It probably seemed like a good idea when the sharp-suited executives were spitballing ways to make BT Sport seem like the edgy new-kids-on-the-block in the Premier League’s broadcasting battle.
A specialised referee pundit. It’s something different, I’ll give them that: but after a couple of weeks of watching Mark Halsey’s intermenable dissection of marginal offsides and dodgy penalty calls I think I’ve seen enough. It was an idea that should have been strangled a lot earlier in the development process, and the odds on Halsey being quietly shuffled on to occasional phone interviews when Talksport are really desperate are shortening with every ‘Super’ Saturday.
It is not that Halsey is particularly bad or anything. On the contrary, he knows the laws of the game to rigorous detail – as you would expect from a man who has only just stepped off the Premier League’s elite list of officials. It’s just that his remit – to be the on-the-spot man when something controversial happens – is fundamentally an unecessary role.
For a start the bad decisions he gets called on to talk about can usually be settled with three words: ‘He was wrong’. When Martin Atkinson pulled back play at a critical moment of Sunderland’s Stadium of Light clash with Arsenal on Saturday it was clear it was a horrendous call. I didn’t need Halsey to tell me that, and no football fan wanted a five-minute lecture on the procedures of the advantage rule to follow it.
What Halsey and the good people at BT Sport don’t seem to realise is that refereeing calls haven’t become a hot topic because the subject is interesting. They’ve soared to the top of the agenda because of the drama they create: the rage of the Premier League manager on the edge or the damage it might do to a title bid.
Take this away and all you’re left with is a middle-aged, retired man talking about the procedures of a game that he’s managed to make sound as exciting as borrowing a library book.
I’m not saying I like that fact. Far from it. Something stinks about the fact that Atkinson’s awful call on Saturday has been quietly buried when other, less controversial, calls seem to be pored over for weeks.
It should have been leading the agenda on every football discussion programme in the land on Sunday morning but Paolo Di Canio’s muted reaction – allied with the fact that Sunderland are not one of the Premier League’s Champions League elite – meant that it barely even registered.
On Sky’s Monday night football 20 minutes was devoted to Ashley Young’s diving, which didn’t actually affect the result – unlike the Sunderland call, which most definitely did.
The lack of coverage was one thing, but on Tuesday there was a second curious development. Far from being demoted for his decision, Atkinson was handed another Premier League fixture to officiate this weekend – Newcastle’s home game against Hull City. The implication was clear: there would be no punishment to go with Atkinson’s unimpinged reputation.
It’s quite staggering how the officiating agenda can be moulded and bent by the charisma and importance of the managers it affects. If a game is on TV, expect the Football Association to act when a clanger is dropped. If it isn’t – like Sunderland’s defeat on Saturday – it becomes much easier for it to be forgotten. We saw it last season when Massaido Haidara was scythed down by Callum McManaman. The game was on TV so it became the Football Association’s priority; a similar incident that didn’t happen on Sunday lunchtime for the Sky cameras might not have.
This is plainly wrong. When a big character like Jose Mourinho risks a disrepute charge and criticises a call, it immediately rockets the issue up the FA’s priority list. Obey the demands of the Respect agenda, keep your lips buttoned and you’re unlikely to see much in the way of action.
Quietly last season, Sunderland were visited by a refereeing official who made the pretty candid admission that the Black Cats had been hard done by on penalty decisions last year. Martin O’Neill dropped it into a Press conference once, but it barely registered because he had also made the staggering assertion that his team was “lacking ability”. Had he made a bigger deal of it, who knows what might have happened? Had Sir Alex said something similar, I think we know what would have transpired.
Consistency is all that we ask from our officials, and that stretches from the way incidents are officiated right through to the way bad decisions are dealt with.
No one suspects Atkinson erred on purpose but the clear fact is that he made a terrible mistake, and he should have been pitching up in the Championship or League One if that is way that the Professional Game Match Officials Board decide to deal with poor performances.
The suspicion is that the bigger you are or the more fuss you make, the more likely you are to get a hearing. The lack of fuss over Atkinson’s horror-show is all the proof you ever needed.