Mark Halsey is not my favourite referee, but then does any sensible person have one, any more than a top air-traffic controller or railway signalman? The mark of true genius in all these trades is surely anonymity. However, in an infant football season when match officials have generally been as unobtrusive as a herd of stampeding buffalo, Halsey has done something quite splendid and human and, for a referee, extremely rare.
He has questioned his own infallibility. After awarding Fulham a penalty against Arsenal, he was beset by doubt. Imagine that, a referee wondering about his own perception and laser eyesight, going over to a linesman, who had a much superior view of the incident, and taking a second opinion. And then changing his mind. Naturally, this didn't earn him a lot of credit at Craven Cottage, where the fans and the manager, who is supposed to be a promising young statesman of the game, had an insult-the-referee contest. The fans won, bellowing "cheat" when Halsey left the field, Chris Coleman countering, rather weakly, with "crap".
The point here is not whether Halsey was right or wrong - a straw poll of professional opinion yesterday brought in a split verdict - but that he displayed a degree of humility, and most important of all, had the grace later to explain his actions.
This breaks a canon of the game, one that has left generations of professional football men on the point of dementia. It proclaims that the referee is always right and thus above all doubt and questioning. Yes, he can throw light on his decisions. But only if he feels so inclined. Halsey said that the reactions of the players to his award of a penalty worried him, and that he was relieved to know his linesman had a "great view".
At roughly the same time, Everton's Tim Cahill was being sent off for pulling up his shirt after scoring the winning goal and Chelsea's Didier Drogba was not only being wrongly denied a penalty but also being booked for diving, a glaring injustice on both counts but one rescinded by Rob Styles yesterday. The Stamford Bridge coach, Jose Mourinho, sporting six o'clock shadow and doomsday arrogance, hinted that in the face of such outrage he might now mount a campaign to intimidate officials. Everton's manager, David Moyes, who seemed to have a quaint notion of natural justice on his mind, was bemused enough to check on the laws governing "excessive celebration". All in all, the new season seems as embraceable barbed wire.
The idea that a player can be dismissed from the field for such a technical infraction, with the wretched hero pleading plaintively that he hadn't even taken his shirt over his head, and that there are officials like Steve Bennett willing to do it, without any wider reference to the circumstance of the offence, sends out only the bleakest of messages about what awaits us in the months ahead.
It is an indigestible banquet of warring self-interest and scarcely a scrap of common humanity. Manchester City's Kevin Keegan showed a bit of compassion when he complained about the sending off of the man who had done down his team. "The game's gone mad," Keegan said. Not only mad, but petty and malevolent and, ultimately, selfish.
What was sickening about the Craven Cottage mob reaction was that it underlined the futility of the vicious circle in which football men and referees continue to spin.
Last season Jeff Winter, who retired in the spring with the honour of officiating at the FA Cup final - and the chance to give a virtually free run to the thuggish tendencies of Millwall's player-manager Dennis Wise - operated precisely the reverse procedure to the one adopted by Halsey at Fulham. Instead of consulting a linesman, Winter dismissed his colleague's ruling quite imperiously. The incident, which was hugely important to the job of manager Peter Reid and the survival of his embattled club Leeds United, came at Anfield and is worth recounting in its full outrage.
Liverpool won a free-kick on the left side just outside the goal area - a position which, coaches generally agree, is one of the most difficult to defend against. Reid, desperate for life-giving points, was not so concerned, however. He and his coaching staff had spent a lot of time on the training field working on counter-measures.
They seemed to have worked perfectly even though when Liverpool's Danny Murphy sent in the free-kick, Leeds' unsighted goalkeeper Paul Robinson failed to control the ball and allowed it into the net. Reid and his staff were immediately re-assured by the sight of the linesman's flag, which had gone up as three Liverpool players ran into the offside trap so diligently worked upon by Leeds.
Winter, however, signalled a goal. He said that he had seen something the linesman hadn't. Liverpool's three offside players were "inactive". Before that decision, Leeds had been playing the more coherent football. But they lost 3-1, and that may have been the day they were broken. Liverpool's then manager, Gérard Houllier, agreed that he would have been extremely aggrieved if his team had conceded such a goal.
So here we have the two faces of a referee, the one who doesn't mistake himself for God, and the one who does. When Halsey admitted the reaction of the players had been a factor in his action, Gary Lineker told the nation that a can of worms had been opened rather dangerously. Be sure, he said, that the affair had been noted in dressing-rooms and would inevitably be acted upon. Odd, isn't it, that football used to be known as the glory game.
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