Controversy over Premiership referees

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

THERE has of late been much controversy over Premiership referees in England, and by coincidence it has coincided with the death of a once prominent referee, Ken Aston. Head of the FIFA referees committee for the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, the tall blond Aston, who served in India in the Army during the War, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and for years was headmaster of an Essex primary school, was for some a lucky man. One, they would say, who showed that nothing succeeds like failure, for the notorious Chile v Italy match in Santiago in the 1962 World Cup was soon quite out of his command; its horrors have reverberated down the years.

I was in Santiago myself then, and though I didn't see that match, I did see a lot of Ken Aston. Indeed, it seemed hard to avoid him after that violent match, as - suffering from a strained Achilles tendon - he limped round the city, followed loyally by his Sancho Panza, a little man from Peterborough. Ken said the game was "controllable," and he may have had a point. From the start, the Chileans were spitting in the Italians' faces, fired up by a bitter newspaper campaign which certainly exploited a couple of derogatory articles about the city, unwisely written by two Italian journalists, who should have known better.

Ken sent off two Italians, Ferrini, very early in the game, and David, who kicked the head of a Chilean, but failed to punish the Chilean left winger, Leonel Sanchez, who broke the nose of the Italy inside right, Umberto Maschio, actually an Argentine, with a left hook. It happened behind Aston's back and his linesman didn't tell him of it.

Ken also refereed an FA Cup final, and always had strong and sensible ideas about the laws of the game, rightly deploring the interfering and superfluous attempts by FIFA in recent years to outlaw the tackle from behind when the laws quite clearly gave every means of dealing with it.

I suppose the equivalent of Ken Aston today, certainly in his own mind, would be David Elleray, a housemaster at the famous public school, Harrow, and one who has seldom tried to hide his light under a bushel. This season he has been the subject of controversy itself, but never more so than a few seasons ago when a series of bizarre decisions robbed little Chesterfield of the third division then of a spectacular FA Cup semi-final victory over top division Middlesbrough. I've never, for my part, been much of an admirer of Elleray. But then, it's hard to single out any current English referee who is truly impressive.

Go back a long way in time and I suppose that Arthur Ellis would be held up as an example of English refereeing at its best, after his performance in the so-called Battle of Berne, when Brazil and Hungary locked horns in the 1954 World Cup quarter-finals.

He sent off Jose Bozsik, the captain of Hungary and an MP when he came to blows with the Brazilian left back Nilton Santos, also expelled, and he also banished Brazil's inside forward Humberto, somehow enabling the violent match to finish. Bravissimo; yet a year earlier in Buenos Aires when he had been in charge of an England game against an Argentine XI his officiating had been such that fairly or not the England players had nicknamed him "the yellow rat." Simply going to show that referees have good days and bad days.

Back to the present. Uriah Rennie, the first black referee, made such a fine impression on me when initially promoted a few seasons ago that I named him the best referee in the Championship which I still believe he was. Yet all the praise seemed to go to his head since the following season, he became notorious for his inconsistent and doubtful decisions. This season, there has been a rash of controversial decisions; and even demotions to the lower divisions.

Paul Durkin, one of the leading referees, though one who has never convinced me, was bitterly assailed for not expelling the Chelsea left back, Graeme Le Saux, for an appalling foul on the Leeds right back, Danny Mills at Elland Road which could have caused serious injury. But since Durkin responded with a yellow card, which should certainly have been a red, there was nothing the Football Association's new supervisory panel could do about it. Even though Durkin himself admitted that he had been wrong.

Dermot Gallagher was not as lucky. When Leeds played Manchester United at Old Trafford, he did not send off Leeds' Irish international, centre forward Robbie Keane, who retaliated to a foul by David Beckham by pushing him in the face. Not the first time Gallagher has been reduced to the ranks. Some seasons ago he was punished for not dismissing the then Arsenal centre half Steve Bould for a "professional foul" which stopped Gianluca Vialli going through on goal.

There are those, and not among refereeing administrators once "whistlers" themselves, who believe that referees are being harshly dealt with and that blame, if any, should lie with the players who duck and dive, tug shirts or hack down their opponents. They also, and not without reason, impugn the managers who don't crack down on such behaviour. It is certainly a shocking statistic that Arsenal, once the acme of virtue and discipline under their iconic manager, Herbert Chapman, should have had 37 players sent off during the five years Arsene Wenger, that French "intellectual", has been in charge. Something I have always felt tarnishes Wenger's record as a manager, besides having a serious effect on his team.

Yet, however justifiably players, coaches and managers can be condemned, the fact remains that refereeing in England just isn't good enough.

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