The next Peter Fear?

After quite a bit of searching, I finally found a fact I’ve been looking for. A statistic that judges the true performance of a referee.

Referees’ performances are typically judged on a self-selected sample of what the cabal of pundits, players and managers call ‘Crucial Decisions’. The hypothesis is that referees tend to get the Crucial Decisions wrong. This is useful rues for managers, after all, how can they be at fault when referees, tend to get Crucial Decisions so wrong?

But it’s easy to say that a referee gets all his decisions wrong, if you the sample you’re getting this from is both subjectively chosen and based on a bunch of marginal calls (which you think are going to be wrong in the first place).

What would happen if you measured every decision? Given that every decision has some baring on the outcome on the game, each is, in its own way, crucial. Obviously there’s a degree of subjectivity in what constitutes a right and wrong decision, but research suggests that on average referees get between 92% and 99% of all decisions right.

This stands to reason; football would have been hoisted by its own petard long ago if results were entirely at the mercy of random refereeing decisions. The skills of players, so central to the attractiveness of the game, would be an irrelevance. In the end, the good teams end up winning, the bad teams end up losing. The referee doesn’t have much influence on the outcome of the game, he keeps things from becoming a brawling mess and he’s a convenient target for frustration.

It is reliant, then, on teams to manage games to their own advantage rather than rely on referees to help them win by making the ‘right’ Crucial Decisions. It is this savvyness which is missing from our game at the moment. Parts of what we’re doing are fine; but at the same time we seem so brittle. We get biffed by Chesterfield in the last minute of the first and second halves. The first half we were beyond designated injury time, the second half they took a quick free kick while we dozed. It’s not the referee’s responsibility to protect us. The moments at which we seem to rely on the referee to help us survive are the moments when the players should be taking responsibility for the situations they find themselves in.

At Barnet on Tuesday, in horrible conditions, we should have had enough to shut the game up once Andy Whing had put us ahead. We never really seemed to be in control; we just seemed to hope we’d survive the remaining 44 minutes of the game. We always looked vulnerable throughout, particularly from corners and crosses. Not so much that we’re not very good at defending set-pieces, more ilke that we don’t actually believe we can defend set-pieces.

It’s easy to blame Chris Wilder; it makes us feel better when there’s someone to blame. But, the reality is rarely that simple. We have geared ourselves heavily towards experienced players able to take responsibility on the pitch. A Wilder decision, no doubt, but you buy experience to give you experience. If you are in your late 20’s or older and you’ve sustained a professional football career, you shouldn’t have to rely on the manager to tell you what to do.

The player most frustrating with this regard is Peter Leven. Apart from That Goal and a couple of neat flicks in the games around that, Leven is not acting like a senior pro.

Last night, when the game needed to be slowed, the weather suggested the ball needed to be kept on the floor. Leven could have been slowing the pace, playing keep-ball. But, for some reason, he and Chapman let them run at us, through us, putting pressure on the back-four. The frustration I have is not so much what he does when he’s on the ball, it’s what he does when he’s not on it.

Leven, of course, was quickly branded a genius by Oxford fans. He could do anything. But he’s been injury prone and drifted in and out of the team. His purple patch seemed to last only a few games last season, we keep expecting the genius to re-emerge. But could we be waiting a long time? Is he just another Peter Fear; a player with the reputation of mercurial talent that persistently fails to deliver.

He’s no more the single point of weakness than Wilder is, but it’s another fracture in the way we are at the moment. The brittleness extends into the stands; gallows humour on the terraces may be funny, but we don’t seem to have the heart for the fight. The Ultimate Support Saturday couldn’t come at a better time, as The Boys From Up The Hill exude in a recent post.

What to be done? You could fire the manager, but you’d have the same players. You could spend more money on players, but that puts us into a financial mess. For me, one thing that could be done is to look at one of the successes of Kelvin Thomas’ era. Thomas could have been a bit of a maverick, but he knew how to draw together club and fans. If I were Ian Lenagan, recognising the constraints that surrounds the club at the moment, I’d look towards some initiatives in the vein of the 12th Man which made fans a contributor to the solution, not a critical outsider picking away at everyone’s confidence. Cohesion between fans and club will help give the players strength, like at the end of the season in Wilder’s first year; where a bunch of moderately talented players suddenly felt invincible. That’s the missing ingredient at the moment.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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