“I got to the age of 29 and got sent off, because a player kicked me and I kicked him back. I tried to get the referee to rescind the decision. The referee stopped me before I could go any further and said ‘if you think you can do any better, have a go yourself’.”
That was referee Jon Moss speaking to the Cambridgeshire FA last year and recalling the eureka moment when he decided to swap boots for a whistle.
And now? One to file under ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time’, perhaps.
The same Moss became English football’s public enemy number one last week, when his controversial handling of the Leicester City-West Ham game left him wide open to a different kind of shrill blast: vilification on the pitch, from the stands and, day after day, all across the airwaves.
The reviews must have made for indigestible reading over his morning hemlock. “The worst ever” — Peter Schmeichel.
“Worst refereeing performance I have witnessed all season” — Keith Hackett.
“Lost the plot” — Graham Poll.
“(The game) was too much for him” — Alan Shearer.
“(He went) from one chaotic decision to another” — Keith Hackett again.
If Jon Moss was a Broadway show, he’d have been closed down after one night.
What’s undeniably true is that, in footballing parlance, Moss endured something between a bad day at the office and a ‘mare at the King Power Stadium.
However, had he been a player blasting wide from in front of an open goal, the reviews — especially from his fellow ex-pros — might have been more of the mealy-mouthed ‘yes, Chappers, he’ll be disappointed with himself, there’ kind.
The referee, by contrast, is football’s softest target even as most of us would agree that his is the most unenviable job of anyone out there on the field of play.
Last Sunday was one of those days for Moss when, even when he was right, he was wrong, the cumulative effect of his decisions on the game’s key incidents leaving everybody, it seemed, with legitimate grounds for complaint.
In my opinion, Moss was right to show yellow to Jamie Vardy in the 56th minute after the striker clearly launched himself forward after a coming together with Angelo Ogbonna in the box.
The problem was that, because the referee had been wrong to book Vardy for an innocuous tackle in the first half, his correct decision to penalise the dive meant that Leicester’s talisman had to walk, although not before giving Moss a right earful that has landed him in even hotter water.
One goal up and down to 10 men, the home side held out until the 84th minute when Moss intervened with another game-changing decision.
Again, technically, he was right to penalise Wes Morgan for wrestling Winston Reid in the box but since, as many have pointed out, this sort of carry-on is a long-standing — or should that be long-falling? — blight in the game, there seemed to be something of the whimsical in the referee’s decision to choose that moment, so late in such a high-stakes match, to unveil a policy of zero tolerance.
And, then after Andy Carroll, had equalised for West Ham from the spot, there was an almost maddening inconsistency in the referee’s refusal to take precisely the same decisive action in the West Ham box when Ogbanna could be plainly seen with Robert Huth in a choke-hold before hurling him to the ground.
Finally, after Aaaron Cresswell put the Hammers 2-1 in front — and pity the full-back, whose brilliant half-volley would have hogged headlines in any other game — came the moment in injury time when, to everyone’s astonishment, Andy Carroll was judged to have brought down Jeff Schlupp after minimal contact in the box, the apparent generosity of the decision leaving the ref open to the accusation that, on top of all his previous troubles, his final mistake was to err on the side of trying to be too even-handed.
Up stepped Leonardo Ulloa to make it 2-2 before the ref’s whistle signalled the end of the drama on the pitch but just the beginning of his own public ordeal.
In the hurricane of vitriol which promptly engulfed Jon Moss, there was one notably calm, even sympathetic voice.
To his credit, the admirable West Ham manager Slaven Bilic was one of the few in football who demonstrated the empathy required to put himself in the ref’s shoes.
“It’s hard for him,” he said. “Here you have 32,000 people screaming at every contact in the box, every long ball in the box.
“If it’s for the home side, it’s a penalty or handball. If it’s in the other box, it’s cheat or dive or whatever.
“It’s hard, it’s extremely hard for him and the game went like crazy and they were losing. It’s easy now to say the refs shouldn’t get influenced by the fans.
“On paper, it is easy to say that. Actually, it’s real life.”
Of course, even Bilic’s velvet glove masked a steel fist: to the rest of the charges he faced, Moss was now being accused of having buckled under the pressure exerted by the howling Leicester faithful.
But, on further reflection, Bilic might also have pointed out something else: all of the game’s leading personalities who directed their fire at Moss did so with the inestimable benefit of having been able to review each and every one of his decisions with the help of multiple camera angles and slow-motion replays.
They also had ample time to tease it out and refine their scripts before clearing their throats and delivering damning judgment on the only man who had been required to rely on the evidence of his own eyes and instincts to make split-second decisions in the heat and blur of battle.
I suspect that, by now, my own long-suffering readers will guess where this is going.
But the well-worn arguments in this column in favour of the introduction of the ‘video ref’ are not here deployed solely out of sympathy for football’s latest devil.
This is about more than one man; it’s about justice for the game itself and, crucially, for the idea that merit is rewarded in the long run.
Here’s the nightmare scenario: should the dropped points and Vardy’s suspension arising out of Sunday’s game ultimately mean the difference between Leicester City winning the title or finishing as also-rans, then one of sport’s most romantic and uplifting stories will perish in large part, not just on human error, but on the stubborn refusal of football to allow its key officials access to a technology so routinely available to the multitudes that those of us following the action in our sitting rooms last week were, in effect, better-placed than Jon Moss to right the wrongs of the game’s key decisions.
Outside of White Hart Lane, there will be widespread deflation if the Leicester fairytale doesn’t end with King Claudio and his people living happily ever after.
But if this remarkable Premier League season does end in anti-climax for the Foxes — and the events of last Sunday prove crucial in their coming up short after such a magnificent effort across this season (and the end of the last one, for that matter) — then, as far as I’m concerned, those who rail against the idea of the appliance of science in football will have a lot more explaining to do than Jon Moss.
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