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There was, all told, nothing much that Ange Postecoglou could argue with when it came to the decisions of Michael Oliver and his team of officials on Monday night in one of the great Premier League games of the season so far, although his post-match analysis was welcome nonetheless.
There is a great interview with English great Brian Clough from his 1970s heyday when anxious looking commentator John Motson gets taken apart by the great man over television’s treatment of referees. Motson points out that the pundits in the studio with the benefit of replays do not always criticise the officials – sometimes they praise them too.
Ange Postecoglou was booked by the referee during the game against Chelsea.Credit: Getty Images
“I’m not interested whether it proves him [the referee] right occasionally,” Clough says. “The point is that he [the referee] makes his decisions in five seconds, or two seconds, or one second, in the heat of the moment with 22 players and 30,000 people shouting and bellowing. All I’m saying is that you don’t make that point strongly enough. It should be over-emphasised how hard it is to referee a match.”
It does take people of stature in soccer to stand up for referees because, simply said, they cannot do it for themselves. They have no militant fanbase upon which to fall back upon, and no scope to do interviews because, as Clough rightly pointed out 50 years ago, the only interest in them would be when they foul it up. And it is a hard job – so hard that more than 48 hours on from Mikel Arteta’s tantrum on Saturday night he was still not prepared to say which of the three possible infringements on offer he thought should have stood against Anthony Gordon’s goal.
Even when managers are not sure why they think the referee might be wrong – or indeed if he is – they still have the confidence to embark on these remarkable diatribes, and none more so than Arteta this weekend.
Soccer has been diminishing the authority of its referees and assistants for so long that Postecoglou’s intervention was vanishingly rare. He said what so many of his managerial brethren must know in their hearts but find so difficult to articulate. That the referee’s job is made almost impossible by the pressures of players and managers. Not to mention an expectation that VAR can solve everything.
Cool head: Postecoglou is no fan of VAR but acknowledges the tough task for referees.Credit: Getty Images
What is it about these managers – Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Arteta and many others over the years – that makes them do it? One suspects that it is often reluctant, prompted by an irrational fear that if they do not do so then it might beget more decisions against them. A notion that the only way to control fate is to rail against the day’s referee to ensure the next one is more compliant.
What is it about the club issuing statements in support of their managers in meltdown, as Liverpool and Arsenal have this season? Again, one suspects it is not a task they relish but feel obliged to do. Doing nothing would leave some kind of awkward misalignment between them and the man on the touchline so they take the path of least resistance. One presumes that then someone is deputed to email a list of complaints, or conspiracy theories, to Howard Webb, and he is in turn obliged to make a solemn phone call to “discuss” it. So the whole dismal dance plays out.
‘You have to accept the referee’s decision’: Postecoglou
It took Postecoglou – who was himself booked on Monday night for leaving his technical area – to break that cycle. “You have to accept the referee’s decision,” he said. “That is how I grew up. This constant erosion of the referee’s authority is where the game is going to get – they are not going to have any authority. We are going to be under the control of someone with a TV screen a few miles away.”
Easy to say of course, when one is, for instance, in a pre-match press conference ahead of a big game against Manchester City on a good run of domestic results. Just as Arteta did on October 6 when, in the aftermath of the VAR errors in Tottenham’s win over Liverpool, he said of referees, “we need to give support and understand that mistakes happen”. Those principles did not survive their first contact with a referee’s decision he did not like the smell of.
Mikel Arteta was not happy with decisions made against Arsenal.Credit: AP
Postecoglou, by contrast, swallowed it after a 4-1 defeat at home to one of his club’s biggest rivals. Perhaps he considered himself fortunate that Destiny Udogie was not given a red card for what turned out to be his first yellow card – that tackle on Raheem Sterling. Postecoglou is not a fan of VAR, as he has said many times since he arrived in the Premier League this summer, although he tends not to blame the people whose job it is to operate an imperfect system.
In case it needs repeating, VAR was brought in as a response to television’s coverage of soccer, not to the game itself. Referees and their assistants had been getting decisions right and wrong since the ball had laces in it and the half-time norm was a restorative cigarette. The difference in the 21st century was technology that could prove the case within seconds to a global audience who were consequently better informed than the men running the game on the pitch.
That was why VAR came in, and of course because television loves a new gimmick to sell its package all over again to subscribers.
Either way, the spirit of what Postecoglou said was pure Clough – the kind of stern good sense that will stand the test of time, and there is a good chance that others will be quoting it in 50 years. Although hopefully by then, someone will have got VAR to a point where we can all tolerate its existence.
The Telegraph, London
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