I feel sorry for Andre Marriner. There, I’ve said it. Call me a ref-lover all you like, but I don’t think the beleaguered official deserves to be crucified for sending off the wrong player.
Marriner has been vilified, ridiculed and even accused of racism after he mistakenly dismissed Kieran Gibbs during Chelsea’s six-nil drubbing of Arsenal at the weekend. There have been shrill demands for Marriner to be axed and, inevitably, calls for the use of video technology. Did Marriner take a bribe? Unlikely. Did he headbutt a player? No. Did he cop a quick grope of Chelsea physio Eva Carneiro? No. Did he flash his todger at the family enclosure? No. He did nothing immoral, illegal, unnatural or depraved. He just made a mistake. That’s all. A simple human error.
Admittedly, it was a pretty astonishing mistake. It was compounded by his refusal to change his mind after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain appeared to say ‘It was me’. Inexplicable, certainly, but just a mistake. Footballers make mistakes all the time. The game is, after all, played by fallible humans rather than automatons. Nobody calls for FIFA to change the laws of the game when a striker misses a sitter, or a goalkeeper lets the ball slip through his hands. So why do we cry ‘SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!’ after every high-profile refereeing mistake?
It’s fair enough to accuse Marriner of incompetence. If a ref drops a clanger, he can expect to be called all kinds of names by irate fans. Useless, blind, biased, corrupt, illegitimate – you need a thick skin to be a top-flight referee. But the suggestion that Marriner was guilty of a racial gaffe is a bit harsh. ‘All look the same those mixed-race boys’, tweeted talkSPORT presenter Stan Collymore. ‘What is he saying? That they both look the same?’, asked BT Sport pundit Ian Wright. ‘Is he being racist?’, asked his fellow pundit Steve McManaman.
The racialisation of Marriner’s innocent mistake reminds me of the 1998 row over John Motson’s unfortunate remarks about black footballers. ‘There are teams where you have got players who, from a distance, look almost identical’, said Motty. ‘And, of course, with more black players coming into the game, they would not mind me saying that that can be very confusing.’ Motty’s words weren’t malicious or intentionally insulting. At worst, they were a bit clumsy. Yet he was still forced to apologise for his comments. It was a harbinger of the suffocating ‘you can’t say that’ culture that has now enveloped football.