Referees and goalkeepers make strange bedfellows but actually share much in common. Both have the capacity on a soccer pitch, for better or worse, to change a game in a single moment and often as a consequence of either excellent or questionable judgment. As such, both occupations are especially vulnerable to being defined by seconds of utter madness rather than 90 minutes worth of effort. Last weekend’s English Premier League fixtures raised familiar talking points that are becoming something of a theme this season.
In the early kick-off on Saturday, the thrilling 3-3 draw in the Merseyside derby packed plenty of incident. Not least of which was Phil Dowd’s decision to show only a yellow card to Everton’s Kevin Mirallas for a nasty knee-high challenge on Luis Suarez which could have ended his career. It looked like a sending off all day long, as did Wayne Rooney’s impetuous kick at Cardiff’s Jordan Mutch that Neil Swarbick similarly viewed as warranting only a caution. The particularly frantic, high-octane nature of England’s top flight makes it understandable when referees miss key incidents, yet with Mirallas and Rooney both officials clearly saw enough to issue punishment but got the color of the card completely wrong.
Swarbick and Dowd’s errors of judgment had significant repercussions. Both Mirallas and Rooney scored and contributed assists for Everton and Manchester United respectively. Liverpool and Cardiff will also argue that they might have gone on to collect all three points instead of one if their sides had been playing with a man advantage. These aren’t isolated incidents of human fallibility either. The referees’ chief Mike Riley made the unusual step this week of calling West Brom’s manager Steve Clarke to apologize for Andre Mariner’s baffling penalty call at Stamford Bridge. It’s hard to believe Riley does that every weekend for every questionable call but is more credible in light of the sheer number of contentious decisions that have gone against West Brom this season.
Another recurring storyline in English soccer is the malaise currently afflicting the league’s goalkeepers. Joe Hart has been the subject of plenty of column inches for club and country for all the wrong reasons and again watched from the bench as Manchester City humiliated Spurs –keeping another clean sheet in the process. Hart would have had some sympathy for Hugo Lloris who was at least partially responsible for two of the six goals conceded and must now have concerns of his own about his starting place between the posts.
Meanwhile, Southampton’s Artur Boruc completely gifted Arsenal their opening goal by thinking, wrongly, that he was Johan Cruyff reincarnated. It’s safe to say the Dutch master won’t be losing too much sleep. Boruc also suffered the ignominy of conceding a goal in the first 14 seconds against fellow goalkeeper Asmir Begovic in the 1-1 draw against Stoke. By contrast, Arsenal’s excellent start to the season (the loss against Aston Villa aside) is in no small part due to the continuing maturity of Wojciech Szczesny. Although still vulnerable on set pieces, Simon Mignolet has also shown the kind of form for Liverpool that justifies Bredon Rogers’ decision to loan Pepe Reina to Napoli and Petr Cech has been quietly consistent for third placed Chelsea. It seems this season the old adage that you can tell how well the referee is performing by how little you notice him might be equally applicable to goalkeepers.
With this season being the most open and closely contested race in years where the silverware ends up in May could well rest on the split-second decisions of a few individuals.