Until relatively recently, I had always believed that in my many years of watching football, I had only seen Chelsea blatantly conned by a referee in domestic football once. Let’s face it, continental football has been corrupt for as long as it has existed, so the Frisk and Ovrebo fiascos in games when we dared to challenge the dominance of Barcelona weren’t entirely unexpected. But domestically, I believe that football has been relatively free from that kind of interference until the recent past, when the money swilling around the game has made the temptation to stick your nose in the trough irresistible for some of the inadequates who hang on to it’s coat-tails.
The game I refer to took place at Filbert Street on 15 April 1989, the day of the Hillsborough tragedy. Although Ken Bates made a few low-key observations about the shenanigans of the day, the whole matter was understandably swept under the carpet in the wave of horror which blanketed football in the days and weeks following the death of 96 Liverpool fans at the FA Cup semi-final. But to recount, Chelsea travelled to Leicester on the back of a seven-month unbeaten run in the league, needing a win to seal promotion back to Division One following relegation a year earlier. Thousands of Blues fans made the journey to the East Midlands, and there was the usual tension surrounding a fixture which had a long history of being as eventful off the pitch as on it.
The away terrace was packed that day and the referee, a Mr Fitzharris, had concerns that the Chelsea fans might try to invade the pitch should promotion be sealed. He asked the Chelsea players that, should they win, they didn’t go over to their own fans at the end of the game to celebrate. Understandably, the players refused his request.
During that game – and there is video evidence to support all of this – Chelsea had one man, Peter Nicholas, sent off for criticising Fitzharris; a legitimate goal disallowed; a penalty awarded against them which nobody inside the ground appealed for; and conceded a goal scored by a player who was at least five yards offside when he received the ball. Joe McLaughlin, a centre-half who rarely troubled referees, was booked for telling Fitzharris that the only man who was going to start a riot was him.
Everybody at Filbert Street that day knew that something strange had occurred. Nobody understood why at the time, but the expected investigation into the match never took place because, quite rightly, football found itself with something far more important to deal with. In the end, it was the publication of Dave Beasant’s autobiography, Tales of the Unexpected, which shed some light on the real reasons why Fitzharris did what he did.
Since then we have had some shocking refereeing performances involving Chelsea – as have most teams. We had David Elleray in the 1994 FA Cup Final. Was he a cheat? No, he was an arrogant little man who loved the limelight. He awarded a fair penalty followed by a dubious one. He went on TV after the game and told Des Lynam that both were clear penalties and that he had not made a mistake with either. He then wrote an autobiography in which he admitted that he knew as soon as he pointed to the spot that he had got the second one wrong. So, perhaps dishonest as well as arrogant – a fine example for a pompous Harrow schoolmaster to set to his pupils – but probably not a cheat.
I remember a lively old night in 1995 when Millwall came to the Bridge for an FA Cup replay. Martin Bodenham was the man in charge, and he denied the Blues three clear-cut penalties, two of which should have resulted in red cards for the culprits. The highlights were shown on BBC that night and Alan Hansen went as far as to praise the Chelsea players for maintaining their composure in light of the referee’s performance. However, I’ve always believed Bodenham’s refusal to deal with those incidents properly was more to do with his fear of upsetting an already volatile away following, who were sat in a temporary stand behind the Shed end goal and had easy access to the pitch. Not a cheat, but perhaps a coward. Bodenham’s actions backfired when the Chelsea fans reacted instead, and invaded the pitch themselves at the end of the game, having a mini-riot, albeit that Bodenham had long since escaped to the sanctuary of the referee’s room.
The recent evolution of the professional referee is where the cause for concern kicks in. Referees with agents – what’s that all about? Referees being sponsored (ahem, by a company owned by Tony Fernandes, also owner of QPR); Refs driving around in sponsored cars, on Harley Davidson’s, being paid to lend their name to betting companies (yes Mike Dean, you) and preening themselves like gods as they take to the pitch (you again, Mr Dean). It’s a dangerous precedent that is being set when a well-paid referee chooses to retire a year early, and uses that final year to accumulate as much controversy as possible to fill the book that he is writing. Have a look at Graham Poll’s conduct in his last year as a referee and decide for yourself whether you think his integrity should be called into question.
