Sports

Andre Marriner: we all make mistakes

Calm down, everybody. Refereeing cock-ups are part of the fun of football.

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.

Predictably, the Marriner incident has reignited the interminable debate over video technology. ‘It is clearly an anomaly in such a technical age that the officials have no access to replays’, declared Henry Winter in the Telegraph. But I don’t think a video-referral system would work in football. Unlike cricket, rugby or tennis, football isn’t an episodic, stop-start sport with natural breaks in play during which video replays could be scrutinised. The natural flow of the game is all-important in football. If we introduce lengthy video referrals every time there is a disputed handball or offside flag, we run the risk of seriously disfiguring the game we know and love.

I’m fine with goal-line technology because whether or not a ball crossed the line is a simple factual decision that can be immediately communicated to referees. But to introduce technology into other areas of refereeing decision-making is inherently problematic. It’s extremely rare for a ref to send off the wrong player. Most of the controversial refereeing decisions involve a large dollop of subjectivity. TV pundits, who have the benefit of numerous replays and different camera angles, often fail to agree on disputed penalty or handball decisions. So introducing a decision-referral system simply won’t put an end to refereeing controversies.

We are frequently told that opponents of video technology, such as FIFA president Sepp Blatter, are dinosaurs standing in the way of progress. Herr Blatter may be a tad reptilian, I grant you, but this still doesn’t amount to a compelling case for video technology. What would happen if FIFA changed nothing? A couple of years ago, Emmanuel Adebayor suggested that bad refereeing decisions were ‘killing’ football. If that were true, where’s the evidence? Are fans ripping up their season tickets? Are they cancelling their Sky subscriptions? Of course not. Dodgy refereeing decisions don’t diminish the popular appeal of football. If anything, they spice up the drama. Marriner’s red-card blunder transformed a rather bog-standard rout of Arsenal – the sort of thing we see on a regular basis – into a thoroughly entertaining grand farce.

Everton manager Roberto Martinez is one of the few voices of sanity in this debate. ‘There will be errors and there will be misjudgments and mistakes, but I think that’s part of football and you need to accept it’, he said, after Andre Marriner’s howler. He’s right. Do we really want football to be clinical and error-free? I don’t think so. We want sporting excellence, but we also need to be entertained. We want skill and courage and glory. But we need the spills as well as the thrills. We want to cheer and sing and cry, but we also need to piss ourselves laughing. We want heroes, but we also need panto villains like Andre Marriner.

So, you can keep your video refs and decision-referral systems. Hurrah for shit referees. Long live human error!

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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