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“Was that the worst ever performance from a referee in the Premier League?'

Wednesday 25th February 2015
The above was a question posed by the outspoken former head of referees, Keith Hackett, following Chelsea's draw with Burnley at the weekend in which Martin Atkinson controversially turned down two penalty claims, before sending off Nemanja Matic.

Seemingly, it was bad day at the office for Atkinson but is this just a reflection of what has been a horrendous season for officials throughout the country? Or has time, technology and FA incompetence finally caught up with the men in black?

Jose Mourihno has a point. The four decisions that went against Chelsea on Saturday were, on review, clear cut and game changing. The first penalty decision was reminiscent of Tom Henning Øvrebø's refusal to award a handball in the 2009 Champions League semi-final tie against Barcelona, and it appears that Atkinson had a clear view. As he did with the push on Diego Costa moments later. Both should have been penalties.

However, the more concerning incidents that went unpunished both involved Ashley Barnes but the sole blame does not lay with Martin Atkinson. After half an hour he kicked out at Branislav Ivanovic whilst contesting a header which, if seen by the officials, should warrant a red card. In this incident, both players appear to attack the ball and the referee nor his assistant should be looking at anything other than the challenge. Atkinson is stood side on to the tackle, which may hide Barnes' stamp, but the linesman should clearly be able to see the unnatural movement of Burnley's striker as he jogs back towards play.

Nemanja Matic was then lucky to avoid serious injury as Barnes recklessly flew into a challenge that saw all his weight planted on the Chelsea midfielder's shin. Matic reacted furiously and saw red. It is clear for all to see, that Barnes' challenge is cowardly and potentially justifies the reaction of Matic. But it is also clear that Martin Atkinson did not see the nature of the challenge because, although he is stood fifteen yards from the incident, any referee would show a red card after viewing that tackle. The only explanation can be that as Matic prods the ball away Atkinson, like the players and an on looking Mourihno, follows its path rolling in to touch. This may explain why Matic was the only Chelsea player to react so furiously.

What is most confusing about the already infamous tackle is that Barnes has avoided any punishment. The reason? Because the FA clearly state that “in the vast majority of challenges for the ball no retrospective action is taken as the incident has been seen by match officials”. This justification means that in his report either Atkinson has said he saw a clash of sorts but not clearly, or more worryingly, he has seen the tackle and not seen reason to penalise Barnes. Yes, this FA ruling is in place to prevent the undermining of an officials decision but there has to be an exception made for incidents of such a severe nature. And if indeed Atkinson has clearly seen the tackle and consciously decided not to take action, he needs to take an extended break from football.

The result is that Barnes will play next weekend, Atkinson will probably referee and Matic will start a two match ban by missing the League Cup Final.

Martin Atkinson isn't the only official who has had a disappointing 90 minutes this season though, in a difficult period for the profession throughout the whole Football League. The game has evolved, with players and the speed of matches quicker than ever. However, the art of refereeing largely remains as it always has bar a bottle of squirty foam.

Recently, the Premier League sat back and watched as TV companies fought over games to the sum of £5 billion pounds but there appears to be a reluctance between them and the FA in aiding officials to improve the ‘product'. There is a wider argument about how and when technology should be used in football, but the level of pressure on each individual decision and subsequent controversy caused by an incorrect one needs to be alleviated. In an ideal world after a debatable incident, the referee would be able to review his own decision without influence from players, coaching staff or fans but the juggling of all these factors is part of why the job is so difficult initially.

Unbelievably, some of the officials are still classed as “part time”. This includes some linesmen in the Premier League and occasionally, referees in the lower reaches of the Football League. Whether it be Sunday league or the World Cup, without a team of officials there would be no game and surely now, with the vast resource available, these men and women should be trained to the point that they are totally comfortable in their high profile job.

Unfortunately at present, there is a culture of acceptance that every referee could have a bad game and that the way they might clearly influence a result is “one of those things”. But now the stakes have been raised and it is only a matter of time before an official or governing body is asked if they are doing everything in their power to improve, or if they are being negligent in their responsibility to run the game.

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James Dean
A lover of football. Season ticket holder at Sheffield Wednesday and known as the "Andrea Pirlo of the North".

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