Rightly, wrongly or clumsily, Salut! Sunderland allowed a splendid piece of whimsy from Pete Sixsmith, which also offered serious discussion of the steady progress of Stoke City as a well-run Premier League club, to degenerate into another ugly spat over Ryan Shawcross’s 2011 challenge on Aaron Ramsey.
But, as a new study reminds us, the history of Arsenal grievance and victimhood goes back a long way …
In his latest look at footballing issues for The International Journal of the History of Sport, Tom Webb makes the unstartling suggestion “that increasingly outspoken views on football referees over the last century have gone hand in hand with the growth of modern media”.
In his research to support this truism, Dr Webb considers the interesting case of W P “Percy” Harper, a referee whose handling of the 1932 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Newcastle stirred massive controversy.
“That occasion represented the pinnacle of his career, but his decision to allow a controversial goal sparked a mass of press coverage – including furious letters accusing him of ‘letting Newcastle win’,” says Dr Webb, senior lecturer in sports management and development in the University of Portsmouth’s department of sport and exercise science.
It was, as every football anorak would tell you, the notorious “over-the-line” final. A goal down to the more fancied Gunners, Newcastle drew level before half-time.
Jimmy Richardson (not Jimmy Boyd as stated in the old clip) chased a long ball to the byline and crossed it to Jack Allen who scored. But the Arsenal players protested that the ball had gone out before Richardson crossed it and photographic evidence shows they were right to be aggrieved. Allen went on to score Newcastle’s winner.
The Daily Herald, a much-missed newspaper of Monsieur Salut’s childhood, ran the headline “Cup Final goal was not a goal. Film proves it – yet it must stand.” The Northern Echo had a good piece on the subject last year, when discussing a new book by Roger Domeneghetti, From The Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media.
The great Charlie Buchan, who had been an unforgettable hero as a Sunderland and later Arsenal player, was watching from “high up in the Wembley grandstand”, as he recalled in a section of his autobiography Charles Buchan: A Lifetime in Football written shortly after Harper’s death.
From there, he “could clearly see the white line with the ball beyond it … press photographs and cinema shots showed likewise. But the linesman on the spot and referee Harper had no doubts. They were the judges.” Years later, Richardson told Buchan in what the mischievous would call true Wenger fashion: “I was concentrating so hard on reaching the ball that i could not tell you even now whether it was over the line or not.”
As Tom Webb discovered, the 1932 final was not the only controversy in referee Harper’s career. And after another disputed decision during a match between two Irish teams, he received letters containing accusations of match-fixing and even death threats.
But Dr Webb, who used Harper’s personal archive in his research, finds that the press coverage of those times included both positive as well as negative comments.
“In 1933, for example, a match report in the Oldham Chronicle stated that ‘next to Athletic’s dashing football the most enjoyable feature of the match was the way in which Mr W P Harper of Stourbridge controlled the game’,” he says. Salut! Sunderland‘s modest observation on that would be that while criticism of match officials has certainly become harsher and more commonplace, the advent of the retired ref as pundit – praising correct decisions as well as pointing out errors – has redressed the balance a little.
Dr Webb writes: “It’s fascinating to look back at the career of W P Harper and compare it to the experience of modern referees. We can learn much about current media interest by doing this.
“He kept much of the press coverage he received during his working life, which gives us a valuable insight into the experiences of referees at a time when newspapers, radio and latterly television were establishing a powerful presence.
“Referees were contending with a growing level of attention and scrutiny to which they had never previously been exposed. That was consequently affecting the general public’s view of the role and the importance of the referee.
“Radio in particular had a substantial impact on the game of Association Football. Wireless licences rose from two million in 1927 to nine million by 1939 – a total that represented 71 per cent of all UK households.”
Readers may recall earlier research by Dr Webb suggesting that professional referees are not subjected to as much media criticism as they think they are, despite the huge increase in media attention. He also concluded in a survey of 2,000 referees, carried out last year in conjunction with Loughborough and Edge Hill universities, that verbal abuse towards match officials is rife.
“The reporting and analysis of referees’ performances is part of the modern game,” he says. “Looking at Harper’s experience, the growing focus on the referee was evident, although perhaps the most obvious difference to the game today was the positive reporting of the match official which was still evident in the 1930s, and is more difficult to find in reports on the modern game of Association Football.
“It’s also worth noting the difference in referees’ approach at this time. It would be unusual to find a referee in the modern game being praised in a report for joking with the crowd, chatting with the players and helping to carry off an injured player.”
Dr Webb concluded: “Looking at the early role of the media, and its direct impact on referees, increases our understanding of the development of this relationship and the role of the media in Association Football in the game today.”