Brian Viner: Referees are only human, so let TV help them
Bad decisions by officials in big games debase sport and make calls for technology more urgent
Monday 17 October 2011
Wales against France in Saturday's semi-final of the rugby World Cup, and Everton v Liverpool in the English Premier League earlier this month, are hardly comparable as sporting encounters. But one fact unites them. The pattern of both matches, and almost certainly their outcomes, were influenced less by the players than by the respective referees, Alain Rolland and Martin Atkinson, who saw fit to brandish early red cards that were undeserved, as in each case the television audience swiftly realised. In the language of the terraces, excising the expletives, both refs made a dreadful rickets.
On closer inspection, there are more parallels than you might think. Atkinson sent off Jack Rodwell with just over an hour remaining of the Merseyside derby; Rolland dismissed Sam Warburton with just over an hour to play at Eden Park. In other words, a massive advantage was handed to the opposition, who duly prevailed.
Moreover, both referees were effectively duped into making their decisions, Atkinson by the egregious play-acting of Liverpool's Luis Suarez, Rolland by the thunderous indignation of Vincent Clerc's team-mates. Neither referee even hesitated before imposing the ultimate punishment available to him, let alone consulted his assistants. Already judge and jury, each man rushed with a little too much relish into the role of executioner.
In truth, Warburton's tackle, unlike Rodwell's, did deserve censure. It should have resulted in the young Welsh captain being sin-binned. But the sending-off not only influenced the result, it also diminished the spectacle, and by extension the entire World Cup. Wales lost narrowly having been, even unfairly reduced to 14 men, manifestly the better, more swashbuckling team. Warburton's red card debased the tournament.
Now, there are those who shrug their shoulders and say that officiating mistakes are part and parcel of sport, always have been and always should be. Referees are only human, goes the argument. But their human fallibility has become more a case for the prosecution than the defence. Clearly, Atkinson at Goodison Park and Rolland at Eden Park were pumping with adrenalin just as the players were, and made their decisions, as Rodwell and Warburton made their tackles, without a cool appraisal of the likely consequences. In a way that's fair enough. There's not much time out there for cool appraising. They are paid to be decisive in the heat of the moment, and they were.
But they were also mistaken, and with such big, big decisions, that shouldn't be allowed to happen, not when you consider the financial implications of winning and losing, to say nothing of the incalculable emotional implications, in these two instances, for the blue half of Merseyside and, more poignantly, the red whole of Wales.
From the sidelines, and the sofa, the solution seems obvious. Wire up every referee to a colleague in front of a TV screen. The ref can consult, if in doubt, but let the other official overturn a seriously wrong decision. If that undermines the authority of the man in the middle, it is a price worth paying.
But in any case, it would bolster officialdom's authority, not weaken it. Warburton's red card would have been reduced to a yellow. Rodwell would have been called back on, instead of the farce of his red card being rescinded by the FA when the three points were long gone. Of course, it won't happen. But, by the bread of heaven, it should.
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