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In keeping with the forever increasing power of television schedules, all of the top sides playing in this weekend’s FA Cup fourth round ties have had their fixtures moved to suit the paymasters of ITV and Sky. As per usual, this leaves Arsenal with the smallest recovery time between fixtures!

Tottenham’s fortuitous away win against the paupers of Watford was a disappointing interruption in the frankly hilarious tax trial of Harry Redknapp (Using the unusual defence of: “I can’t fiddle tax – I’m an illiterate barrow boy”), and The Gunners take on Aston Villa in London tomorrow afternoon.

Today, Anfield saw a dull Liverpool beat a Utd side shorn of Nani and Rooney, due to a well taken late goal from the out of favour Dirk Kuyt. He’s not that big or quick or technically good, but he works incredibly hard and scores goals in big games. A sort of Dutch Ji-Sung Park (who incidently scored for Utd after another De Gea rabbit in headlights moment saw Agger give Liverpool the lead). Liverpool are always hard to beat at home, and play better against better opposition, and Utd’s injuries and inability to replace top aging players is starting to catch up with them.

The other TV scheduled tie was a handy pre-curser to the ‘Is John Terry a racist scumbag?’ hearings, as Chelsea returned to the scene of the crime, Loftus Road, to take on a hard working but limited QPR. The game was poor, overshadowed by full body searches and a lack of traditional handshakes and some fairly blunt expressions of feeling by fans. Both Terry and his accuser Ferdinand played well enough, and Chelsea will rue the loss of Ramires to injury, but the game was ultimately decided by a moment of controversy, as Mike Dean gave a soft penalty to serial diver Daniel Sturridge. It wasn’t a complete fiction, but it was the sort of situation for which penalties are very rarely given…certainly contact was far less than the tumbling front man suggested. No great surprise as the Chelsea man has always had a penchant for the dramatic tumble. If he was foreign, our press would have drawn attention to it already.

The incident sparked a continuation of online debates regarding officiating in England, which have been sparked by an increase in officiating errors in recent weeks in high profile games. I have certainly referred to it before.

My take on referees is that the game has changed by getting so much faster, at a time when the laws are being tweaked or changed regularly and it is on the whole a very difficult job, at which you would expect people to make errors.

That said, it is clear from the most basic observation, let alone Untold Arsenal‘s slightly paranoid study, that referees are a) invariably influenced by crowd intimidation at certain grounds and b) all carry a certain amount of personal bias, which try as they might will fundamentally influence the interpretation of tricky decisions. This is compounded by the way the FA choosing to back them up in a anit-PR way, rather than encouraging officials to be able to a) explain decisions & b) admit to incorrect decisions after the reviewing of video evidence.

This is in tandem with a complete lack of transparency when it comes to suspensions and disciplinary procedures. The FA should look at the NHL (a dangerous sport, much faster than football), where they have appointed a popular and successful multi-millionaire ex player as ‘executive for player safety’. He gives freely available online videos explaining every suspension, supported by the rule book and video evidence. People won’t always agree with the results, but providing a clear rationale increases supporter, player and coach understanding. The FA appear totally arbitrary and unaccountable by comparison.

The regional distribution of referees in England (Only 1 from the south and half from Yorkshire or the North West) is also a major issue as it provides a consistency of conscious and sub-conscious personal bias which ensures that the popular observation of ‘things even-ing themselves out’ does not currently hold true, and less so than at any time I can previously remember. This is both the cause and effect of the ‘Yorkshire mafia’ running the referees in England (The last three or four head of referees have been from Yorkshire, and 3/4 of recent world cup nominated referees from England are also Yorkshiremen). There is also something of the ‘Little Englander’ about many of our referees, with many of them visibly having different attitudes and body language towards foreign players, though this has improved as the whole league has become more cosmopolitan. Key England internationals still seem to treated with a different set of rules to the rest, but the days of Shearer’s stamps and elbows being ignored because he was England captain seem to waning slightly.

There is a reason that all independent and academic studies of refereeing deicsions in recent years have concluded that Arsenal have suffered the most incorrect major decisions of any of the top half for any of the last 4 seasons, and currently sit bottom of the debatable decisions league, apparantly 11 points worse off than should be the case. A traditionally unpopular, ‘Posh’ London club filled to the brim with foreign footballers of above average intelligence, Arsenal FC has an uneasy relationship with certain officials, particularly the exponent of rather agricultural language, Phil Dowd.

There is also suggestion that the differentials in wage earnings of professional referees dependent on what games they officiate and the number of games in different competitions may influence their decisions. Certainly in a world where an Alex Ferguson complaint can result in an official mysteriously missing the next year’s worth of Old Trafford fixtures, this could lead to undue pressure on officials to conform to certain desired outcomes in order to manage their careers. While I have more faith in the integrity of most officials to believe this theory has much merit, there is no doubt that the power of certain individuals and organisations in the game (Ferguson and Sky being cases in point) places a further external pressure on officials that makes it more difficult to do their jobs well.

The other major question is why is FIFA so against video support for refs despite its successful implementation in every other major spectator sport. While I believe it is secondary to the importance of regional bias, both domestically and playing internationally or in European competition, it does suggest that someone somewhere is benefiting from a lack of accountability. With the amount of money passing through the hands of FIFA and the corruption endemic within the organisation, its very tempting to draw conclusions of conspiracies and manipulation. I live in hope that it is merely the delusions of the morally dubious dinasours that run the game that prevent the actual GAME of football being able to join the 21st Century. Most managers, players, chairmen, game officials and even individual associations are in favour of implementing video evidence where appropriate, so the continued refusal of the powers that be to allow it to happen (allied to the threat of sanctions against any that deviate from official policy) can only be questioned.

Returning to the Arsenal, there is even more bad injury news at The Emirates. The season’s saviour (TM), Jack Wilshere has had a complication in his return from surgery, and the club are is awaiting a specialists report. Once again the spectre of serious and mystery injuries has robbed the club of two first choice International midfielders for pretty much the entire season. Perhaps Wenger need to bite the bullet and follow Barry Fry’s example of peeing on the four corners of the ground to lift the gyspy’s curse.

Finally, the often negative but very thorough and committed blog Le Grove have recorded their first podcast, in the form of an excellent interview with the fascinating football consultant and co-author of Arsenal: the making of a modern superclub, Alex Fynn.

Click here for the Link to the Le Grove page with a discount of the book, or here for a direct link to the podcast.

It really is worth a listen.

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