Resisting the Pack

Last updated : 23 August 2007 By Richard Oldroyd
Jens Lehmann - supported by Wenger
He made a mistake, a glaring, blatantly obvious error; he knew it and everyone else knew it. His coach knew it too. But rather than take the opportunity to castigate his goalkeeper, Arsene Wenger took the opportunity to remind everyone that it was just a mistake, and that Lehmann had not become a bad keeper over night.

Meanwhile, as you may have gathered, a referee made a mistake on the same day. He gave a penalty, and he shouldn't have done. Yet unlike in Lehmann's case, his boss did not take a sympathetic line. Whilst Lehmann may well be retained this week, and was retained by his international coach last night, Rob Styles finds himself dropped.

If death and taxes provide the only two certainties in life, then perhaps there is only one in football: that to avoid any properly organised match descending into anarchy, a referee will be required. Good ones are a scare commodity; as a result, you would have thought we would treat those who are half decent rather well.

Perhaps a second certainty could be added: that any referee will get a decision wrong from time to time. As a result, we can safely conclude that Rafa Benitez was talking complete nonsense when he spent his post-match press conference muttering repeatedly that Styles' decision to give a penalty against his side was 'unbelievable'. Indeed conversely, what with Styles being of human kind, it was in fact entirely believable - had he been flawless, then that certainly would have been, 'unbelievable'.

But the reason Rob Styles had that game in the first place is that, over several years, he has made so few mistakes, and controlled enough matches impressively, to have been regarded by Keith Hackett and his cohorts as the best man to take it on. He is one of our best, one of our most infallible, officials. All of which makes the sudden decision to drop Styles from the Premiership list a spectacular, media motivated, knee-jerk reaction; a case of hanging a man out to dry and cutting of one's nose to spite ones face.

You don't drop your goalkeeper because he makes one mistake, and you don't drop a star striker because he misses a sitter (although Hackett absurdly attempted to claim otherwise, thereby betraying a concerning lack of appreciation for the nuances of the game). If a lawyer or an accountant who has gained experience and trust over many years makes a single uncharacteristic mistake, then would his boss sideline him in favour of a more junior, less trusted, colleague next time? Of course not: a few harsh words perhaps, but if he's the best you've got, you don't pass him over to prove a point of principle.

Hackett explained that he was acting in the interests of accountability, somehow. But it is no such thing, and to suggest otherwise is to deprive the word of all its normal meaning. Dropping a referee form the elite list on the basis of his performances over the course of a season is accountability. Relegating him for one match before reinstating him and allowing him to once again officiate big matches is nothing of the sort.

Call it a punishment if you like, although since we all make mistakes, it is hard to see what Styles has done to be worthy of such sanction. All it does is deprive the Premiership of one of its top rated referees for one week, to no discernible end, except to undermine the authority and confidence of Rob Styles. And in a profession when the self belief to make a split second decision from an imperfect view is paramount, that can hardly be a good thing.

The reason for this course of action is of course simple: it is to satisfy the Alan Greens and Andy Grays of this world, the Mourinhos, the Wengers and the rest of the moaners. Men who have one thing in common: they have never themselves been brave enough to try their hand at refereeing a game.

Rob Styles - axed by Hackett
I've said before that managers really ought to realise that they bring it upon themselves, heaping pressure on referees via the media and encouraging their players to do the same directly on the pitch. I've made the point that it is not so in rugby, where players know instinctively that talking back to the referee is likely to do more harm than good, and captains who do talk to the referee do so with the same respect that their coaches show in avoiding the subject in after match interviews. Together with a media which does not view the referee as its prey in quite the same way, it is a culture which football really ought to match.

Perhaps criticism by managers is understandable, if not acceptable, since they themselves do at least operate under intolerable pressure. But that is not the case for pundits, who resemble back street drivers who have yet to take their test with their constant fervent criticism.

Andy Gray has played the game, and so is qualified to comment on players and - having worked with many - on managers too. Green has not, but like any career fan, has enough insight on the game and its tactics to describe it. But neither man has taken a refereeing course, and so it is difficult to work out how they can purport to comment on the decision making process, where a referee should be and how he should arrive at his decision.

Any fan can have an opinion on a referee from the layman's perspective - and indeed, can do so on this website - but the reality is that refereeing is a complex and technical skill, one on which the uninitiated should not be presenting themselves as expert. Perhaps those two men and their brethren should be brave: perhaps they should both take the course, and then referee a game, for Comic Relief next year. It would certainly be entertaining.

Rob Styles probably gets as much right as the babbling, incoherent and emotionally confused individuals who line up to deflect criticism in his direction about five minutes after the final whistle, and is a good deal braver than those who masquerade as expert analysts for a living. We should cherish the likes of him; we certainly shouldn't be using his one mistake as publicity opportunity to keep at bay the misguided, baying, pack of wolves.