Roger Alton

Was the Checkatrade the best football of the year?

Was the Checkatrade the best football of the year?
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Sometimes you fear for Neil Warnock. The embattled Cardiff manager is 70 and operates at level 11 all the time; quite how long before the old boy explodes is a worry-ing question. But he was quite right to combust over some appalling refereeing decisions during his Cardiff side’s completely undeserved defeat by Chelsea at the weekend, with a blatantly offside goal being just one of his many justifiable grievances.

Has there ever been a season when so many bizarre decisions by referees have affected the results of so many crucial matches? That Cardiff result could have a profound effect on their relegation battle, which could then impact on jobs, money and opportunities in the region. All because of one dozy linesman. It should be Swansea City playing Brighton in the semis of the FA Cup on Saturday, rather than Manchester City, who didn’t deserve to beat the Swans but scraped through, thanks to some dreadful refereeing. Aguero completed a hat-trick in the City/Arsenal game in February with a blatant handball, and when Liverpool drew with West Ham, Milner was so far offside it was visible from space when he crossed for Mané to score the opening goal.

And so on: obvious handballs, blatant shirt-pulling, clear penalties not given. It is almost as if referees have given up worrying about making even easy decisions in preparation for next season, when all this stress will be taken out of their hands, they can make the box signal in the air and hurry over to the telly to have a good look. Will there be a time limit on rulings? Or will really tricky situations last for minutes on end? Will some matches descend into a sort of footballing Brexit in which the officials and the VAR can’t come to a consensus and indicative free kicks are awarded with no legal status?

Sure, it’s a gripping Premier League and all that, but difficult questions have to be asked: how ready is the nation for Liverpool to win the title? Great players, fantastic history, charismatic manager of course. But as my 13-year-old friend Fred said, ‘We’ll never hear the end of it.’ Liverpool do have the knack of getting up people’s noses even more than the Manchester big boys.

For thousands of fans, the best football of the year was the Checkatrade final between Portsmouth and Sunderland, two great cities and two great football traditions. There were no blazers, no corporates, just red and blue. Full of grans and kids and very very noisy. Each outfit conscious that the other was a proper old club (both had their grounds designed by the great Archibald Leitch, the Christopher Wren of football stadiums), and both have a long-suffering fan base who would still turn out in their thousands for a relegation tussle in the Evo-Stik Southern League. Touts too, and I doubt whether they have ever bothered much with the Checkatrade. The spirit of football, eh!

It’s the Boat Race this weekend and you’ve probably seen some extraordinary beefcake pictures of James Cracknell, looking much the same now as when he won Olympic Gold, and competing for Cambridge at the age of 46, smashing the record for the oldest oarsman by almost 11 years. Has there ever been a more vivid demonstration of the way university sport has changed than the fact that a father of three whose marriage difficulties have been well chronicled is taking part in the battle of the young blades on the Tideway?

Cracknell is doing a Masters in human evolution, but god forbid Cambridge gave an easy postgrad place to a great sportsman who could bring some stardust. I am sure Cracknell will be knuckling down to his studies after the race, Come on this Sunday, Crackers.

Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

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