Try as we might, short of developing some kind of omni-scanner that can produce an instant, 3D hologram replay on any incident that takes place on a football field, we are never going to eliminate the shit refereeing decision.
I’ve been watching footbal for nearly fifty years, live or on TV. I’ve watched Manchester United in the League, the Cup and in Europe. I’ve watched World cups and European Championships. I’ve watched various levels of non-League football with Droylsden and with FC United. And I have seen right royal clangers galore, and more than a token few – especially at non-League level – where I remain convinced that the wrong decision did not come about due to honest human error.
You may call that last remark a vile calumny on an honourable body of men without whom the game of football could not exist, or dismiss it as the automatic response of every dedicated football fan whose default position is that the referee is biassed against his team, but when you’ve lost 4-0 away and the referee has sent off your makeshift goalkeeper for complaining about having the ball kicked out of his hands for a goal, and the word comes back that said referee was down the pub in Liverpool that Saturday night boasting about how he fucked Droylsden over…
Fans of teams in the Premier League complain about the refereeing at the top level, and a lot of it is chronically awful, even after you make every objective allowance you can make, but you haven’t seen poor refereeing until you’ve dropped down somewhere about level six, seven or eight. That was where I saw the worst refereeing decision I have seen in my life.
This took place in a game between Curzon Ashton and Droylsden, in the Unibond Northern Premier League First Division, in September 1996. I’d started watching Droylsden regularly again the previous season, anticipating (wrongly) that I wouldn’t be able to get into Old Trafford during the redevelopment of the North Stand. The Bloods had been relegated on the last day of the season, on goal difference, but I’d been hooked enough by the non-League experience to extend what had been intended to be only a one season experiment into a longer-term enthusiasm.
During the summer, a new interpretation of the Offside rule had been agreed by the Football Association, which went into operation at the start of the 1996/7 season. The Law itself was not changed: a player in the opposition half was in an offside position if there were fewer than two players between him and the opposition goal-line. But fans and clubs were long past tired of the innumerable interruptions to the game when, with the ball on one side of the pitch, a winger on the opposite side, over fifty yards from the ball, was running back but still flagged offside.
That summer, referees were instructed to focus on the line about ‘interfering with play’. With respect to the speakers of bullshit about ‘if he’s not interfering with play, what’s he doing on the pitch?’ (even Bill Shankley spoke a lot of crap from time to time), henceforth referees were instructed that a player running back from an offside position, who was not attempting to play the ball or interfere with players who were, would not be given offside. It was the beginning of the Offside Law as we know it today.
By the time Droylsden went to Curzon Ashton, that interpretation had been in effect for a month, about six matches. I was interested in the visit to Curzon: it was one of the very few away grounds I’d visited with Droylsden when I’d been a regular in the Seventies. In 1979, it had been little more than a park pitch with railings around it, but in 1996 there were stands, seats and floodlights, a sign that Curzon had climbed the ladder far enough to be expand the traditional ‘Tameside Five’ to Six.
Though Curzon opened the scoring, it was mainly a comfortable night for Droylsden, who took a 3-1 lead just after the hour, though Curzon reduced the deficit to one goal with five minutes left to play. That’s when it all kicked off.
A long back pass was played to the Curzon keeper in his area. Striker Billy O’Callaghan chased it back, not letting the keeper settle on the ball. The keeper kicked it deep into the Droylsden half, at which point O’Callaghan, in the centre of the field, turned and started jogging back towards his own lines.
The ball was met by Droylsden centreback Dave Ashton, who headed it into Curzon’s half, and over to the Droylsden right wing. In the centre, O’Callaghan was about 10 – 15 yards behind the last Curzon defender, still jogging back with his head down. The defence appealed, the linesman (directly in front of me) raised his flag, the referee considered the situation and waved play on.
A year before, he’d have whistled for an infringement. But O’Callaghan’s position was exactly what the new interpretation had been designed to cover. He was in the centre, the ball on the wing. He had neither moved, nor even looked, towards the ball. He was not interfering with play and the referee’s decision not to stop the game was completely correct.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. A Curzon defender dropped back to collect the loose ball, but midfielder Ray Wyse, who’d been in his own half when the ball was headed forward, had gone in pursuit and, before the defender had settled on the ball, tackled him and went away, bearing down on the goal with no-one between him and the keeper.
Instead of dropping back, the Curzon defence kicked off at the referee. In the meantime, Wyse closed in on the keeper, who advanced to the edge of his area to narrow the angle. On the other flank, midfielder Walter Nesbitt had raced forward in support of Wyse, twenty yards or more to his left. Wyse waited for the keeper to commit himself before passing the ball sideways for Nesbitt to plant in an empty net.
4-2, game secured, three points! Not so. The referee disallowed the goal and awarded an indirect free kick to Curzon for offside, against Nesbitt.
The first consideration is whether Nesbitt actually was offside. I’ll be straight with you: I have no idea. It was a Tuesday night, under non-League floodlights, they were roughly level with each other, and I was sat on the sidelines at an angle of roughly forty-five degrees to the play. Wyse and Nesbitt were at least twenty yards apart and it was impossible to tell which of the two was ahead of the other.
But that wasn’t really the issue. I was at forty five degrees to the action: the referee, who was level with me, was directly behind it. Yes: at least twenty yards behind the play, equidistant between two players themselves at least twenty yards apart. It was physically impossible for him to tell if Nesbitt was offside or not. Try it in the Park sometime, with a couple of mates: it’s the equivalent of pronouncing on a Leg Before Wicket appeal from Square Leg: it just can’t be done.
The outcome was inevitable: Curzon scored an equaliser in injury time to secure a 3-3 draw and deprive Droylsden of two points.
What made the decision so appalling was the referee making a deliberately bad call, because he didn’t have the courage to stand behind a correct decision. He was absolutely right not to penalise O’Callaghan for offside, but when Curzon’s own inattention cost them a goal, he lacked the bottle stand behind the right call and made a deliberately wrong one to ‘even things out’.
It didn’t make any long-term difference. Droylsden ended up in mid-table, a long way from anything two points would have affected. Curzon were relegated, and suffered the appalling bad luck of an enforced relegation into the Northern Counties (East) League (all three relegated teams should, geographically, have gone into the North-West Counties League, who would normally have accepted one: they agreed to take two but Curzon, as the most ‘easterly’ of the three teams, had to be shunted into a League where every away game started with crossing the Pennines: unsurprisingly, they fell straight through).
We often see suspicious decisions by referees, particularly with regard to bookings, where a player on one team gets an unjustified yellow or red card because the referee considers that he’s made a mistake in issuing a earlier sanction to the other side. These are still wrong, but are understandable in human terms: a second wrong to balance out the first.
This stands out in my memory for the burning sense of injustice that it created, which is higher than with any other decision I’ve seen, because it did not even have the feeble excuse of redressing some kind of perceived balance: a deliberately wrong decision was taken to ‘rectify’ a 100% correct one. It was disgraceful, and I am well aware of it because I was there.