Yes, you read the title correctly.
I’m not asking IF referees are biased against us. I want to know why they ARE.
On Saturday, at 4-0 up, we saw Phil Dowd do all he could to help Newcastle back into the game. This included:
- Playing three-and-a-half minutes of stoppage time in the first half because Newcastle were attacking, even though the fourth official signalled for only two minutes.
- Failing to send off Nolan for a similar (but worse) offence than Diaby’s.
- Giving a very debatable penalty (the first one) despite there being a host of players between him and the incident.
- Giving Newcastle the softest penalty in the EPL so far this year (again, from the opposite side of the penalty area).
- Generally letting Newcastle’s players repeatedly foul Arsenal’s without punishment (Barton and Enrique being the main serial offenders).
In recent games we have also seen:
- Lee Mason booking Jack Wilshere for his first foul in the game against Everton (after just five minutes), then not punishing Everton players for repeated fouling.
- Mason, in the same game, mystifyingly ignoring the offside rules to allow Everton’s goal.
- Mark Clattenburg allowing an Aston Villa goal against us when Carew was standing miles offside and blatantly impeding Fabianski’s view.
- Clattenburg sending off Squillaci for a ‘last man’ foul 30 yards from goal, but leaving a Huddersfield defender on the pitch for a ‘last man’ foul in the six yard box.
There are many more examples and I’m sure every Gooner can rattle off loads of them.
Too many, in short, to be a coincidence.
At the same time Manchester United get more ‘rub of the green‘ than a self-pleasuring leprechaun: blatant penalties not given against them; physical intimidation of referees unpunished; added minutes always counted in Fergietime if United are chasing the game (like ‘dog years,’ one minute of Fergietime is the equivalent of three ‘real world’ minutes) and clear red card offences ignored.
So the question is why?
I believe one possible answer is a conspiracy among officials. By which I don’t mean that they have been bribed or that they’ve all had a collective bet on Man Utd to win the title: rather that when they get together for their referees’ seminars and the like and talk among themselves, they come to some sort of negative consensus about Arsenal. And probably about Arsène Wenger too.
If it is a conspiracy it’s a subconscious one, but with obvious roots:
Arsène has a history of claiming that our players are not given sufficient protection. Every time he says this, he is directly criticising not just a particular ref for a specific incident, but every single one of them for the way they officiate week in, week out.
It’s human nature to dislike being criticised and to feel resentful towards the critic.
The referees also read the papers just like everyone else, so they soak up all the anti-Arsenal stories that are trotted out every week (from the utterly contrived Cesc furore this week to the Phil Brown lies and the shameful ‘Eduardo is a diver’ campaign). You can’t tell me they’re not influenced by this stuff.
Added to that, all EPL refs are British. Arsenal is the most foreign influenced club in the country, both in our predominantly overseas squad and in the way we play football. Culturally, we have less in common with the mindset of the British referee than any other team.
English players like Rooney, Lampard and Terry are known to be chummy with some of the officials once the game is over (I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of Howard Webb relatives with memorabilia signed by the Man Utd players). I suspect that doesn’t happen with our players (the chumminess I mean, not the dishing out of ManUre tat to distant cousins).
Finally there’s what you might call the underdog factor. We are regularly written up as being the best footballing side in the country. When we play lesser teams I think the refs have a subliminal sense that it’s not fair for all these twinkle-toed little foreign wizards to dance round the lumpen midfielders and defenders in the opposition.
It’s the only explanation I can think of for the fact that we are far more fouled against than fouling, yet we get a higher proportion of yellow cards per foul than any other team. It’s because the officials feel sorry for our opponents.
That’s what I felt happened with Dowd on Saturday. It was evident in stoppage time at the end of the first half when he ignored an appalling off-the-ground lunge through the back of Arshavin from Joey Barton then immediately penalised Diaby for failing to make contact with the Newcastle thug. This was during the well-over three minutes he allowed for added time, even though the fourth official signalled for only two. I’m convinced he played this extra extra time because Newcastle had finally realised that there was a second set of posts up the other end of the pitch and that they were supposed to be attacking them.
It reminded me of when I have refereed kids’ games and one team is getting battered 15-nil. It may be time to blow up, but the losing team finally has an attack so you let them play on in the hope they’ll get a consolation goal.
In a kids’ game it makes you a sentimental old so-and-so.
In a professional match it makes you an embarrassment to your trade.
During the second half, as the Newcastle revival grew following Diaby’s sending off (with which I have no argument), it was like Dowd got all caught up with the excitement of the occasion.
For the second penalty you can see him look at the incident, then turn as if to run away. But then the Newcastle player makes a heated appeal for the pen and Dowd stops and gives it. What excitement! Refereeing a game with a great comeback story! He must have been beside himself.
Even the fourth Newcastle goal shouldn’t have counted, given that it stemmed from a free-kick against us for a non-existent foul. But when Tiote belted in the ‘once-in-a-career’ goal that so many players seem to manage against Arsenal, Dowd knew he would be one of the top games on Match of the Day.
Quite what we do about all this, I don’t know. Arsène Wenger has highlighted the cards-to-fouls stats in the past but it doesn’t make any difference.
I fear that until European referees are allowed into the EPL the subconscious bias against us will continue.
If we do go on to win the league this year (or any time soon), we will only do it by playing better than Man Utd or Chelsea would need to do in similar circumstances (because they do not have the built-in handicap of refereeing prejudice).
We need to go out for every game in the knowledge that we really are, to use the cliché, playing against 12 men.