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.
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.
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.
Following in David Moyes’ footsteps, Jose Mourinho opened his “competitive” account as Manchester United manager by winning the traditional season curtain raiser at Wembley, the Community Shield. Mourinho was presented to the press a month earlier, as he embarked on an epic one hour press conference which included thinly veiled digs at Louis Van Gaal and Arsene Wenger, as well as a Rafa Benitez-esque rant about his history of developing youth team players. If anything, Mourinho’s press conference proved one thing: Manchester United are still the biggest draw in town, blowing Pep Guardiola’s unveiling a day prior out of the water.
The dust has settled and although it seems like a lifetime ago it has only been one calendar month since Iceland knocked England out of the European Championships. Going into the tournament in France the majority fans and media alike shared the attitude that England couldn’t win it, but would “have a good go” and do the nation proud. For once, and refreshingly, the attitude wasn’t one of demanding expectation. Some of the older and more established players had retired or been ditched, and Roy Hodgson was putting his faith in exciting young talent such as the Spurs quartet Walker, Dier, Kane and Alli.
Tales from the Top Flight, Chris Darwen’s third book, is a review of the 2015-16 Premier League season in a diary format. Anyone familiar with the author’s first two books, the fictional series following the career of “Johnny Cooper”, manager of Mansfield Town in Chris’ Championship Manager saves, will be aware of the format as it follows a similar pattern.
Portugal are European Champions for the first time in their history after defeating France 1-0 after extra-time. In a drab affair, former Swansea City flop Eder scored what would prove to be the only goal of the game after showing great control, strength and then a powerful shot from outside of the box.
Twelve years earlier the roles were reversed. Portugal were much fancied to win the 2004 tournament on home soil, and boasted the likes of Figo, Rui Costa, a young Cristiano Ronaldo and several members of José Mourinho’s Champions League winning Porto side. Greece, 80-1 outsiders, weren’t easy on the eye but won the final by beating the hosts 1-0 in the final. Here, Portugal were much shorter than 80-1, yet few tipped them to upset the hosts and favourites France.
The saga surrounding Ryan Giggs’ future has gone on longer than an Eastenders Christmas special, but finally we all received a little bit of closure over the weekend. Giggs announced, after almost 30 years association, that he would be leaving Manchester United in search of pastures new. Following his role as assistant to both David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, and having completed all of the necessary badges and qualifications, Giggs felt he was ready for the top job. The club’s hierarchy, reeling after the disastrous spells of the two aforementioned managers, obviously felt otherwise and plumped for the “guaranteed” success offered by José Mourinho.