If the FA themselves have any integrity, which I somehow doubt, Chris Foy’s performance at Loftus Road last Sunday, and more generally his treatment of Chelsea in games he has refereed involving the club, should be investigated. No word of a lie, when I saw who the referee was on Sunday morning, I immediately feared the worst. When I met my mate at White City before kick-off and told him who was in charge, his one word response was ‘shit!’ Foy now boasts what he no doubt considers a proud record of five Chelsea players red carded by his own, inadequate hands. But it’s more than just the red cards that have to be looked at – those shown to Drogba on Sunday and Maniche against West Ham in 2006 were fair shouts – it’s as much to do with the curious number of 50/50 decisions he gives against us, the soft penalties awarded to opponents and the stonewall penalties denied us. And please, Sky Sports News, don’t go getting Dermot Gallagher on the next day to tell us that Foy did everything right. He might look like your favourite malnourished old uncle, but he was as bad as the next man when it came to applying the rulebook to suit. We found that out to our cost twice in one season during Ruud Gullit’s reign, when he first allowed Ray Parlour to swing a boot up Graeme Le Saux’s backside and then, later that season at Highbury, waved only a yellow at Steve Bould after he hauled back Gianluca Vialli as the Italian bore down on goal. People in glasshouses, and all that.
Of course, last Sunday’s defeat wasn’t all about the officials. The team didn’t turn up in the first half and at times it was embarrassing to watch. David Luiz is racking up penalty concessions and yellow cards at Frank Sinclair’s best rate, and should not be anywhere near the back-four at the moment. When I attended a meeting with Bruce Buck and some of the cfcuk boys back in April, I raised my concerns about Luiz with the chairman, who told me that his impetuous tendencies are the price you pay for having such talent. I disagree – as much as he is a fantastic player with the ball at his feet, until he learns some discipline he will remain a liability. As for Didier Drogba, who once again let his manager, team-mates and fans down with an act of stupidity, and then had the temerity to patronise Mikel on his way off the pitch, I’d be inclined to out him sooner rather than later. We’ve got Torres, Anelka, Sturridge, Lukaku and plenty of money to spend if needed; do we need a selfish, sulky guy like Drogba around the place? I saw him walk past the Chelsea fans, many of whom were blindly applauding him, and straight down the tunnel in Moscow. I saw him take a bit of the gloss off the Wigan game when we won the title by stropping off on the pitch because he couldn’t take a penalty. This time I feel let down because I and many others paid £50 to watch him turn a difficult position into a near-impossible one with yet another act of petulance. What must the likes of Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, both of whom were immense throughout the second half of the game, make of it when they see Drogba dropping them in it like that? He’s been a fantastic player for the club, but he’s also been a divisive figure too often – once too often in my opinion.
Of course, the John Terry race allegation has, possibly very cleverly and deliberately, been allowed to overshadow the other scandalous performances since Sunday night. Foy, a former policeman and therefore clearly a man of impeccable integrity, has begun to drift into the background, no doubt to referee another game in his own inimitable way next weekend, whilst JT is yet again hauled over the coals by a salivating media. However, if – and it’s a big if in my opinion – JT is proven to have racially abused Anton Ferdinand, he will deserve to have the book thrown at him. That said, I would be amazed if the Chelsea captain, standing alongside Ashley Cole at the time he is alleged to have made the comment, would be stupid and ignorant enough to make racist comments as captain of a team, half of which is made up of black players. It just doesn’t ring true. And why berate Ferdinand for the colour of his skin when there are so many other words you can use: goofy, useless and chav being three that immediately spring to mind, and which also form a sentence that is simple to remember, yet perfectly summarise the man who made Titus Bramble the rock at the heart of Sunderland’s defence.
