Stick dished out to referees unjustified

Following the furore over Jonathan Moss’ display in the recent match between Leicester and West Ham, there was a fierce debate about the consistency of referees. In this particular match, the issue of grappling in the box came to the fore, with the Match of the Day pundits pointing to several instances where both sides could have had penalties. It is certainly an issue that is worth debating. However, the tone taken by pundits tends to be one of blaming the officials and absolving the players of any responsibility.

Firstly, it is important to consider that referees have the most difficult job on the field. Not only are they charged with keeping up with players at least ten years younger than them, but they do not have the luxury of being substituted, meaning that they are expected to run for 90+ minutes.

The standards by which they are judged are also ridiculous. If a referee makes one mistake, they are subject to fierce criticism from players, managers and pundits alike, whereas often a poor display from a player is explained away as ‘‘just one of those days.’’

Then there is the fact that, when any contentious refereeing decision is discussed, there is nearly always a difference of opinion between at least two of the pundits. If armchair observers, having seen a number of slow-motion replays can’t agree, how do we expect the man in the middle to get it right at full-speed?

Alan Shearer recently proposed that any form of grappling in the box should be an immediate penalty, to eliminate any possible confusion. However, this would leave referees open to the accusation that they are ‘‘ruining the spectacle’’ if several players were sent off in the opening game of next season as the officials attempted to set some sort of precedent.

Lastly, many of the decisions that the referees get wrong revolve around diving. While many clubs will applaud attempts by referees to clamp down on it, they quickly change their tune when punishments are dished out to their own side, as managers insist that so-and-so ‘‘is not that sort of player,’’ when he definitely is. The fact that the officials are subjected to horrific abuse for just doing their job is unacceptable, especially when the players know in their heart of hearts that the decision was correct, and yet try to imply otherwise.

This is not to deny that referees are perfect. They certainly do make mistakes. However, the scrutiny of their mistakes is excessive, especially as they are often far more consistent than the players who criticise them for their ‘‘poor’’ performances.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Leicester success a double-edged sword

Nearly every football fan is rooting for Leicester to win the Premier League. In a division awash with money, it has been refreshing to see a team built on a relative shoestring play with such abandon and composure. The title has not yet been won, but if the East Midlanders continue to display the same defensive fortitude and attacking ingenuity, they will surely be crowned champions.

Here’s the problem. Leicester were once considered a ‘‘normal’’ club. They occupied the territory of the likes of West Brom and Swansea – fairly unspectacular sides, who, despite possessing some quality, are more often than not just happy to survive. It is well-known that chairmen have become increasingly trigger-happy in recent years. Teams of Leicester’s ilk will look at their success (and possibly that of West Ham) and think that their club should also be pushing for Europe on a consistent basis. Garry Monk was deemed surplus to requirements at the Liberty despite having enjoyed a solid few years before the blip that brought his tenure to an end. While it is great that Claudio Ranieri’s side have paved the way for other unfancied sides to dream big, it could lead to a scenario where anything less than Europa League qualification would be deemed a disappointment.

Another potential pitfall concerns Leicester themselves. If next season, they fall to ‘‘only’’ fifth or sixth, there will be a section of fair-weather supporters ridiculously calling for the Italian’s head. The carrot of Champions League football will I think entice the likes of Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante to stay on next season (irrespective of inevitable big bids from rival clubs), but if the tide starts to turn they may start looking to pastures new. Negativity bias pervades modern football: chairmen jump at the first sign of failure whilst ignoring all the successes that came before. Let’s hope that this season’s fairytale is the start of things to come, and let’s hope that chairmen up and down the country recognise that the Leicester story is not the yardstick for success.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Tony O’Brien/Reuters

Two points for a win would keep fans entertained

2016 marked 35 years since the introduction of three points for a win in English football, an innovation brought in by the late, great Jimmy Hill. Certainly, the motivations for such an idea are understandable. If a match was all-square, teams would be rewarded for going for the win. It also came at a time when attendances in the top divisions were falling at a fairly substantial rate, as the recession bit across many parts of the country and the average number of goals per match was at a low ebb. A win would also now be worth more relative to a draw than under the old system.

Doubts have already been cast on the merits of this rule change. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson mentioned in a 2009 article, the amendment was made at a time when the tide was already beginning to turn in the purists’ favour anyway, as more goals were being scored by both home and away teams. Furthermore, the banishment of the back-pass and the tackle from behind can also be seen as a significant factor in the rise in the number of goals and the reduction in the number of draws.

