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"I thought it was [poor decision-making] throughout the evening. Hopefully we don't have another Greater Manchester referee again on a Liverpool-Manchester game."
Part of me feels sorry for Brendan Rodgers. A short while after a game in which his side led before losing and were the recipients of some evident mistakes from the officials, a microphone was pushed close enough to a reacting and angry manager, and he said exactly what those listening wanted him to do.
That said, it was clear that Liverpool's manager significantly over-stepped the mark. In questioning the integrity and honesty of referee Lee Mason, Rodgers should expect a deserved charge and subsequent fine from the Football Association. He was not directly condemning the official of cheating, but suggesting even a subconscious bias on the part of Mason will be dealt with in the strictest terms. With football currently bracing itself for the continuing investigations into spot-fixing and match-fixing, flippant comments can have wide-reaching influence. Rodgers may have merely been lashing out verbally, but his comments will fall on ears that may interpret them as serious accusation.
However, Rodgers' comments do raise the topic of referee selection, a topic that has long been a bugbear of mine. In choosing the officials for particular matches, the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOB) works to specific criteria. Two of these are particularly interesting:
- Proximity to the ground or city in which they [the referee and his assistants] were born or live
- The team the referee supports
At first glance, that seems logical. If referee A is a Manchester United fan (or has grown up in Manchester) then he will not be permitted to take charge of Manchester United, presumably for fear that he will either draw additional criticism should he make an error in favour of Manchester United, or be accused of a tendency to officiate (albeit subconsciously) against his favourite club for fear of accusations of bias.
But is that not ridiculous? The PGMOL trains, develops and mentors 77 referees and 231 assistant referees, and Premier League matches are only officiated by the Select Group, 16 referees that are measured and assessed for their consistency, accuracy and game management. These referees meet twice a month for training 'camps' , in which they must meet physical and technical targets and analyse match videos. And yet, after all those marks and standards of professionalism, the same men can't be trusted to officiate a match including a team that he supported as a child? Surely the point of being a 'professional' referee is that you leave any bias at the door and judge each decision on its merit?
So where does it stop? If a referee's father is a diehard Chelsea supporter should the referee be able to oversee their matches, even though he was born in Sheffield and supports Wednesday? Should a Liverpool fan be able to referee Nottingham Forest (a degree of long-lasting weak rivalry)? And should a man born in Newcastle that supports Southampton be able to officiate Sunderland or Middlesbrough?
By not selecting a referee for a match simply based on his supportership or place of birth is effectively admitting (almost certainly mistakenly) that they can either not be trusted to remain neutral, or will subconsciously lean a certain way despite intentions to remain unbiased. If that's the danger (and I'll reiterate that I don't believe it is), then the PGMOL have significant and inherent problems to solve.
If not, then why don't we trust the men in the middle to prove their professionalism, rather than undermining it so obviously?
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter