Poll Position Intolerable

By , Posted on 24th March 2014 - Posted in: Sports And Design

Liverpool‘s thrashing of Manchester United at Old Trafford earlier this month appeared to mark a notable shifting of the sands, the passing of one era into another. England‘s two premier club sides have often measured success against one another as a true marker of their standing in the game. For delighted Kopites and distraught Stretford enders alike, the result, and more so the manner of it, was about much more than three points. It represented a polar shift in the waxing and waning of the fortunes of their respective clubs, fortunes that have historically been diametrically related.

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Across the rest of the country too this was a win that finally seemed to alert many to Liverpool’s title-winning potential, perhaps more so than their 5:1 thrashing of Arsenal in February. A watershed result then, and a crossing of the Rubicon for the Merseysiders. Well, time will tell regarding all that.

For me however, there was a far more interesting talking point after the game. Prior to kick-off Manchester United had gone a record eighty-five games without conceding a penalty, yet here referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Liverpool three in a forty-three minute period. Only twice before in Premier League history had a team been awarded a trio of spot kicks in a single game. For it to happen to visitors to Old Trafford seemed unthinkable.

After the game, Daily Mail columnist and former Premier League referee Graham Poll admitted that during the Alex Ferguson era referees were unlikely to give penalties to sides visiting Old Trafford because they feared the backlash that would be visited upon them by Ferguson after the game. The so-called ‘hairdryer’ treatment was regularly meted out to those who fell foul of the Scotsman during his twenty-seven years in charge of United. We all accepted players and journalists were in the firing line but referees and officials too? Ok, many suspected it, but deep down we hoped the suggestion of wrongdoing was simply a manifestation of what we might call United-envy.

But no. We finally have a top official coming clean and actually admitting it. And now that it’s been said am I the only person who feels sickened? Well, casting around amongst pals and browsing Internet forums, it seems I may be in a minority. Poll, a man who was one of European football’s most respected referees, has owned up to dishonest practices, designed to favour the fortunes of one team over others, because he was scared of offending a manager, and yet there is little or no moral outrage. So really, how does this sit with you?

In his column Poll went on to explain that when he was in charge of games at Old Trafford he would ‘alter his tolerance levels’ regarding penalties. By way of justification he claimed that though he was unlikely to give anything but a stonewall penalty to a visiting side he would also apply the same stricture to the home team. I’d call that changing the rules. The reason for this was that he feared having to face Ferguson’s fury after a game. Is this in any way acceptable? I think not. Poll wasn’t the only culprit. He claims the practice has been widespread amongst officials. Their credibility on masse is thus shot to pieces.

Surely, a penalty’s a penalty or it’s not, irrespective of how nailed on it is. End of story. It’s got nothing to do with what a manager thinks. And here’s me thinking that in twenty-first century Britain we’ve all deemed bullying in the workplace to be intolerable. Are we to allow home team managers to set the agenda from game to game as they see fit? Perhaps there’s a manager who doesn’t really like throw-ins, or another who’d rather not have any of that silly red card nonsense for reckless challenges. We may as well just give these guys the whistle and let them referee the entire game.

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Poll claims that Chelsea‘s Jose Mourinho is now the manager referees fear upsetting most and recent events at the Bridge look horribly supportive of that view. It’s a diabolical and shameful situation that any official should feel they have to kow-tow to the sensibilities of gobby club managers.

The general consensus after the United/Liverpool game was that the Scousers should actually have been awarded five penalties not three. Perhaps then referee Clattenburg was demonstrating that old habits die hard. Fergie was after all, sat watching in the stands, presumably appalled at unfolding events and burning his eyes into the back of the referee’s head every time he dared peep his whistle.

Maybe there’s some solace to be gained. Whether it was three or five it seems the awarding of those spot kicks was much more symbolic than the result of the game. The Ferguson era is well and truly over and match day officials may finally be starting to treat Manchester United as just another club. That’s overdue and is to be welcomed. If however, the managerial tyrant in Manchester is simply going to be replaced by another in London, then the reality is that we’ve made little progress.

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