The Merseyside derby is traditionally a heated affair and has seen its fair share of controversy over the years, but Saturday’s contest was overshadowed by a dismal refereeing display that ultimately influenced the outcome of the game.
Martin Atkinson is fast earning himself a reputation as a ‘card-happy’ referee; having already sent off four players in just seven Premiership matches this season, but his decision to dismiss Everton’s Jack Rodwell after just 23 minutes for a supposed dangerous tackle on Luis Suarez not only left Blues fans fuming, but also raised questions about his suitability to referee games at the top level.
Often in controversial moments during matches, referees are condemned for their positioning or for being too far away from play to see incidents clearly. In Atkinson’s case, he was right on the spot with a perfect view, which made the production of the red card all the more baffling.
There was no hesitation, no consultation with his assistants, just an inexplicable split-second decision to reduce Everton to ten men. He certainly appeared to be influenced heavily by the reaction of Suarez, who leapt into the air before rolling around on the floor clutching his ankle and screaming in agony despite minimal, if any contact from Rodwell. Replays showed almost conclusively it wasn’t even a foul, let alone a red card offence, but the Uruguayan did his utmost to ensure the opposition player was punished.
However, regardless of Suarez, and the questions his actions raise about players cheating within the game to gain an advantage, the referee, chosen for his experience, and regarded highly at the FA, should undoubtedly have done better. Key decisions like this one impact massively on a game. Derby games are traditionally the showpiece games of the season. Feisty, full-blooded tackles are a given and the passion of the fans elevates the atmosphere to another level. Rodwell’s dismissal so early in the game not only left the it flat, but effectively ruined Everton’s chances of competing.
Ironically, there were arguably worse challenges later in the match that were left unpunished by Atkinson. Whether he had realised his error is impossible to tell, as officials are still not required to comment on or explain their decisions after a match. While this would have to be exercised with caution, surely when the referee’s actions have influenced the outcome of a game so strongly, the paying fans deserve an explanation and maybe even a simple admission that an error of judgement has occurred? Players and managers are held to task, so why not officials?
The idea of introducing technology to assist referees has long been mooted, although FIFA president Sepp Blatter remains opposed to the suggestion, believing it will stop the flow of the game and remove the power from the officials. In fact, it would do the exact opposite. In key decisions, such as the Rodwell incident, the play has generally been stopped by the referee. A simple replay of the incident viewed by the fourth official on the sideline would take a matter of seconds and could be conveyed to the referee in a similar time as it would take to discuss an incident with his assistant during play. His power, rather than being diminished, would be increased as fans would be more respectful of decisions, knowing that due consideration had been given to them. The Champions League matches now use an additional two officials, but their impact has been minimal. The use of technology would simply enhance the referee’s ability to come to a correct decision.
The counter-argument of course, is that even with the benefit of video replays, many pundits when reviewing the day’s action cannot agree on the correct course of action, with some advocating, for example, the award of a penalty kick, while others are adamant a challenge was fair. No system is entirely foolproof, but in an age where football is a multi-million pound business, surely the powers-that-be should be doing their utmost to ensure that the game is played as openly and fairly as possible?
An appeal to the FA has seen Rodwell’s red card and three-match suspension rescinded, but as Everton chief executive Robert Elstone was quick to point out, the impact of the decision could still prove costly at the end of the season. One or three points dropped as a direct result of a poor refereeing decision could mean the difference between survival and relegation for some teams.For others, it could affect a team’s final position in the league table, resulting in a loss of revenue of up to £1 million prize money. With finance now one of the biggest influences on a team’s success, the call for the introduction of technology has never been so important.