgium’s First Division, Ancion had allowed the other side’s injury-time winner to stand and everything started kicking off in the tunnel afterwards. Punches flew, a photographer pulled a knife on one of our players, Ancion followed us into our dressing room and grabbed hold of our goalkeeping coach.

I stopped my United team-mate Ronnie Wallwork, who was about to throw one at him – and the next thing I knew, I was being handed a two-year ban from Belgian football and suspended from the English game for a year. Sir Alex Ferguson came to the Glass House courts in Brussels to act as a character witness but then the Belgians wanted to double my ban. It was a joke and later, after the whole thing was settled, I discovered that the referee needed psychological help. Moral of the story: you never know what you will get from officials.

But my take on the controversy about the way Chelsea surrounded referee Bjorn Kuipers before Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s sending-off for Paris Saint-Germain this week is this: you would be crazy, as a player, to be in a referee’s face and haranguing him when there is so much evidence that the way to have a good rub of the green with him is by getting a quiet, on-pitch dialogue going.

Yes, of course it was wrong for the Chelsea players to surround Kuipers – though I think he was going to send Ibrahimovic off anyway. Referees have to start booking every player who surrounds them in that kind of situation. “A yellow for you, you and you” would soon put a stop to that nonsense. But do players who confront officials like that really think it’s the smartest way to influence an official? The truth of it is that by approaching the referee in the right way, you actually increase the chances of him looking after you.

 

At Stoke, we always had an understanding that the first one of us to see the referee would get a key message across. As captain at the club, it was often me. I’d head up for the coin toss and after the other captain had gone I might tell him: “Keep an eye on their No 4 from corners, ref.” There was the chance to give the same message to a linesman as he checked your studs. And human nature says that the referee will be aware of what you have told him, subliminally at least.

The relationship with an official can develop from other encounters – and not necessarily the promising ones. I remember going down after a challenge when playing for Derby County against Blackburn in 2001-02 and the referee telling me – not very flatteringly: “Come on, big ears, get up! You’re all right.” I replied: “Shut it, fatty,” and ran off laughing. We both saw the funny side and a few times after that when I was running past him in that game I said: “Come on, fatty. Keep up!” And I got a fair rub of the green from him that day. Maybe a bit better than fair. Referees are human, you see. Enter into a decent relationship with them and it can work for you.

Another part of the game is the referees always wanting to equal things out when they know they have made a bad decision against you. We saw it at Stamford Bridge in the week. Kuipers perhaps realised that he’d got it wrong with Ibrahimovic – because it was never a sending-off – so what happened when Diego Costa should have had a nailed-on penalty? It wasn’t given. There have been plenty of times in the Premier League when there’s been a foul against our side that’s not been given and I’d say to the referee: “You owe us one, ref.” I’ve had referees run past me on more than one of those occasions and say “There you go” when he has evened things out with a decision in our favour.

We found other teams and managers making things work against us. As we all know, a number of managers would make not-so-subtle references to “Stoke’s physical approach” over several years and referees certainly did make it harder for us, as we became established in the division. But – to continue the theme – we tried to be smart about it. Tony Pulis, the manager at the time, was careful to make sure that we were never doing anything illegal when we blocked defenders’ runs at corners, by ensuring that the “blocker” we had in the opposition’s box at corners was always standing at an angle, looking away from the ball. One of the rest of us would run towards the “blocker”, leading an opposition defender to run into him and taking the opponent out of the defensive equation.

We also had to think about it when other teams got officialdom to stop Rory Delap having towels to wipe the ball before his long throws. Burnley even brought forward the advertising hoardings on to the grass, in the stretch from the deadball line to the 18-yard box, so he had to launch the ball from 10 yards further back. But Pulis got around the towel ban by having Rory wear a cut-up cotton vest underneath his shirt. It was like a shirt of rags and he would use that to dry the ball instead.

There are many more subtle marginal gains that Chelsea seemed to think they would get by crowding around Kuipers on Wednesday night. If they hadn’t done that, the story would have been about the Dutchman making a bad decision. But instead, it has been about their own conduct in that moment, even though their protests didn’t seem to be part of the sequence of events which the referee was influenced by. You would think that Jose Mourinho, one of the greatest strategists and the outstanding Premier League manager, would come up with something better than that.

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