The head of referees in England, Mike Riley, has apologized to Everton for the failure of his officials to award a penalty to the Toffees in their 1-0 defeat to Manchester City on Saturday, according to CBS Sports sources.
Referee Paul Tierney and VAR both failed to spot a handball by Manchester City midfielder Rodri in the 85th minute, at a time when Everton were trailing by a solitary goal. A point that they could have earned from the spot against the English champions would have been a huge boost to Frank Lampard’s side as they battle to avoid relegation. The club’s chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale subsequently made a direct complaint to the Premier League, after which Riley made his apology.
It was easy to see why Riley felt compelled to apologize in this incident. There was no differing viewpoint from the mainstream. Rodri had left his right arm hanging out in the penalty area when he could have avoided doing so. A backspinning ball hit it. It was a clear penalty.
Friend should have seen it, though being as he was standing behind the Manchester City midfielder — he had adjusted his run to give him the best angle for the previous event, a shot by Richarlison from a tight angle that Ederson saved — it was conceivable that the referee might miss the handball. It was at this stage that VAR should have ridden to the rescue, as Riley acknowledged. Chris Kavanagh should have instructed Tierney to award the penalty. He did not.
It was easy to see why Lampard was so incandescent. It was, he claimed, “incompetence at best, at worst who knows?” He would have imagined his side drawing level from the spot then clinging on for at least a point, as they had just about been doing for 80 minutes before Phil Foden’s opener. Maybe they might have got even more in this branch reality. Or City’s pressure might have told again.
Still Everton should have had a penalty. They did not get one. Lampard asked for an apology and in this instance he got one. The officiating deserved having a spotlight shone on it and it certainly has.
The issue that PGMOL (the organization that manages referees in the English game) and perhaps even the sport itself faces is that a spotlight is shone on so many other decisions, most of which are at best debatable. Broadcasters will give over programming real estate into a deep dive of any notable decision that happened in the preceding days. Ex-referees will be dragged over the coals of post game analysis for having the temerity to attempt to explain why an official has made the decision he has.
And all of it serves to heighten the sense among supporters that the entire structure of football is out to get their club. Nowhere has that appeared more apparent of late than Arsenal. Since the turn of the year four of their players have been red carded. In that same period they have not had a penalty (though with four since the start of the season they have had the fifth most of 2021-22).
So aggrieved was Mikel Arteta with the decision to send Gabriel Martinelli off in the win at Wolverhampton Wanderers that he said he called for talks with PGMOL. Contact has been made between the two parties though as Arsenal prepare for a crucial run of games in their pursuit of a top four finish no space has been found in the club diary to sit down with the referee’s body. Such meetings are, it should be noted, not entirely out of the ordinary.
What is, perhaps, is the sense that referees are under siege. Even when automated technology adjudged Romelu Lukaku to be offside in the EFL Cup final — a match that was allowed to flow mostly to its betterment by Stuart Attwell — there seemed to be an overwhelming desire for this to transmogrify into a post match talking point. Officials are paid to make decisions and they should not be shielded from the consequence but it was easy to see why Anthony Taylor asked for “more understanding and more empathy” in an appearance on the High Performance Podcast that was recorded last week.
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Empathy in particular would appear to be in short supply. Complaints over Martinelli’s two yellow cards in the space of 10 seconds seemed to frame Michael Oliver as overly officious for judging two fouls to both be worthy of bookings. Certainly others might have leaned the other way, but there is a difference between being harsh and wrong.
Arteta has, on occasion, acknowledged that his side, on average the youngest in the division, might have some learning to do in regards to their discipline. It was not just Martinelli who gave a referee the opportunity to be firm with him. A few weeks earlier Gabriel lost his cool as Manchester City upped the pressure at the Emirates Stadium. If nothing else, Arsenal’s meeting with PGMOL would be of great value if it simply pointed them towards the changes their young players could make to stop their card being subconsciously marked by officials.
Equally, what Arsenal have proven in their recent ascent up the table is that good teams can win without the helping hand of referees. Against Brentford they had a string of penalty appeals, some more “giveable” than others, declined. They were still good enough to secure a comfortable 2-1 victory.
As Taylor explained: “If one decision is wrong, that one decision, if we’re being brutally honest, hasn’t cost the result.”
Certainly there are occasions when one indisputably incorrect decision can have an outsized impact but those are few and far between. That Riley felt compelled to apologize to Everton serves as a reminder of how infrequent these are; it is not as if it is weekly news which Premier League clubs have had the head of England’s referees on the line.
Still, if Everton are relegated it will not be because of VAR, but because they disastrously bungled the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti’s successor this summer. If Arsenal do not get top four it is unlikely to be because of the subconscious view officials hold on them, but reflective of their performances on the pitch. Officials can sway the game, certainly, but not to the same extent as the other 22 people on the pitch.