Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Poll Position

The football season is only a few matches old and we are already subjecting every referee’s decision to detailed forensic examination. While it is true that there have been many utterly inept refereeing displays (take a bow Howard Webb, Mike Dean and Mark Clattenburg), what is annoying me even more is the increasing media exposure of referees after they have hung up their whistles, especially the “thing from Tring”, Mr. Graham Poll.

These days Poll is all over the place like a particularly virulent virus. The BBC often wheel him out as an expert to pronounce on any refereeing controversy, while the Daily Mail have seen fit to give him a weekly column entitled “The Official Line” (geddit?), which may as well be called “Graham Poll Talks Bollocks” (not that he would mind, so long as his name’s in the headlines). As if that’s not bad enough, he also appears on Chappers’ Premier League Podcast, which at least knows the nature of the beast: “he’ll have plenty to talk about … not that that would stop him even if there wasn’t”. The producers also cannot resist pointing out that Graham finished bottom of their Pundits’ Predictions League.

"No, you shut up"

Poll’s shtick is essentially to criticise referees for their dodgy decisions, taking aim at Mike Riley and Andy D’Urso among others. Leaving aside the delicious irony of Graham Poll passing judgment on the quality of somebody else’s refereeing, his comments are a waste of ink and may as well be translated as “Look at me!” On one occasion à propos of the Respect Campaign, he asked how we could respect referees when they continue to make appalling decisions. It is already tiresome enough that the majority of post-match “analysis” consists of little more than pompous pundits and imbecilic ex-pros ridiculing referees’ decisions, their omniscience based upon numerous slow-motion replays from every conceivable angle, without Poll willfully misunderstanding the objective of Respect, which was to reduce ugly scenes of dissent - whether or not the decision was correct.

Even when Poll’s aim is true, such as when he labelled the saviour of English football, Saint Steven of Gerrard, as a diver, the impression was that Poll’s objective was not so much to help clean up the sport, but to ensure that his name was once again in the spotlight. Self-importance just screams through his comments: “It gives me no satisfaction to name and shame him, but I was disappointed by Steven Gerrard last weekend”. Put a sock in it, you pompous prat.

"Three is a magic number"

Of course, this paragon of perfection is best known for his three card trick during the Croatia vs Australia match at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when he failed to send off the Croatian defender Josep Simunic for a second yellow card, before eventually dismissing him after his third yellow at the final whistle. Poll had been tipped, not least in his own mind, as a potential candidate to referee the World Cup Final, but he completely lost the plot in this game with a series of errors ending any hopes of taking charge of the tournament’s showpiece. He also managed to start the game early; blow for full-time just as what would have been Australia’s winner crossed the line; and miss a blatant handball in the penalty area.

If he weren’t so arrogant, you could almost feel sorry for him. Just imagine working your way to the very top of your profession, being given a worldwide stage and you completely cock it up. It was the equivalent of Ant and Dec turning up drunk for the Royal Variety Performance and interrupting their standard Geordie bonhomie by mooning Her Majesty. Former World Cup referee Clive Thomas, not unaccustomed to embarrassing himself at a World Cup, described Poll’s comedy show as “one of the worst performances of a referee I have ever seen in a World Cup. He lost complete control. It was pretty grim”. Former colleague and rival, Jeff Winter, contented himself with, “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy”. Predictably, FIFA sent Graham home after his error-strewn display – Poll Axed!

"Little Graham is this big"

This was not the only blemish on Poll’s record at the 2006 World Cup. He had already caused much amusement in the Togo vs South Korea match, when he sent off a player for a second bookable offence, but accidentally brandished a red card before discovering the second yellow. As the cards multiplied, it was like watching a second-rate magician on Blackpool Pier. It was no great surprise when Premier League fans greeted Poll on his return from Germany with his very own chant, “World Cup – and you fucked it up”, though you can't help thinking that a large part of Poll was probably happy to be the centre of attention.

Poll has a bit of previous from the World Cup, having attracted controversy for his role in the Italy vs Croatia game in 2002, when he incorrectly disallowed two Italian goals, one for offside and one for shirt pulling. Italian striker Christian Vieri resisted the temptation to place a horse’s head in Poll’s bed, but did say, “Those weren’t division one or division two officials – they were village officials”. Poll himself admitted, “I’ve had three major championships (Euro 2000, World Cup 2002 and World Cup 2006) and not one has gone right for me for various reasons”, though it’s not clear whether this reflects a rare moment of self-doubt or if he’s just bemoaning his bad luck.

"Finally we see the back of Poll"

Domestically, there have also been a couple of high profile gaffes. In the dying seconds of the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool in 2000, Poll blew for time as a clearance was rebounding off Don Hutchison’s back for what would have been a match-winning goal. At the time everyone knew that Poll had found a convenient way of avoiding a difficult decision, though he strenuously denied this until seven years later, when he finally confessed, “I remember when I made a right ricket in the last minute of an Everton-Liverpool derby match and disallowed what was probably a perfectly good goal”.

In the 2003 FA Cup Semi-Final, in the build-up to Arsenal’s goal in a 1-0 victory, Poll obstructed a Sheffield United midfielder with the kind of blocking move that an American Footballer would be proud of. Unsurprisingly, Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock was unimpressed, “I shouldn’t really say what I feel, but Poll was their best midfielder. You saw him coning off at half-time and at the end. He was smiling so much, that he obviously enjoyed that performance”.

To be fair, refereeing is a mug’s game. Another former referee, David Elleray perfectly summarised the role, “Bad refereeing performances are remembered, while good performances are forgotten”. Despite what most fans believe, the majority of referees have significantly more good games than bad and over the course of officiating at more than 1,500 matches, Poll must have managed to get the overwhelming majority of decisions right, otherwise his career would not have lasted so long.

"A great ref and Graham Poll"

However, Poll ignored the golden rule of refereeing, which is that officials should be as inconspicuous as possible, enforcing the rules without becoming the story. Like spin doctors, that’s a sign of failure, but Poll never shied away from self-promotion. There’s no doubt that Poll enjoyed his time in the limelight and he never seemed to be content with just being the man in black blowing the whistle. The Football Supporters’ Federation said, “Poll had a tendency towards the theatrical and grandiloquent gesture. It is a difficult job, but sometimes referees need reminding that supporters have paid their money to watch the players, not them”.

Throughout his career, the self-styled (pretty) “Polly” had two personas: the card-happy disciplinarian and the friend-of-the-players showman. In the latter guise, he used to grin at the players in what he probably believed was a reassuringly avuncular manner, but actually looked more like the slightly forced grimace of a sleazy bloke on the bus. Seemingly desperate to bask in football’s reflected glow, he wanted more headlines than the players in order to feed his insatiable ego. His mindset was revealed last season: “Howard Webb found out just this week that he’d got the Cup Final and I think what you do is you think, ‘I’ve got to prove I’m the best referee’ and you look for a big call”. So, instead of just applying the rules, Poll would rather focus on making a name for himself.

Since his retirement, Poll has admitted that Premiership referees treat top players differently, as if we had any doubts. During an interview on Setanta Sports, following John Terry being give a straight red in a match against Everton, Poll suggested that officials could be influenced by the furore arising from sending-off the England captain, resulting in a scathing attack from Arsene Wenger, who momentarily abandoned his customary diplomatic approach to describe Poll as an “embarrassment”.

"You don't know what you're doing"

England’s Brave John Terry and Chelsea have loomed large in Poll’s career. Indeed, Poll claimed that the FA’s unwillingness to back him in his row with Chelsea undermined officials’ authority and drove him to an early retirement. Terry had claimed that Poll changed his mind about the reason for his dismissal against Tottenham, while other Chelsea players alleged that Poll had told them that their discipline was “out of order” and they “needed to be taught a lesson”. Turning the pomposity level up to the max, Poll harrumphed, “It’s not about Graham Poll. It’s about the FA saying we are custodians of the game and we have to show the world of football that if you speak out against a referee, you get punished, and if you lie about a referee, my word, you’re going to get punished”.