The latest development, that the police are now investigating following a complaint from a member of the public, seems worryingly like the start of a witch-hunt. If the alleged victim or anybody else in the vicinity wants to make a complaint then it must be taken seriously. If some hoop-clad twat, sitting alone in his Acton bedroom with just Sky Sports News and a box of tissues, not knowing if he’s more excited by Georgie Thompson or John Terry, decides to pipe up with a complaint, surely it’s pinch of salt time?
Ferdinand himself didn’t look too upset as he – from a safe distance – abused the Chelsea fans on his way off the pitch at the end of the game. Believe me, he wouldn’t have done that back in the day. It’s one thing being Billy Big Balls when you’ve got your mates with you and you’re trying to impress 16-year old Ilford girls in Faces Nightclub, but the likes of Anton aren’t quite so brave when the 16-year-old girls are replaced by grown men. Likewise Shaun Derry, QPR’s supposed midfield hard man. Derry, a self-styled tough guy more in keeping with Robbie Savage than Graeme Souness, gave me one of my highlights of Sunday, not that there were many.
There was a time when a hard man in football was just that. These days, so-called hard men, like Derry, are nothing other than lippy irritants. That’s where the similarity with Savage comes in. I heard the blonde ponce referred to recently as ‘Strictly’s hard man’, which may be true when you consider his competition is a couple of camp panellists and Jason Donovan – although more than anything it tells you all you need to know about Audley Harrison’s credentials as a heavyweight boxer – but hard man, are you sure? Savage spent his whole career trying to wind up opponents to get them sent off. If he flew into a tackle, it was invariably with a player the size of your average primary school kid. The one time he made the mistake of taking on somebody bigger than him, Dion Dublin, he ended up rolling around on the pitch, crying like a baby. Real midfield hard men, guys like Souness, Roy Keane and Vinnie Jones, didn’t want their opponents sent off. They wanted them on the pitch where they could deal with them. With all due respect to Frank Lampard, he is not a Souness, Keane or Jones, but on Sunday when Derry realised he had gone too far with him and it was all getting a bit spicy, it was the Rangers man who couldn’t get off the pitch quick enough, falling to the ground and immediately gesturing that he needed to be substituted. I laughed my nuts off. Let’s see if Derry plays next weekend. If he’s out injured I will accept I was wrong. If he plays, we will all know the truth about QPR’s midfield ‘hard man’.
Another home player who didn’t cover himself in glory was Paddy Kenny, whose rolling around on the floor feigning injury after JT brushed past him went unpunished by the nice Mr Foy. If that’s what constitutes a man where Kenny comes from, it’s no wonder his wife left him for one of his mates. But what more would we expect from a team managed by Neil Warnock – or Colin W*nker to give him the moniker by which he is known throughout football? Never has there been a more perfect anagram of a person’s name. The fact that Colin saw fit to patronise Andre Villas-Boas after the game would have left a sour taste in the Portuguese’s mouth. After all, AVB may be ‘young’, but he has achieved more in the game at 34 than Colin has at 57. Perhaps Colin would have had more admiration for him if he had followed his own lead from his time at Sheffield United, and got the game abandoned by telling his players to feign injury and pick up more red cards so that the referee had no alternative but to call it off.
But the QPR players weren’t all bad – for every chav, coward, Colin and goalie who couldn’t satisfy his wife, there was a Fitz Hall or Luke Young, who spent most of the second half acting as peacemakers. They kept their heads when nigh on everyone in a Chelsea shirt lost theirs, albeit understandably in the one-sided circumstances. Even Joey Barton managed to rise above it all. I’m not somebody who is taken in by his inflated status within the game ever since he starting quoting philosophy on his Twitter account – and as hard men go, this Joey is far more Deacon than Jones – but he took a fair bit of provocation on Sunday and kept his head. Fair play to him. He’s still a prat, though.