Confusing refereeing decisions are part of what makes football so addictive… not that Huddersfield will agree
It’s been 31 years and I still don’t think I’m done with Roger Milford. I also don’t expect that position to change anytime soon.
Milford was the referee who took charge of the 1991 FA Cup final which haunted my upbringing as a Nottingham Forest supporter. It was Forest v Tottenham Hotspur and probably the nicest thing you could say about a pumped-up Paul Gascoigne was that he was desperate, absolutely desperate, for his team to win.
His first challenge was to integrate his cleats into Garry Parker’s rib cage. Shortly after, he mowed down Gary Charles with all the subtlety of a hammer. It was so reckless that Gascoigne injured himself in the process and Milford decided it would be quite miserable, even cruel, to show him a red card. Spurs were saved from playing 75 minutes with 10 men. They won 2-1 and Milford never seemed to understand that his refereeing could have been part of it.
I know this because a while ago curiosity got the best of me and I asked Milford if he would be interviewed for a 30th anniversary play. I wanted to know if it was true that he had spared Gascoigne a red card out of pity and, as was always rumored, because he had a soft spot for him off the pitch.
“You referee with your heart,” he said. “A few years earlier, the referee (Peter Willis) sent off a Manchester United player, Kevin Moran, in the cup final. It is in the newspapers that “the referee ruined the cup final”. I had not forgotten it. And I thought, ‘Blimey. It’s the cup final, someone got sent off a few years ago and it ruined the cup final.
He felt sorry for Gascoigne, he explained. He mentioned that another Spurs player told him afterwards that mentally Gazza was “gone, absolutely gone” even before kick-off. He spoke of his own performance in glowing terms and there was unmistakable pride in his voice. But did he regret not having applied the rules? Not at all, he said. “Me and Gazza, honestly, we used to laugh. He was a nice guy. Everyone got along with Gazza.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that I know what it’s like to let a grievance fester for many years. It’s part of being a football fan. It’s unwavering, and if you dedicate yourself to a team, you learn that there will be a number of those moments in your life. These are grievances that can last for decades.
How I feel about 1991 is about on par, I guess, with how Chesterfield fans remember David Elleray for not realizing Jonathan Howard’s shot went under the bar cross and had landed behind the goal line when the Third Division club were trying to make FA Cup history in an infamous 1997 semi-final against Middlesbrough.
Liverpool fans of a certain generation will recall that Pat Partridge awarded a penalty for Phil Thompson’s trip over Forest’s John O’Hare in the 1978 League Cup Final when the offense was at a few meters from the area (“With a surname like mine”, the referee admitted: “I’m here to be shot”).
For the vindictive Leeds United, it is the name of Ray Tinkler who can whip them into a froth of moral outrage. Tinkler was the referee when title-chasing Leeds faced West Bromwich Albion at the end of the 1970-71 season and a goal prompted BBC commentator Barry Davies to declare: “Leeds are going to go crazy. And they have every right to go crazy.
The referee had allowed Tony Brown to set up Jeff Astle even though the linesman signaled offside. Leeds lost the league to Arsenal by a single point and Elland Road was closed for four games at the start of the following season due to player and fan backlash.
“There are people who still hold a grudge,” Tinkler, now 90, recalled in a 2009 interview. “I was a farmer and sold potatoes in the Barnsley, Leeds and Rotherham area. There was a man who came to see me and said, “I’m going to take some potatoes from that bastard referee.” I used to charge him five cents a ton more for calling me a bastard.
Jon Moss will probably recognize that sentiment, now that he has suddenly achieved pet peeve status among Huddersfield Town supporters after last weekend’s Championship play-off final.
Moss was refereeing for the last time in his 34-year career and in doing so he denied what looked suspiciously like two penalties by Forest players. Huddersfield have demanded an explanation from Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the organization in charge of referees, and it’s probably no coincidence that Moss’ record store in Leeds suddenly received a load of one-star reviews. on line. Football fans can be very vengeful when they feel wronged. Unfortunately, Moss had to call the police due to threats to his safety.
