Danny Hall Column: Forget technology. Let the referees do their jobs and avoid an ‘Immaculate Reception’ storm in English football

Decisions made by officials will always be greeted by controversy
Decisions made by officials will always be greeted by controversy
  • High-profile incidents have led to calls for video technology to help referees with rash tackles
  • But technology hasn’t helped solve american football’s ‘immaculate reception’ controversy, more than 40 years ago
  • Instead of taking their power away, why not back the refs and accept that, like the players, they will inevitably make mistakes?

It was a balmy afternoon at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium and Sheffield’s Joe Root, after a brave, gutsy innings, finally fell lbw to Sri Lanka’s spinner Rangana Herath.

His 121 had underpinned England’s total of 265-5 when he misjudged a reverse sweep, a shot he plays so often and so well, and was given out.

Root, aware that England stood a better chance of cracking 320 with him at the crease, reviewed the decision instantly and it went upstairs to the TV umpire, who decided he was out. Hitting the stumps. On your way, Joe. Well played, lad.

We see similar breaks in play on the tennis court, with line calls routinely challenged by players - often depending on the match situation.

The advantage with the review system in cricket and tennis is simple; the outcome is black or white. Out, or not out. If Stuart Broad reviews a decision and it proves that the ball would have crashed into middle stump, no problem. Overturn it. Justice has been done. If Andy Murray is certain Rafa Nadal’s fearsome forehand was out, and a mere inch of the ball landed on the line, the point stands. And the Wimbledon crowd have a jolly good time waiting for the decision.

But what happens when the decision isn’t black or white, and technology gets blinded in the shades of grey?

‘The Immaculate Reception’ is the - genius - nickname given to one of the most famous plays in the history of American football, from way back in 1972.

Pittsburgh Steelers were trailing the Oakland Raiders with 30 seconds on the clock, when Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to John Fuqua. Fuqua was hit, lost possession of the ball and as it tumbled towards the turf, Steelers’ Franco Harris claimed it, scored a touchdown and the game was won.

Footage of the incident is readily available on YouTube.

But, tellingly, debate still rages about it. No matter how many slo-mo replays and TV refs, The Immaculate Reception debate still rages.

So my question is; why is technology seen as vital in 21st-century football?

The issue raised its head again recently with ‘tackles’ [using the term loosely] by Ashley Barnes on Nemanja Matić and Maynor Figueroa on Stephen Ireland. Both were horrendous challenges; Burnley’s Barnes decided against pulling out of the challenge before he made contact with the knee of Chelsea’s Matić, and Ireland was left with a bloody gash in his leg as his Stoke side played Hull.

Both were worthy of red cards.

And both went completely unpunished, at the time.

Technology works so well in cricket and tennis, where decisions are black or white. Right or wrong. In or out. But what happens in football, with so many subjective decisions? The referee’s job is to make these split-second calls - so back him to do it, to the best of his ability

Cue outrage.

The suggestions flooded in on how to ‘fix football’; a ‘fifth official’ [because we don’t quite have enough of those at the minute, especially in Europa League games] watching a multiplex of camera screens and angles; a cricket-style ‘review’ system allowing the coach of both teams one ‘challenge’ per half of the game; a robot-style Martin Atkinson who can keep up with play, see what is happening all over the pitch with his 360-degree super-vision and punish players like Barnes with execution.

[The last one I may have made up, but we probably aren’t far off. My favourite comment on the whole subject came, probably unsurprisingly, from a Mail Online reader in Dubai, of all places: “Complete accident. They are professional athletes in their prime... can handle a little flesh wound. They get enough money for gods [sic] sake.”]

Football, after all, is not a game of perfection. True, some - see above - will wail that these people are highly-paid and so should be expected to perform at 100 per cent, every time they lace up their boots. Doesn’t happen.

Instead, part of the excitement of modern day football is its speed, which makes mistakes inevitable. Steven Gerrard’s efforts against Chelsea last season, for example, became one of the defining moments of the season; not because of a sublime piece of skill or a wondergoal.

No; because he fell over, Demba Ba scored and Liverpool’s title hopes went up in flames.

DRS - Decision Review System - has become commonplace in cricket

DRS - Decision Review System - has become commonplace in cricket

The majority of us don’t expect perfection from our players, so why do we seem to expect the same from the referees who police them? Are they somehow some kind of superior, infallible species?

And then, if technology was available, is there any guarantee it would improve things anyway?

Imagine that, in a parallel universe, there was a review system in place for Chelsea v Burnley at the Bridge; free for José Mourinho, Sean Dyche and the rest of the Premier League to use. And Barnes had, once again, followed through on Matić. Who would have reviewed the decision? The Chelsea bench, by all accounts, were unmoved, until Matić decided to take justice into his own hands and fly at Barnes.

Video of the incident shows Branislav Ivanović, Kurt Zouma and captain John Terry staring straight at the incident. Not one shows any emotion; Zouma’s only reaction is to stop Matić decking Barnes. Willian is even closer to the incident and nonchalantly chases after the loose ball. So referee Atkinson was hardly the only one to have underestimated the seriousness of Barnes’ studs-up assault.

This is not a column designed to condone these dangerous challenges but merely one to oppose re-refereeing of the game. Otherwise, the men in black [or red, orange or green most weekends] will soon find themselves going the way of the cricket umpire who is becoming a peripheral figure; a hat-stand for bowlers who is just about capable of counting to six, saying not out and referring any difficult decisions to the TV umpires upstairs.

[Even that is no guarantee... remember James Taylor being denied a World Cup hundred against Australia after Jimmy Anderson was inexplicably adjudged by the third umpire to have been run out, off a dead ball?]

Instead, let’s put our trust in the men in the middle and back them.

How many times have you seen a replay of an incident 23 times, and still been none the wiser? Or disagreed with a mate on a penalty call, after seeing it again and again?

Don’t be fooled, dear reader, by the initial insistence that reviews would be limited to ‘important decisions’, such as red cards. Soon, every goal will be held up for an offside check - see how a front-foot no-ball is routinely checked in cricket every time a wicket falls - and throw-ins will suddenly become vital. Has your side ever conceded a goal from one? Exactly. So review that, too. Especially if you’re 1-0 up, away from home, in the 92nd minute, lads.

There is much that football can learn from its oval-ball cousin, rugby union; including mic-ed up referees, the whole respect notion and yellow-card sin-bins. It can also learn from the long, drawn-out TMO review process which undermines referees and takes away their authority in the game.

Growing up, we are all taught that the referee’s decision is final; so maybe it’s time to practice what we preach and trust the men in the middle to get it right.

A little support and understanding will go a long way towards ensuring that our game does not become an American Football clone, with games taking up whole afternoons as every foul, throw-in and offside call is reviewed and scrutinised. So leave it to the refs... and football - real football, that is - will never have its own Immaculate Reception moment.