Graham Kelly: Singh case exposes lip service paid to race issues

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The Independent Football

The massive reaction to the Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate case totally obliterated any meaningful media follow-up to the ruling of racial discrimination obtained earlier in the month against the now defunct National Referees Review Board and some of its senior officials by the former referee, Gurnam Singh.

What was so surprising was that, after so many years of reports, inquiries and task forces investigating race in football, this case could go so embarrassingly wrong to the extent that the League's chief executive, David Burns, announcing an internal inquiry, acknowledged the failings in objectivity in making referee appointments and promotions. He also hoped remedies could be agreed with Singh without the need for further hearings after a case which lasted 35 days spread over two years.

The Birmingham employment tribunal reached the view that a comment made in 1995 by Ken Ridden, then the Football Association's director of refereeing, " We don't want people like him in the Premier League" was prompted by Singh's Asian origin.

The tribunal decided that Ridden's failure to promote Singh to the Premier League when he was the leading Football League referee was motivated by racial discrimination; the Football League's failure to appoint him to the First Division play-off final at Wembley the same year was also ruled to be motivated by race.

Singh then suffered a further setback, again because of his race, according to the tribunal. In 1996 he finished high in the Football League referees' rankings but promotion went instead to Mike Riley and Graham Barber, with similar or less favourable marks. The tribunal did not accept Ridden's explanation that, as younger men, they were better candidates for the Fifa list.

Singh's application was made following his removal from the League list of referees in 1999. The Football League committee which made the decision was not told that he was, in fact, not in the lowest sector of the referees' rankings at the time, band E, but was improving after an injury, in band D, with a very respectable average mark from assessors of 7.29 out of 10, the highest ranking referee ever to be sacked. The Football League referees' officer, Jim Ashworth, conceded that he had made special allowances in appointing other referees to matches, but not Singh.

In the year of his removal from the list, Singh had been the subject of a bizarre "disciplinary" hearing. Following an alleged dressing-room dispute at Luton, Singh was removed from two appointments for abusive language to a linesman on the determination of Ashworth and the League secretary, David Dent, despite the view expressed by a referees committee member that such formality was unnecessary.

The tribunal felt this contrasted markedly with the treatment accorded to Singh when he complained of racial discrimination on the part of an assessor, the complaint being dismissed because Ashworth knew the assessor personally.

That assessor, Football League regional co-ordinator Ron Groves, was one of those whose evidence for the respondents was discredited at the tribunal, which felt that the members of the refereeing hierarchy members were trying to protect each other's backs.

The tribunal accepted Singh's assertion that there had been a whispering campaign conducted against him in the higher refereeing circles, culminating in the decision to throw him off the list. Every opportunity was taken when discussing referees both formally and informally to criticise him and such comment went far beyond that which a white referee would have been subject to. There was sarcasm used at a top-level meeting which heard in 1997 that he was no longer performing so well.

To discover the origins of Singh's unpleasant experiences we have to go back to the formation of the Premier League in 1992. He had already been a Football League referee for two years, finishing 35th in season 1991-92 when approximately 35 referees were first chosen from the one national list to officiate in the green shirt of the Premier League.

The Football League wanted their referees to officiate only in their matches and at first fostered an attitude of "us and them". The National Referees Review Board, a tripartite body comprising representatives of the Football Association, the FA Premier League and the Football League, decided refereeing policy. The officials, led by Ridden, had the responsibility to recommend and implement policy.

And when the Football League club representatives on the board wanted greater weight to be given to club markings, the professionals, long suspicious of the pernicious influence of managers, resisted, preferring the markings of the more objective assessors, who, at least, knew the laws of the game.

"So what", would say the club guys, "the referees may know the laws, but they don't know the game, and what's more, they operate a closed shop".

Unfortunately for Singh, who was not averse to ringing up and querying his lack of progress, the refereeing hierarchy nearly all took their lead from Ridden, who was compelled to admit to the tribunal that he had no training in equal opportunities or race discrimination and the tribunal felt he came up against this closed shop.

The National Referees Board has now been replaced by the Professional Game Match Officials Board. Burns' inquiry will need to demonstrate that the board is free of the race prejudices that the Birmingham tribunal has found to have tarnished its forerunner and is truly accountable. The fact that Burns has acknowledged the distress Singh must have felt throughout is a positive step in the right direction.

Anyone studying the tribunal case will have found it difficult to avoid reaching the view that we all have quite a bit to learn yet. Given that the credibility of the respondents' witnesses was compromised by their denial of awareness of any perception that Asians in Britain cannot play football, the routing of senior officials in the Singh case leaves one to wonder whether so much of what we have heard from campaigns such as Kick It Out has merely been lip service designed to gloss over serious problems in the game.