Does Huddersfield have a legitimate grievance? Well, yes, of course they do. Promotion to the Premier League would be worth around £200m. But at what price prestige and glory? Of course, they have the right to be harmed. Of course they want to rage.
At that point, you may have to forgive me for saying that I know from experience it hurts a lot, but in the end it would be dishonest of me – with apologies to my Yorkshire friends – to say that I wish it had been different. Every Forest fan I know has spent the last week drunk with euphoria. Does it make it any less wonderful that it involved a bit of controversy and a healthy dose of good fortune? I would be lying if I said that. Some might say, in fact, that makes it even better.
I understand that’s not the noblest approach and it’s not what Huddersfield fans probably want to hear either. But that’s the thing with football fans: deep down, we all have elastic principles when it comes to referees, VAR and moments of controversy. If luck is on your side, you gratefully take what is given to you. You are happy that it is not your turn to suffer. Because you know next time it might be – and it’s not fun to be in that position at all.
If anything, it’s been strange how everything has escalated this week when at the time there didn’t seem to be much controversy surrounding Forest’s win.
This was largely because inside the stadium we weren’t shown the VAR replays which were shown to an audience of millions watching from home (think about it for a second: what other sport the would deliberately keep paying viewers away?) . It all happened very quickly and there didn’t seem to be any real outrage when the screen started to say it wasn’t a penalty. The game continued. Forest held on to their 1-0 lead and only after that it became clear we were going to hear a lot more about Jack Colback’s challenge to Harry Toffolo and, later, Max Lowe to Lewis O’ Brien.
Maybe you’ve seen those music videos of Joe Worrall, Brennan Johnson and Joe Lolley in the beer garden of a Nottingham pub, enthusiastically joining in the chant of “It was a pen, we’re in the First”.
Perhaps you heard Steve Cook’s victory speech from the balcony of Nottingham Council House when the Forest centre-half looked up at a sea of red and it became increasingly clear that the winning players knew that they had been lucky.
“We’ll be thanking Jon Moss today,” he said, microphone in hand, to cheers. “What a fucking guy! We love VAR! We like it!”
The indignities have piled up for Huddersfield and, obviously, attitudes have hardened. Let’s be honest, they have every right to think they’ve rubbed their nose at it.
Still, it’s unclear what they hope to achieve by filing a complaint against Moss and Paul Tierney, who were watching from VAR headquarters.
We already know, after all, the harsh truth: that some referees are better than others and, although the PGMOL will never admit it, there is evidence to suggest that Moss may have been too accident-prone to be charged with a game-off final. But where do you take it? Where are you going?
Huddersfield, it is said, is keeping all options open in what looks vaguely like legal action. But, come on, referees and their assistants have been making mistakes since the invention of football, as have managers, players and everyone associated with the sport. That doesn’t mean it can go any further. Much more likely, it’s just the losing team, angry and exasperated, wanting to make their point and vent a little.
Something similar happened a few weeks ago, incidentally, when Forest traveled to Bournemouth, in the final week of the Championship season, for what was described as their biggest game ever. of the 21st century. Both sides were battling for automatic promotion and, at 0-0, Forest were denied a clear penalty. Bournemouth won with a late goal and referee Stuart Atwell later apologized to losing manager Steve Cooper.
It’s sporty. This can happen sometimes. And, yes, it can wake you up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat.
“Roger Milford,” replied Nigel Clough, with thinly disguised anger, when I asked him a few years ago about his memories of the 1991 FA Cup final. “I’m still absolutely flabbergasted.”
Clough has always held grudges. So, presumably, his father, Brian, bearing in mind that was the one trophy that still eluded him. And so have all the Forest fans I know who remember the experience. “We still have shitty referees,” the song goes. But it’s actually the same for everyone, and there are also very good referees. It’s a wild graph of exhilarating highs and excruciating lows and, in a weird way, that’s part of what makes this maddening sport so addictive. I don’t expect Huddersfield fans to agree.
(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)