I imagine that almost every fan of all clubs up and down the pyramid - right from the Premier League to your sunday park sides, like the Dog & Duck - thinks that their team is always given the shitty end of the stick when it comes to decisions going their way in games of football. It’s part of the game and something over time you just learn to live with, even if you think the game has indeed gone.
Yet, in recent times, it feels like things have been even worse than normal for us at Sunderland, and big moments in games like the one which saw Dan Neil sent off for saying ‘fucking’ towards a referee have undoubtedly cost us points. As long as I’ve been a Sunderland supporter I don’t think that I can remember a stretch of games like the one we’re on now where we’ve had massive calls go against us.
I made this point earlier to a mate who said it’s been so bad in fact that it feels intentional, like they’re about to uncover a betting scandal. Knowing he was actually half serious is funny to me but it also highlights that there is a real issue at the minute with the standard of officiating at the top end of the game, something that only seems to be getting worse.
It was slightly amusing to me that Jarred Gillett - the ref who sent Neil off on that fateful day versus Boro - was also the VAR official who hilariously awarded Newcastle a penalty on Saturday in their game with Wolves where it was clear to everyone watching that the perceived offender kicked the ground and not the player.
Football is an industry where it seems that failure is rewarded and that mistakes go unpunished. Bad referees always manage to fall on their feet, and in the case of Gillett, his reward for a bad performance in the Sunderland game (a decision which the PGMOL later apologised for) was to sit in the VAR room for a big game in the biggest league in the world.
Not bad work if you can get it, eh?
I don’t know if I’m just more aware of it at the minute because of the spotlight on the wrong decisions being made in Sunderland games but it seems as though whenever I turn the TV on now to watch football there’s a massive controversial decision in the game which is almost always caused and then heightened by a bunch of officials who don’t really seem to know what they’re doing. That Newcastle penalty aside, there was a goal chalked off for Burnley in their game away at Bournemouth which took the team of officials almost 7 minutes to make a decision on to the bemusement of the crowd, and there was a huge penalty call waved away in the Ipswich v Plymouth game which I couldn’t quite believe not one of the officials in the game thought was a blatant spot kick. Just a minute later Ipswich went down the other end and scored... you’d be fuming if you were a Plymouth fan, wouldn’t you?
But as I mentioned before, we’ve got enough shit on our own plate to deal with at the minute when it comes to referees.
Just on Saturday there was a big call in the game against Norwich which led to their opening goal - a tight offside call which caught Pierre Ekwah out as he was appealing for it was half-ignored by the linesman closest to the action, slightly raising his flag which caused confusion and allowed Norwich to maraud away down our left, which they then scored from.
That wasn’t the worst we’ve seen in recent games though - there’s the blatant handball which led to Stoke’s opener against us last weekend, and then on Tuesday at Leicester we should have had a blatant penalty when Wout Faes clattered through Dan Neil in the box in full view of the linesman on the side. Both were game-changing moments, and these are the moments we may well look back on at the end of the season if they end up costing us a place in the top six of the Championship.
I laughed when the pundits on Sky repeatedly suggested that Sunderland should have made stronger appeals for the foul on Neil, because it was appealing strongly for decisions which saw Neil sent off against Boro. We can’t win!
Wolves boss Gary O’Neil was understandably fuming with the penalty that Newcastle were awarded on Saturday, and I thought that his comments on the matter after the game were refreshing. In the past, managers have been punished for speaking their minds on bad officiating and it feels now, with the standard in the game at an all time low, that people think twice about what they say in front of the cameras and instead word their answers in such a way where they can’t be punished but get their frustration and anger across impressively.
Short-term there’s no real solution to the problem. We can’t ship a load of better officials in like the Saudis do and it’ll take years to implement the kind of real change that the game needs, so what can we - the fans of our teams, our players and our managers - do to ensure that standards improve in the near future?
It’s a tough one, but all we can do is use our voices to highlight the problems in the game. It actually feels now with Howard Webb in charge of the PGMOL that those in charge of officials in this country are more receptive to criticism and explaining issues, but it’s only the start. Nothing will improve if people are shushed into silence, and we need the biggest characters in our game to speak up when there has been legitimate injustice.
From Sunderland’s perspective, we all have a job to do even if it’s as insignificant of highlighting issues where we can. More importantly, it’s up to our players and management to stand up for themselves off and on the pitch.
The only way the game and specifically the standard of officiating improves is if there’s a sensible, serious ongoing discussion around highlighting problems and then offering solutions. For many years under the stewardship of Mike Riley that just wasn't a possibility, but you can only hope that this time things are different and that, in a few years from now, we’re talking about how much better the standard has gotten.