This weekend saw me take in a League One game between two former Premier League teams at Bramall Lane, Sheffield United and Charlton Athletic, who were both relegated from the top flight in 2006-07. That was the infamous season when Carlos Tevez scored at Old Trafford on the final day of the season to keep West Ham up and sink Sheffield United, condemning them to the Championship. The controversy surrounding the Tevez deal, and the registration rules it broke, still rankles with the Blades faithful. Four years after the that the club dropped into the third tier where they have competed ever since. Fortunately for them, things appear to be looking up this season, with the club eight points clear at the top of the League One table going into the game. Only a major capitulation between now and the end of the season would prevent an almost certain promotion.
“How is that not a fucking foul?”
I’d only been on the pitch for two minutes and was shown a straight red card which, naturally, I thought was rather harsh. Ironically this happened on 5 March 2017, the same weekend that there was a well-publicised referee strike organised by teenaged Mancunian, Ryan Hampson. Our referee on the day had crossed the picket line but to be honest I wish he hadn’t bothered. The day also marked my 34th birthday and a red card, two-match ban, and £35 fine wasn’t exactly the present I was hoping for.
In over 16 years of Sunday League I’ve never received a red card, and only a handful of bookings, despite playing in some feisty games and competitive leagues. I gave up playing about two years ago and this season is my first as a manager. The weekend in question probably saw the worst weather of the season, and in hindsight the games should’ve been called off. However, both managers (me included) and the referee were happy to press ahead. We only had eleven men so I had to include myself as an emergency substitute even though I wasn’t particularly keen to come on. I knew I wasn’t fit enough, having not kicked a ball competitively for over nine months, but wanted to support the lads that had actually bothered to turn up in such conditions.
The referee was on the wrong side of most of the players before the game had even kicked off. He was over 15 minutes late and then wouldn’t start the game until the match card was filled out, no easy task with frozen fingers and the rain tipping down. My counterpart and I filled the card out using one of the linesman flags as shelter but it didn’t make much difference and by the time we’d filled it out the ink on the page was running and the paper turning to mush. The referee then said, after all that, “give it me after the game”.
The first half passed without much incident, but during the break the referee disappeared for 20 minutes – ten minutes longer than the allotted break – to get into a fresh set of clothes. Players from both sides stood in the freezing cold, waiting, and seizing up, but as long as he was warm and toasty!
On the hour one of my players had to come off injured, and the referees performance started to unravel. A player was booked for a mistimed, genuine tackle, and then sent off for arguing the point. The ref then told the player he “couldn’t even kick a ball” which is an outrageous thing to say to a good player who is trying his best in terrible conditions, where it was impossible to run or keep your footing due to inches of treacle-like mud.
Moments later I took the ball past a player only to be body checked. It was a blatant foul, and warranted a free kick, nothing more yet he ignored it and played on. I shouted “how is that not a fucking foul?” in protest. Now I know swearing at the referee is wrong, and in fairness he said before the game that his tolerance of foul language is zero. However, he should have taken a view and in my opinion, had a word or at worse dished out a yellow card.
The most bizarre decision came a few moments later when a player was booked because the ref didn’t like his “facial expression” following the awarding of a free-kick. By the end of the game we’d racked up almost £80 worth of fines and three games worth of suspensions for a game that didn’t contain a bad tackle and was played in the right spirit, a point the opposition manager and I agreed on after the game. It was obvious that by the end of the game he was against us and a referee, although subject to human emotions like the rest of us, should remain impartial to the very end.
However, you can’t let one bad experience ruin something for you. I got food poisoning from my favourite Indian takeaway the other week but it won’t stop me from eating curry again in the future. Ninety-nine per cent of refereeing experiences are positive and as a manager I always score them highly on the match card, win, lose or draw. When it comes to football my attitude has always been that more often than not you get out of the game what you deserve. You can’t control what the referee does, how bad the pitch or weather is. I’ve repeatedly told my players that we win based on our own merits, that we don’t use a referee performance as an excuse after a defeat, and that we are lucky to have a referee and a game on a Sunday.
Funnily enough, I bumped into one of my favourite referees, who happened to be officiating a veteran’s game on the next pitch. Eric Mann, who used to officiate me at the Soccerdome in Greater Manchester, is famous on the local circuit for giving out sweets and dummies to players when shouted at. It immediately dissolved any tension in the air and the majority of players loved him and he’s the perfect example of a referee with a human side. It was very sad to read that he was assaulted in a cowardly act in 2013 but great to see that it didn’t dampen his appetite for refereeing.
Referees make mistakes, even more so the lower down the pyramid you go, but it’s in line with the ability of the players. As a new manager I’m making mistakes every game, as are the players, and if we’re honest that is why we’re operating at the level we are. It doesn’t help referees that at the very highest level there seems to be so little respect for officials, and it clearly trickles down the pyramid. You only have to turn on Match of the Day to see numerous managers blaming their sides failure on the referees inability to award a throw-in half-an-hour before conceding a goal. I’m sure the journalists are asking leading questions aimed at drawing out controversial comments, but the managers and players hardly need encouraging to pass the book.
It’s hard to say how successful Ryan Hampson’s referee strike was on the weekend of 5 March. He claims that over 2,000 referees took part, but those figures haven’t been verified and the pitches we were playing on were jam-packed with players, each game having a strike-defying referee. If anything, several of the games that weekend were called off due to the horrendous weather, not the strike. Perhaps it has highlighted just how important referees are to the grassroots game. We mustn’t also forget that so are the players, managers and volunteers and that respect works both ways. We all need each other, and without one there is no point in the other.
