Whistle blown on TV trials

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IT hardly required the probing eyes of television cameras to confirm that the referee in an FA Cup tie last Tuesday night blundered terribly when he awarded a match-winning penalty to Oldham after Gunnar Halle fell while the nearest Barnsley defender was several paces away.

The argument that the referee is always right even when so transparently mistaken sometimes seems indefensible, but Philip Don, England's top official until he quit last year, contends that no referee should feel guilty about the occasional horrendous mistake nor bow to demands to reconsider decisions, especially when under attack by television evidence.

The past week has seen another referee, Stephen Lodge, criticised by Sky television for sending off Manchester United's Nicky Butt while not taking action against the West Ham player Julian Dicks for what their analyst Andy Gray described as "a potential leg-breaking tackle".

Lodge has agreed to view the video. Conversely, his refereeing colleague Robbie Hart refused to reconsider dismissing Mark Hughes of Chelsea for allegedly stamping on Everton's David Unsworth, who said it was an accident. Don, now an official referees' observer, admits he only ever looked at the videos sent to him "out of courtesy".

He said: "Managers who complain about referees only do so when decisions go against them. They want it both ways. I can only remember two incidents when players were punished for things that the referee missed. But where would you draw the line? If television showed that a referee missed an offence in the penalty area, would you have the game replayed?"

Don is vehemently opposed to trial by television. "At the end of the day, judgements are based on the referee's angle of vision and what he sees. If you haven't got a camera looking from exactly the same angle as the referee, you can never show exactly what he is seeing. I would only have taken notice of a video if the camera angle was identical to my own. It never was.

"Of course there will always be errors that seem obvious to everyone except the referee, but they are so rare they have no relevance to the campaign for having an 'eye' in the stand. Referees have always made mistakes but these days it's difficult to reconcile the small number of errors with the amount of television exposure."

As for the managers' argument that because they and the players are full- time professionals their success or failure should not be influenced by part-time referees, Don, England's only referee at the last World Cup, is adamant that "going full-time would not guarantee better refereeing".

He said it might allow more time for training and reduce stress when combining refereeing with other jobs (the main reason why he, a head teacher, decided to call a halt) but the notion that it would give them more opportunities to mix with and understand players is wrong. "I don't think clubs are interested in much more than their own success - certainly not in building bridges with referees. They rarely take up offers to talk with referees now. The way the game is going, everything is based on financial gain. In my experience players are not interested in referees' problems or even learning the rules of the game.

"I don't want to see us going back to the bad old days of referees being over-familiar with players - the pat on the bottom and get-on-with-it ones who did, and some still do, control the game without really applying the laws. They're out there to please the managers and turn a blind eye to the laws. That's wrong." He fears that ex-player-referees would be particularly prone to that attitude.

He is not against players becoming referees but sees no reason to give them preferential treatment just because they are likely to begin refereeing at a later age than most. He said: "I can't see how there can be short- cuts. If you bring in a three-year scheme for ex-players, you're going to lose a hell of a lot of other referees who have started at the grass roots."