You have to love the drama of matches in the highly-competitive Premiership competition. And over the holidays we had drama a-plenty: massive upsets, last-minute victories, players too hung-over to train and so fined a week's wages, accusations of players' plots to get an opponent sent off, referees going soft on serious foul play, stories of locker-room rebellion, and the top clubs dropping points unexpectedly. And through it all my home-town club of Swansea City are steadily playing attractive football to the unquenchable roar of Welsh voices in the Liberty stadium, hoping to survive in this English competition. But some drama is not necessary, if the officiating is done well . . .
in the county of Tyne and Wear, north-east England, where Sunderland AFC were desperately holding off the league leaders Manchester City, attacking in wave after wave for the final twenty minutes. In the third minute of stoppage time, Sunderland broke out from City's pressure, and from a square pass, Sessegnon managed to return the ball to the recent substitute and South Korean international Ji Dong-won, who rounded the goalkeeper and put the ball into the net. As I watched, I said: "Ji's offside!" But there was no flag and the replay showed that the error was made because the AR was behind play by about a yard. All that was left was the formality of two touches at the ensuing kick-off for the home team to take three points from the high-scoring league leaders. So why is this important enough to be the subject of a blog about refereeing?
Several years ago, I had watched a cup match in this stadium with Keith Hackett, former FIFA Referee and at the time general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, in charge of the referees for the Premiership. We had exchanged several emails about evaluating referees; he had introduced me to "Prozone", and I had given him a copy of "Angle of View", which he had used with the Premiership referees and the team managers. Over to the north of England to visit family, I accepted his invitation to drive with him up to Sunderland, where he was evaluating a referee as a potential professional official.
The stadium was built in 1997, and has become more than a football palace. It is a veritable museum for the history and memorabilia of Sunderland AFC, and is used for all sorts of musical and theatrical events. The seats emblazon the club's colors of red and white, and the location of the stadium on the site of a now-closed colliery honors the significance of miners in the cultural history of the region, with huge replicas of a winding-wheel and a miner's Davy lamp outside the ground. And . . . inside the stadium is the key to the AR's error.
The stadium is rectangular and the seating in the stands is arranged in rows that are perpendicular to the touch-lines and goal-lines. I remarked to Keith on the day that we were there, how easy it would be for ARs to maintain their orientation with the last-but-one defender. As long as the official was part of a straight line from a vertical row of seats across the field, through the player, to himself (or herself, Sian Massey), the geometry would be perfect for the correct decision. In this case, at the last-minute scoring of the match-winning goal, the AR was behind play, and from his position the Sunderland player would have looked onside. How could that be, in this geometrically perfect stadium and pitch?
As best I can figure there are only three reasons:
1. The AR has no understanding of basic geometry.
2. The AR was not fast enough to keep up with the players.
3. The AR was knackered at the end of a tough match.
Number one can be taught; number two means that he should not be assigned to such a game; and number three should tell him that he needs to increase his training (and to never go out on the piss with Wayne Rooney and his mates).
Simple lessons for complex problems, once you accept that officials at the professional level should be striving for the same perfection as most players do.
May you have a great officiating year throughout 2012, or as we say in Swansea:
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda !