Graham Kelly: Time to dismiss idea of relegating referees

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The Independent Football

"Gimme Some Lovin" greets the players and officials as they step onto the Kenilworth Road Stadium pitch. Last week the referee Paul Durkin came down to the Third Division following his banishment from the Premiership for failing to send off Graeme Le Saux for his high tackle on Danny Mills, so the music may have been appropriate. However, it is difficult for me to imagine the cocky young West Countryman, who was unfazed at an interview all those years ago by the ferocious Burnley butcher Bob Lord, being in particular need of some TLC because of this little local difficulty at the hands of the Premier League commissars.

Mr Durkin exhibited no hauteur, his control was superb and the players of Luton Town and Swansea City played their part in an excellent afternoon's entertainment for most of the crowd. That very same day Dermot Gallagher was also falling foul of the refereeing authorities for failing to show Robbie Keane the red card for his push on David Beckham and was already contemplating a similar fate to Durkin before Durkin had left Bedfordshire.

Thirty years ago, in the wake of a particularly malevolent FA Cup final replay between Chelsea and Leeds, it was decided that all matches would be watched by an ex- referee and that there would be a clampdown on the cynical foul play that was disfiguring the game as the "win at all costs" approach took hold. It was made clear that any referee who did not want to support his colleagues in eradicating abuses from the game could sling his hook. Time-wasting, encroachment and dissent were to be regarded as automatic cautionable offences, as was the so-called professional foul. The denial of a probable scoring opportunity subse- quently became a red-card offence.

From this you might deduce, and you would be correct, that my natural inclination is to take a line marginally to the right of Genghis Khan in matters of on-field discipline, and I took the lead, as I saw it, in improving the game even further, when I enjoyed some measure of authority, in persuading Fifa to remove the concept of intent from fouls, so that now, even careless or reckless challenges can be penalised, and the skilful player can be encouraged more.

So no qualms on my part then about Premier League referees who falter being stood down? Well, yes, I do have some worries actually.

Philip Don always courageously and faithfully followed the edicts laid down to eliminate foul play. Indeed, he and I were both in the United States for the World Cup in 1994 when the Swiss referee, Kurt Röthlisberger, was sent home by Sepp Blatter for failing to send off a player, a high-profile humiliation similar to that being inflicted by Don now on Gallagher as he preaches what he practised as a referee.

I was brought up to believe that referees were right even when they were wrong. This is a dated dictum, but as a statement of unqualified support for referees it still sounds OK to me today.

Ever since the assessment system came in – and managers aggrieved at the award of a late penalty found themselves less able to affect a referee's career – clubs have moaned that referees have not been accountable. Either they have been ignorant of the efforts made to raise standards or they have genuinely believed a freemasonry existed whereby referees protected their own.

All reformations must have zeal, but Don and his referee managers are merely making media hostages now of the referees like Gallagher who are being demoted to the Nationwide League. It is little short of pandering to the press and the paymasters.

Did I detect a slight weakening last week in the position of one of Mr Don's hitherto foremost disciples, the leading referee Graham Poll, who said it was very difficult to accept the public nature of such sanctions?

What is the point of pandering to the professionals when even one of the most respected, the Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren, proclaims that he sees no point in going in to see the referee before a match, as he would learn nothing new? Much of this presupposes that it is sensible anyway to have two separate lists. All professional players are entitled to the level of professionalism that Durkin accorded those players at Luton last week .

New referees on the list should receive annual increments on their salary as they progress to more demanding matches, which may not always be in the Premiership, and, if their performance over a season, or two, falls short, they look for another job.

Quarterly bonuses should be paid (or withheld) according to assessments. It is never healthy to create scapegoats. Far better to enhance the status of all referees.