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By Matthew Handley
If the Premier League has had cause in the recent past to claim status as world football’s best league, it surely now counts only as the most exciting, with Chelsea the sole standard-bearer beyond the second round of the Champions League. Another notable casualty has been standards of refereeing.
This may be a timeless lament, and it is certainly a job whose practitioners deserve respect. At the elite level, the game only gets quicker, the forensic eye of television sharper, and the platforms for debate and criticism wider and more varied. But if the true mark of an outstanding referee is obscurity, this season has seen the men in black featuring in far too many headlines and post-match interviews.
Norwich’s 3-3 draw with Arsenal last week was a thrilling exhibition of late-season football, but the performance of referee Anthony Taylor was a less fortunate microcosm: both teams were denied cast-iron penalties, the second of which – with Robin Van Persie pushed over bearing in on goal – called into question the official’s understanding of the essential laws of physics, let alone football.
Taylor is just one of a clutch of Premier League referees younger than many of the players they are officiating. Michael Oliver, who was the League’s youngest ever referee last season at 25, and Stuart Atwell, who had previously held that record, have both been the subject of widespread criticism. Atwell, he of the Reading ghost goal from 2008, was so consistently below par that he had to be demoted to the Football League in February. There is some logic to the swift promotion of younger, fitter referees, but not at the expense of standards, and as they have with Atwell, the PGMO may have to admit that it has promoted the likes of Oliver and Taylor too soon.
It is not merely an equation of youth against experience, however. This season’s apparent decline in officiating standards calls for a new approach across the board. Few would deny that the international influx has greatly benefited playing, coaching and lifestyle standards in English football. It remains a mystery, therefore, how a group as important as elite referees has been allowed to wallow in a home-grown time warp. In a league which is international in every other sense, there remains an unspoken assumption that officials should be locally sourced. While such myopia has been a common trend in terms of English players and coaches refusing to go abroad, the domestic leagues have long been hungry importers of the best foreign competition. It would be utterly logical to extend this to referees, and end what has become a mindless and debilitating protectionist cult.