However, this brief article will focus on another deficiency of the introduction of three points for a win – the fact that the points’ gap between teams has increased dramatically. First off, it is important to acknowledge that the post-1981 era also saw the injection of huge amounts of cash into the game, which have disproportionately benefited a select few teams, with the result that these teams have overwhelmingly dominated in recent decades. However, even allowing for this influx of money, the league table has opened out in the past 35 years.

A stark contrast can be drawn between the competitiveness of English football prior to the change and following the change. If one goes back to the 1920s, Division One (a 22-team league back then) was incredibly bunched up. This can be seen most clearly in 1927-28, when just 16 points separated champions Everton (53 points) and basement club Middlesbrough (37 points). In addition, the teams from 14th to 20th were all situated on 39 points, demonstrating just how close the league was right down to the last game.

This was certainly not an anomaly. In the 1949-1950 season, just five points separated the top eight. The bottom side was hardly ever cast adrift, and in quite a few cases was only a few points off escaping relegation. There are many more examples that could have been cited.

By the 1980s, due to the fact that a win was now worth more relative to a draw and that the top teams always win more games than those at the bottom, the gap between the best and the rest started to grow. Between 1920 and 1981, there were only three seasons where the average points’ difference between the teams in the league was greater than two. Since then however, there has only been one season where that hasn’t been the case, with 14 campaigns seeing the average difference rise above three.

Finally, the race for the title has become less nerve-wracking, as teams are more likely to win the top division with games to spare than pre-1981. The same is true at the other end of the table, as the sight of one or two teams being cut adrift before the season’s close has dramatically increased.

It is impossible to deny that the explanations for the changes in points’ distribution over the years are down to a number of different factors, but the rule change does seem to have taken some of the excitement out of the business end of the season. Of course, the amendment was designed to attract more fans to stadia across the land, but an unintentional impact has been the increased spread of points across the league, such that by the time the final matchday rolls around, most of the key scores have already been settled.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Getty Images

McIlroy looks to Master Augusta

The Masters gets underway on 7 April, and, as the first of the four majors in 2016, gives the whole field an opportunity to make their mark before the remaining three big events.

Golf is unusual in that, although there may be players who dominate on the circuit, it is rare for one player to win the same major in two consecutive years. This phenomenon has been true at The Masters, with Tiger Woods being the last person to don the Green Jacket in back-to-back years (2001 and 2002).

It also gives Rory McIlroy a chance to shine. The tournament is the only major at which the Northern Irishman has yet to taste victory (with a fourth-place finish last year his best). He enjoyed a stellar 2014, in which he notched two of the sport’s top prizes, as well as the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW PGA Championship. However, 2015 was a little disappointing, as despite claiming three titles, he had a barren year when it came to the big honours.

For a year, the 26-year-old occupied the No.1 spot between the Summers of 2014 and 2015. Since then, the accolade of ‘‘world’s best golfer’’ has passed between himself, whizzkid Jordan Spieth and Australian Jason Day, with the latter of the three having assumed the mantle. Day’s three-stroke triumph at the 2015 PGA Championship was an impressive statement of intent, and at the relatively tender age at 28, you can’t help feeling that his best years are ahead of him. He will want to avenge previous near misses at Augusta, with his closest effort being a runners-up finish in 2011, when he tied for second place along with fellow Aussie Adam Scott.

Spieth will be hoping that home backing can spur him on to victory, and the signs are certainly positive. He is the reigning champion at this event, which was followed by further success at the US Open, before posting fourth-place and runners-up finishes at The Open and PGA Championship respectively. Despite being only 22, he has shown that youth is no barrier to success. When it comes to the big occasion, Spieth has kept a cool head. Two-time champion at the event Bubba Watson will once again be among the contenders, while Scott has also enjoyed recent success here.

Looking at their form so far in 2016, Scott has set the bar, with two Tour titles within a week. However, the manner of Spieth’s sole tournament triumph this season suggests that he has the game to emulate the achievements of his countryman Woods. By scoring 30 under par at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, he recorded a personal best score and followed Ernie Els in becoming only the second person to have reached such a landmark score at a regulation tournament. In doing so, he also matched Woods in securing a seventh PGA Tour title before his 23th birthday. With that milestone taking place in late July, the Texan has ample opportunity to eclipse that feat, starting on Thursday.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Jack Gruber/USA Today