Glenn Moore: Poll evidence suggests he is a good referee - and a controversial figure

It is said a good referee is one who does not get noticed. On that basis Graham Poll must be a terrible ref. Anonymity is not, however, a luxury afforded to the modern Premiership referee, and especially not to the country's leading official. Poll knows that, and while there are strong grounds for believing he generally enjoys the attention, the Tring official will not have relished being in the eye of the storm this week. He would rather be recognised for excellence than the criticism he has drawn from Chelsea and Everton.

He will not, though, shirk the big decisions when he runs out at the City of Manchester Stadium tomorrow afternoon to officiate Manchester City v Newcastle United. He did not on Wednesday night, which is why, when he could have done with a quiet week, he dismissed Everton's James McFadden. Poll is a better man-manager than Darrell Hair, the controversial Australian cricket umpire, and more inclined to use common sense, but he has the same determination to uphold the laws, come hell or slo-mo replay.

"The thing from Tring" also has a similarly thick skin or, more generously, strong character. Many a man would have crumbled after his high-profile three-card rick in the World Cup, when he booked Croatia's Josip Simunic three times. Poll has returned from that personal nightmare to perform as impressively as any player this season, notwithstanding John Terry's harsh dismissal.

Poll is, by any assessment, England's best referee. He has topped the assessors' marks for several years. He is widely respected (despite the World Cup) in Uefa, Fifa, and among his international peers. Last year he was chosen by Fifa to officiate at the replayed Bahrain v Uzbekistan World Cup eliminator, after the original game was annulled to a referee's error. Uefa have continued to use him for internationals and Champions' League fixtures.

Tellingly, he does many of the big Premiership matches - he has refereed 14 of the 27 matches played between the "big four" Champions' League qualifiers in the past two-and-a-bit seasons.

Critics might suggest it shows how moderate the other officials are but few people appreciate just how difficult refereeing is in the modern age. Not only are matches played with a relentless intensity, at an awesome, relentless pace for high stakes, every decision is captured for analysis by a bank of television cameras.

One manager recently told me: "You have to be really mentally strong to get out on the football pitch, people don't realise that. To know you are playing in front of 30,000-40,000 people scrutinising you, and that evening there will be 12 million more doing it, and on top of that people will pick you out and maybe take the mickey out of you for five minutes on a television programme, then many people wouldn't leave the dressing-room."

And that manager was talking about playing, when there are 10 team-mates for support. Imagine the stress on a referee.

It is, perhaps, hardly surprising then that men like Poll, Pierluigi Collina and Anders Frisk have big egos - referees need one to maintain the necessary self- belief. Poll, a boyhood Queen's Park Rangers fan, built up that carapace of confidence the hard way. His first match was in 1980, when he was 17. The fixture: Woolmer Green Reserves v The Anchor (a pub), in the North Herts League. His parents came to watch, perhaps to support him, perhaps to defend him.

Soon afterwards, he has recalled, he had told his mother, who was driving him to a game, that, "I thought it would be a nice idea to drop into the bar at the final whistle for a chat with the lads. The game finished in near anarchy and I took the decision to abandon it with four minutes to go due to bad light - it did not go unnoticed that the games on neighbouring pitches ran their full course. After which I jumped in the car fully kitted up and complete with muddy boots. 'I take it we're not going into the bar, then?' said mum before speeding off."

Such experiences are the reason for hundreds of referees abandoning the game in their first year but Poll persevered. He had decided he was not going to progress far as a player (in the Southern Amateur League) and preferred "the challenge" of refereeing. "Given the way society is today," he has said, "it's a huge, huge challenge to control 22 guys who half the time just want to have a good, old go at each other when you're armed only with a whistle and two cards."

By the age of 29 he was refereeing in the top flight, at 33 he was officiating for Uefa. Such success creates envy and he is not entirely popular among his fellow referees. Other colleagues are grateful for his willingness to stand up for the profession, campaigning in private for better facilities, and for seeking to explain the profession in public.

The move to full-time officiating in 2001 was, he has said, a mixed blessing. It has given him more time to work on his fitness and preparation, and be with his family (his wife of 13 years, Julia, and three children).

But he has noted: "It is our job now. The scrutiny on everyone in the game is relentless and that creates pressure. At one time you never recognised a referee at all. Now we are in the media and named if we are seen as having done something wrong. We have not asked for it. It has been thrust upon us. Some like it more than others.

"Personally I like to do the game, finish and then go home. Before I had a very responsible and pressured job Monday to Friday [he was a sales director]. Then when I refereed on a Saturday it was a welcome release. That has changed and that is one of the differences for me. I still enjoy it very much but it is not quite as enjoyable."

Case studies: Games where referee Poll taxed players' patience

18 December 2001 Arsenal 1 Newcastle 3 (Premiership)

Arsenal's Ray Parlour sent off for two bookable offences, despite Newcastle's Alan Shearer protesting with Poll not to show the red card. Craig Bellamy then dismissed for elbowing Ashley Cole, before Poll awards a penalty against Sol Campbell for a trip, when it seems he touched the ball. Thierry Henry has to be restrained from confronting Poll after the game. He gets a three match ban.

8 June 2002 Croatia 2 Italy 1 (World Cup)

Italy have two "goals" disallowed. One is for offside, but when the ball was played Christian Vieri was behind the ball. The second was for "shirt tugging" by Filippo Inzaghi. "He is a village referee," said Vieri.

13 April 2003 Arsenal 1 Sheffield United 0 (FA Cup)

Poll obstructs United's Michael Tonge as he challenges for the ball. It breaks to an Arsenal player, resulting in an attack and Freddie Ljungberg's winner.

22 June 2006 Croatia 2 Australia 2 (World Cup)

Poll finally sends off Croatia's Josip Simunic after giving the defender two yellows in normal time, and a third after the final whistle.

5 November 2006 Tottenham 2 Chelsea 1 (Premiership)

Poll books five Chelsea players, disallows a seemingly fair goal and sends off John Terry for the first time in his career. Terry claims Poll gave him conflicting reasons.

8 November 2006 Everton 0 Arsenal 1 (Carling Cup)

Poll sends off James McFadden early in the tie after the Everton striker allegedly called him a "cheat" for not awarding a penalty.

Opinion Poll: What they say about the Tring man in the middle

'I am still really baffled by it [the second yellow card]. I have looked at it myself over and over again. On the pitch, Graham Poll said to me [the card] was for the barge on [Hossam] Ghaly. After the game he said it was when Ledley King and I fell.'

Chelsea captain John Terry after Poll dismissed him against Tottenham.

'I don't understand why Mr Poll wanted to be part of the show. We scored two goals. One of them was disallowed and only Mr Poll can say why because I can't.'

The Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho after the 2-1 defeat to Tottenham

'The laws of the game are very specific. The referee takes responsibility for his actions on the field of play. I was the referee. It was my error and the buck stops with me.

The first couple of days after it just came back to me over and over and over again in my mind. You think you'll wake up, it's only a bad dream, but it isn't, it's reality.'

Poll on Croatia v Australia at the 2006 World Cup

'It was one of the worst performances of a referee I have ever seen in a World Cup. I marked him 3.5 out of 10. He lost complete control. It was pretty grim.'

Former World Cup referee Clive Thomas after Poll shows Croatia's Josip Simunic three yellow cards before sending him off in the game against Australia

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