Opinion: League deserves better than current refereeing standards

Referee Colin Burns waves away Ballymena United players' protests over the 'penalty that never was' saga in Saturday's game against Cliftonville. Picture: Press Eye.
Referee Colin Burns waves away Ballymena United players' protests over the 'penalty that never was' saga in Saturday's game against Cliftonville. Picture: Press Eye.

Warden Street must be a bit quieter around 4.30pm on Saturdays when Ballymena United are playing home matches this season.

Whereas in the past it was common to see disgruntled fans filing out of the Showgrounds early, despondent at another impending home defeat, it would be a brave person who would leave their seat before the final whistle sounds in the current campaign.

The first two months of this season must rank among the most memorable in recent history at Showgrounds.

Next time you hear an armchair fan badmouthing the Irish League (because, after all, you never, EVER see a bad game on Sky) they would do well to take in the local game because some of the matches I’ve watched involving Ballymena have been little short of sensational.

And yet, with grim predictability, you just know that you’re going to come away from games talking about refereeing decisions rather than the great goals and excitement being produced.

Now - and this might come as a surprise to regular readers of this column - I’m actually dead against this continual criticism of referees - particularly by TV pundits who have the benefit of 47 different camera angles and slow-motion replays.

Sadly, however, that’s not what we’re talking about in the Irish League. We’re talking about decision so glaringly obviously wrong; decisions that can be seen at actual speed, from the grandstand to be utterly nonsensical - and that is where public sympathy for officials is in short supply.

Already this season in Ballymena games we’ve seen two ‘phantom’ corners awarded - one which led to Glenavon’s winning goal at the end of August and the second awarded to Glentoran which would have resulted in the same outcome had the referee on that occasion not extricated himself from that situation by awarding a questionable free kick to Ballymena as soon as the corner was taken.

But those glaring errors were dwarfed by Colin Burns’ decision not to award Ballymena a penalty in Saturday’s pulsating draw with Cliftonville.

If it was a scenario where the referee was simply in the wrong place or perhaps had his view of Ryan Catney’s handball blocked by another player running across his line of vision, you might have to put it down to bad luck.

But when you have the referee’s assistant - twice as close to the incident as the referee - raising his flag across his chest and the referee doesn’t react to it, you begin to question why the assistant is there at all.

Even if you give the referee the benefit of the doubt that he let play go on, when Matthew Tipton’s shot flew over the bar it should immediately have been called back for the penalty when no advantage came from it.

Therefore, it has to be deduced that the referee didn’t think it was a penalty at all, thereby making his much better-placed assistant look foolish.

Cliftonville fans might argue - and many Ballymena fans might agree - that Tipton shouldn’t have been on the pitch at all after earlier catching Jude Winchester with his swinging arm - a motion which, even if unintentional, commonly results in a red card. All that does is serve to highlight another key decision in the match which Mr Burns might make differently if he had the opportunity to make it again.

I don’t usually agree with teams surrounding referees - I think back to Manchester United players chasing Andy d’Urso around Old Trafford like something out of a Benny Hill sketch - but surely to goodness when a referee sees eight or nine players from a team frantically trying to raise his attention to something, his first thought would be ‘might I have made a mistake here?’.

At the moment, the Irish League as a product is suffering from officiating which is detracting from what the players are producing on the pitch - and that can’t be right in my book.

* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena).