Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the USA, considered by many to have been ‘the first American’.
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” he once said.
Dear old Benny, of course, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 1700s. But if that was Birmingham or Manchester in the mid 1900s, he would surely have reassessed.
“Nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and the merciless slagging of football referees.”
According to historians, Franklin’s sporting prowess and expertise extended only to the aristocratic art of kite flying, where abuse of officials is probably less prevalent.
This weekend, Jose Mourinho spoke of a ‘scandal’ after his Chelsea side were denied a clear penalty against Southampton, with Cesc Fabregas instead booked for diving. West Ham’s Sam Allardyce was left ‘bewildered and confused’ after Alex Song’s ‘goal’ against Arsenal was disallowed.
And Danny Murphy reckoned Jonathan Moss should have given a penalty when Wayne Rooney held Harry Kane in the box, as Manchester United drew with Spurs on Sunday.
Murphy, perhaps helpfully, made his criticism armed with video evidence from a host of different angles, with no distractions. Moss, in the heat of battle, had one real-time view - and was likely distracted by the taking of the corner anyway. Talk about wiser after the event.
For clarity, I agree with the growing view that referees should clamp down on the increasingly-popular trend of grappling at corners and free-kicks. But would it be enough to stamp it out completely?
Yellow cards were introduced for diving, and that didn’t eradicate the problem (the genuine divers, that is, not those wrongly accused, à la Fabregas).
Bookings are also handed out for players taking their shirt off after scoring a goal, but this still routinely happens up and down the country - even when it sometimes results in a red. In competitive top-level sport, athletes constantly strive for that minute advantage, living on the edge of fair or foul. So handing out four or five penalties per game may stop the problem, or it may turn football into something out of one of those Budweiser adverts, featuring ‘extra-time multiball’ and other goal-crazy innovations.
Mourinho’s referee rant, after the 1-1 draw with the Saints, also accused top-flight referees of a ‘campaign’ against his Chelsea team to deny them penalties. Let me confess - I am a huge Mourinho fan. He is obviously a managerial genius, winning trophies wherever he goes with suaveness, style and a genuine enthusiasm for the game. But Chelsea hardly get a rough deal from officials and spot-kicks. This season they’ve been awarded two in Premier League competition, three behind Manchester City’s table-topping total. But last season, they were given seven - the second highest total in the league. The year before? The most in the league, with 11. And since the opening day of the 2012-13 season, they have seen two penalties awarded against them. In the last 95 games. Some campaign that, Jose!
But for reasons right or wrong, referees can rarely stay out of the spotlight. My Telegraph colleague Alan Biggs is heavily involved in an excellent You are the Ref concept, which discusses decisions made by the men in black with input from someone who has actually been the man in the middle at Old Trafford or Anfield, rather than an ex-player who has spent his whole career waging war with the officials. Such a simple, yet effective idea which makes you wonder why it’s taken this long to implement.
But it shouldn’t take the likes of Mark Halsey to defend decisions made on a Saturday, which is where I have some sympathy for managers. After a defeat or poor performance, managers are contractually obliged to front up to the cameras and explain. What went wrong? Why did you pick X instead of Y? How do you put this right? While the referees are abdicated of responsibility to a degree, by being gagged and not allowed to speak to the media.
Paul Durkin was one of the rare referees to come out and explain a decision around a decade ago. The trio of television pundits accepted his reasoning, and applauded him for his honesty. And then he had his wrists slapped by the refereeing authorities. Why? If a boss makes a clanger, he must front up. If a player consistently makes game-changing mistakes, it wouldn’t be tolerated.
But referees are protected behind a shield of silence, and often demoted to the lower leagues. Andre Marriner’s reward for a poor display in City’s game against Everton was to take charge of Sheffield United’s trip to Fleetwood. Again, he was poor. And was rewarded with Sunderland v Hull on Boxing Day, with Gus Poyet fuming at his performance. It doesn’t make sense.
Marriner is obviously a competent referee and, like us all, makes bad calls. But, according to league statistics, assistant referees get 99 per cent of offside decisions correct.
That’s not bad going. Football isn’t a game of perfection; players miss chances, managers make wrong tactical decisions, United fans travel to Port Vale on Boxing Day and spend eight to ten hours getting home. The unpredictability of football is what makes it great, but there needs to be limits.
It may not be quite on Franklin’s level of infamous quotes but as BT once said, it’s good to talk. Maybe referees should take note.