Despite having spent three years living in Liverpool I’d never made it over the water to watch the Wirrall-based Tranmere Rovers. Then, the opportunity arose at the weekend to visit Prenton Park for the first time. Not only did we have complimentary tickets in the Platinum Suite, but the game would also see the visit of Chester, fierce local rivals.
If you’ve ever played football at any level then you’ll probably be aware of the importance of ‘banter’ with your teammates. It adds to the enjoyment. It’s part of the experience. Hammering each other about being shit at football, about misplaced passes and wild shots on goal that are more likely to see the ball flying into a tree than bursting the net. Whether it’s sat in a freezing changing room before a Sunday league game or waiting outside a five-a-side pitch on a Thursday evening it’s taking the piss out of each other that helps to build spirit amongst the players. One insult, whether in jest or not, that you’re generally unlikely to hear in a football changing room is that “you’re so gay…you even want to shag men in cartoon strips.”
It may sound strange to campaign for one of the world’s most highly regarded football managers to be given more credit, given how highly fêted he is, but there are still plenty of “Einstein’s,” to quote his great rival José Mourinho, that are looking to discredit the Catalan. Following a couple of poor results – a 3-3 draw at Celtic Park in the Champions League, and a 2-0 reverse at White Hart Lane – people were eager to stick the knife in and proclaim him a charlatan.
Snappy Spurs stun Citizens
Tottenham deservedly won at home against league leaders Manchester City this weekend. Seemingly inspired by the way Celtic caused City problems in midweek with high pressing and direct attacking, Spurs used both masterly to outplay their visitors and condemn them to their first defeat under Pep. Something that was lost in most summaries of the game, despite a fleeting acknowledgement of Wanyama’s excellent display on MOTD2, was the effectiveness of Spurs’s frequent, snappy fouls. The high press and the quick passing was vital, but so was their niggling ability to physically impose themselves onto City without the referee ever dishing out real punishment. This has been an under observed hallmark of Pochettino’s Spurs, whose end-of-season meltdown at Chelsea was in part due to the ever present physical bite being pushed into overdrive by the situation and a provocative opponent. Perhaps City’s greatest failing on Sunday, rather than being outplayed, was failing to return the home side’s highly-strung physicality.
Klopp’s turned corner
Dyche-iola channels inner Allardyci
Sean Dyche’s comments about ‘own-brand’ jeans may have quickly become one of the quotes of the season. In the wake of Burnley’s win over Liverpool last week, he was reveling in the role as Allardyce’s heir: the English manager with a massive chip on his shoulder bemoaning how his ‘own-brand’ skills are overlooked by bigger clubs in favour of ‘designer’ (read ‘foreign’) managers that are actually no more brilliant than he. He may have a point. He has done a very decent job with a side lacking huge resources. He may yet get a chance at a bigger domestic club.
As we age, and technology develops at a rapid pace, some of us out there yearn for a simpler time. Others move with the times, embracing whatever the modern world has to offer us, adapting like an ever-evolving species. Football as we know it does not escape these changes, and is indeed often at the centre of it. Rising ticket prices, dodgy TV schedules and unscrupulous foreign owners seemingly more commonplace now than ever.
As football becomes more scientific and statistics based, it’s only inevitable that computer games follow suit and become more complicated with each passing version. Via an internet connection, you can even play games such as FIFA and Football Manager against other players from the other side of the world.
I’m approaching my mid-30s and haven’t owned a games console for years, ever since the X-Box decided it’d had enough, although I do dedicate one old laptop for my gaming fix. No, I’m not playing the latest version of a “must have” game. I’m back with the game that was one of the first I ever loved: Championship Manager 1997/98.
Antonio makes history and strengthens national claim
Scoring the last goal at an iconic English stadium would be plenty enough for most English players to retire on. Not content however, West Ham’s Michail Antonio then proceeded to score the first league goal at the new London Stadium, and in the process bagged his side a win in their dour match with Bournemouth. While the game was one the Premier League will want to bury far from its ‘best league in the world’ reputation, the Hammers’ versatile midfielder – a signing from lower in the English leagues – continued to impress. He is the blend of muscular, composed and direct play that fans across the country love, and has showcased decent flexibility in a West Ham career that has often had him playing away from his preferred wide-right position. The arrival of ‘Big Sam’ to the England job has many clamouring for more ‘common sense’ squad inclusions to counter the supposed past generations of pampered ‘softies’. Both on his skill set and tactical flexibility, few deserve a ‘common-sense’ call-up more than this man.
Klopp already dividing Kop?
As a lifelong City fan, who had yet to travel away in Europe and with a long overdue holiday needed, I’d planned to take a trip to see the Champions League play-off game should it be a place worth visiting. I had my fingers crossed for Rome or Monaco. Bucharest was far from my mind.
As Giorgio Marchetti unfolded the UEFA branded paper with Steaua Bucharest the pragmatist in me realised that it would be draw worth taking, even if I couldn’t attend. Alas, City were next out of the bowl. With the draw and the date set in stone I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t quite the glamour tie I wished for. If there could be such a thing as a glamorous qualification game!
Within a few minutes I received a text which simply said “Bucharest?” – it was a call to arms. I did a little research and booked the flights and hotel knowing that a ticket for the game wouldn’t be too difficult to source given the time of year, venue and ten days turnaround time. This was a game for hardcore away fans.