Match wrap: Sunderland 3 Oxford United 1

A friend of mine worked a lot in East Asia, he once told a story of flying to Japan, being picked up by his hosts, taken for dinner and plied with drinks until the early hours. Exhausted and now very drunk he was taken to what he initially thought was a brothel, but turned out to be a karaoke bar with private hosted rooms. For hours the party – strangers up until the point they’d met at the airport – sang pop classics like old friends. He remembers banging a tambourine on the bottom of one of the female hosts and singing arm in arm a Japanese pop classic despite not speaking a word of the language. Eventually tiredness overtook him, he made his excuses and returned to his hotel. An email was sent to his boss the following morning about the disrespect he’d shown by leaving early.

The biggest challenge, he said, was trying to understand the logic of a country which in no way resembled our own. For them, the night out was part of the meeting, for him, blowing off steam before the meeting happened. At least in Europe, there were shared norms, in Japan or China, the systems have been built in a different universe.

Football has its own universal shared framework of rules and norms, both implicit and explicit. You may not agree with something, but you broadly understand why it happens. For example, it’s not unusual that when something negative happens – a player goes down under a light challenge for a penalty – someone will remind us that we’d have been quite happy if we’d done it ourselves.

Referees operate within that system, by and large they do a good job keeping the framework intact. I may not agree with everything they do, but I can’t think of a time when I’ve thought the referee had any significant bearing on a game. That’s not true when it comes to Trevor Kettle. 

I was aware of the presence of Kettle before I knew him; I remember others mentioning him whenever a contentious issue came up, but assumed it was just nerdy football chat – who knows the names of referees? Then I became aware that games that involved him seemed to operate on a different framework of logic, I could tell from the pattern of a game that he was involved. 

Against Sunderland, I had no idea he was the referee; I barely look at our starting eleven, let alone the match officials. But, I was aware that early innocuous fouls and bookings were making the game a strange watch. It’s been said that being a referee is part event management, applying the rules is one thing, but keeping everything on an even keel as a spectacle is more important. It wasn’t panning out like a normal game.

It’s not bias, it’s his ability to inflame what was otherwise a good game by applying his own lore. James Henry was booked even though he’d been beaten by Aiden McGeady and didn’t touch the player. Mark Sykes’ second yellow – resulting in his sending off – was the result of him pouncing on a loose ball three yards from their goal. There was no malice in either challenge, no goal scoring opportunities were denied; in Sykes’ case, the decision had a disproportionate impact on the game than the crime deserved.

All this came after an apparent incident in the tunnel involving Jack Stevens being headbutted. Whatever the details, it seems something happened and Kettle knew about it. Rather than managing the second-half conservatively, avoiding moments of contention and cooling the tension, he continued his idiosyncratic way.

I wouldn’t rule out referees enjoying being centre of attention, but I think it’s more about being ego-centric. At one level you have to want to be the only person on the pitch in a particular kit, the only person with a whistle, the only person with the power to stop and start a game and punish players. It would be easy to think that you are the most important person in the game. At work we have someone who manages staff expenses, and you’d think by the way they act the company’s only reason to exist is to process Pret-a-Manger receipts and train tickets. The better referees are the ones able to suppress perceptions of their own importance for the good of the game.

The pivotal moment was the free-kick which led to Aiden McGeady’s goal. I’m never really sure about the rules around a quick free-kick, but it seems odd that a referee can arbitrarily decide when you can take one with players lying on the floor and when you allow two to three minutes for everyone to get ready. 

Either way, in the context of a game which was getting heated with the sending off and the altercation in the tunnel, why introduce more controversy into the mix? Quick free-kicks are always controversial, that should come as no shock. Nobody would have commented had he held the game and at least allow Cameron Brannagan to get back on his feet. Why did he think the best option was to let the game continue? An over confidence in his own ability and importance? An under-valuing of everything around him? The logic of Kettle, I guess.

Until the framework of the game was dismantled, our performance was good and we saw, yet again, what we’ve missed with James Henry being out. But, if we do have ambitions to go up; then we really need more headroom to withstand the blows that come from a game like that. Missing out on the play-offs won’t be determined by the Sunderland game, but by other missed opportunities.

We are blighted by a malaise in English football, perhaps even wider society; success can only come after a struggle against the odds, a battle laced with heroic loss and collateral damage. If we were to make the play-offs, it would be via something extraordinary and by the skin of our teeth. It’s almost like we crave that. Real success comes from the sustained application of excellence, a relentless march. But we find that success boring, too Germanic, it’s so alien to us, we don’t think it’s achievable. We need to envisage a world where we don’t need to worry about the referee or anything else. That’s still some way off and the impact of Kettle-logic is still something that has too much impact on our destiny.

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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