In Poll’s very next game, he sent off Everton’s James McFadden for calling him a “fucking cheat”, which in Poll’s egocentric universe he only did, because he thought he could get away with it, as the FA hadn’t charged Chelsea. In his own inimitable manner, Jose Mourinho, then Chelsea manager, applied his own version of the Poll Tax, “Graham Poll is good for games like these, because he makes so many mistakes, the players get angry and motivated”.

Poor old Graham was not even respected by his peers. Commenting on a curious incident when the lovable Robbie Savage was caught short and had to use the officials’ facilities, former colleague Jeff Winter revealed, “the referee in question was not one of my favourite people. In fact, anyone who craps in Graham Poll’s toilet can’t be all bad”. Maybe his lack of popularity was due to an incident that occurred at a pre-season training camp for officials when Poll was suspended for his boozy behaviour, including climbing on car bonnets and screaming “Top of the world!” (OK, I made the last bit up).

"Poll dancing"

More seriously, Poll left a sense of betrayal among referees when he advised commercial agents and journalists of his intention to prematurely retire before he had the courtesy to inform his employers. Most commentators were virtually unanimous in their view that early retirement was one decision Poll got right, especially after his lowly ranking in the referees’ performance table suggested that he had passed his peak. Typically, Poll’s exit involved controversial, publicity grabbing, remarks that referees were “losing the war” against badly behaved managers and players. The self-appointed mouthpiece claimed to be speaking on behalf of the country’s 27,000 referees (“men, women and boys”), but this is clearly a case of egotism poorly disguised as altruism. It is hard to see what positive message Poll quitting early when at the top could possibly send to those climbing the ladder beneath him. Maybe he does care about these people, but the main achievement was to draw yet more attention to Poll himself.

In fact, there are those that believe that Poll turned his final season into a lengthy promotional tour for his future media career. BBC’s Inside Sport lent him a camera to make a documentary that was effectively a video retirement speech to his public. You might feel that his quest for celebrity status should not have been made at the licence payers’ expense, but the resulting film is a classic of its kind. Rarely can a man who claims that he is not interested in himself have been filmed so often going into the paper shop first thing the morning after a game to check how many headlines he had generated. He told the camera that he would hate the last memory in the public mind of Graham Poll to be of his fiasco at the World Cup. Rest assured, after this film, our last memory of Graham Poll is surely of a bloke endlessly referring to himself in the third person.

Unfortunately, there is more to Graham Poll, as can be read in his autobiography, “Seeing Red”. Ignoring the reality that the only time most people want to see a referee put pen to paper is when he is booking someone, Poll could not resist the opportunity to put his side of the story and settle a few old scores, though the sub-text is how great he is. There is one example of surprising self-awareness when he admits that as a child he used to over-compensate for his insecurity by acting completely over-the-top. This need to assert his personality followed him into his refereeing career, ultimately undermining his authority.

Still, Poll’s effort (“I showed three yellow cards to the same player – here’s my book”) is streets ahead of Jeff Winter’s “Who’s the Bastard in the Black?” with its excruciating description of his last match at Anfield: “I played a little bit of extra time, waiting until play was at the Kop end, before sounding the final shrill blast. The fans behind the goal burst into spontaneous applause. It was longer and louder than normal, even for a big home win. Did they know it was my final visit? Was it applause for me? They are such knowledgeable football people, it would not surprise me”. Winter’s tedious account of life in the middle fully justified Steve Bruce’s comment that he had the “personality of a bag of chips”.

Just about the only good thing I can think of to say about Graham Poll is that he single-handedly refutes the moronic argument from the likes of Jamie Redknapp that referees from countries like Norway or Slovakia don’t have enough experience at the top level. I mean a Premier League official like Graham Poll would never make an arse of himself in front of the world’s media, would he? Oh, hang on.

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