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The life of Riley... red cards and all
By MAI AL KHATIB
Posted On » August 20 - 26, 2008 (Volume:7 / Issue 34)

CONTROVERSIAL football referee Mike Riley has been playing his cards right in a bid to help train and develop his counterparts in Bahrain.

Clutching a collection of coloured cones he put the whistle-blowers through their paces with a series of speed and endurance exercises as well as a series of tests on the rules and regulations of the sport.

The masterful man in black was invited by the Bahrain Football Federation to train 25 of its referees for the upcoming football season and Asian Games' clashes.

Riley, 44, has been refereeing for 29 years gaining Football League, FA Premier League and FIFA international experience - and has caused a certain amount of controversy over his decision-making along the way.

He said: "I have given several players from Liverpool, Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal red cards - reactions vary from some saying that they knew what they were doing and they expected the punishment through to 'I didn't mean it,' but he did it anyway."

Riley's career on the pitch could have taken a different turn had he not suffered a dismal game in goal as a soccer-loving schoolboy. He said: "I started playing football because I love the game but quickly realized that I wasn't very good at it! I let 17 goals in one game which I guess you can say was the experience that tipped me off.

"I also got injured playing and while I was recovering I went to watch games. That's when I thought about running the line. So I started being a linesman, enjoyed it and then thought I might as well try refereeing. I started at the age of 14 and have not looked back."

Although currently residing in Leeds in West Yorkshire, Riley feels a great sense of loyalty to his neighbouring home town and still supports Rotherham United, currently languishing in the fourth tier, League Two, of English football.

He joined the Football League's referee list in 1994 and made a quick jump to the Premiership, arriving two years later. He was nominated for FIFA International status in January 1999, and reached the pinnacle of his profession when he was chosen to represent England at Euro 2004 - refereeing two matches, Sweden's 5-0 thrashing of Bulgaria and Latvia's 0-0 draw with Germany.

In August 2000, the Football Association chose him to referee the FA Charity Shield pre-season opener between Chelsea and Manchester United and he made his mark by dismissing Roy Keane in a bad tempered 2-0 win for the Londoners.

Then in 2002, Riley refereed the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea, which he later stated was 'the highlight of my career'. He said: "It was a great game! Hundreds of thousands of people were cheering on in the Millennium Stadium. It was beautiful!"

Riley was also invited to go to Hong Kong to take charge of the Hong Kong FA Cup 2006-07 final between South China and Happy Valley in 2007.

Now Mike is one of the most senior officials in the game and believes that it is all thanks to hands-on experience. He said: "To get to this stage of refereeing obviously you have to know the basic examination and laws of the game, but that is just really the technical side of football. You only truly understand the game when refereeing matches and learning through experience.

"In England, the system is that you referee on one league and if you have a good season then you get promoted to the next through a pyramid of leagues.

"So over the period of 10 years I had moved from refereeing junior football to being a linesman on the Football League. I then got promoted on to the Football League referee system and onto the Premier League."

However, it's not been all rosy for the ref. In 2004, he was attacked for his decision-making during a bitter Arsenal versus Manchester United clash which ended the Gunners' long-running unbeaten run at the time.

Former Bolton Wanderers manager, Sam Allardyce, also criticised him after Riley officiated in a match against local rivals Blackburn Rovers in 2006.

Allardyce denied a charge of improper conduct by the FA following his comments, but was found guilty at a personal hearing, fined £2,000, severely censured and warned as to his future conduct.

Following the match Allardyce claimed: "The stats just don't stand up when he referees us. In my opinion, it is not good enough - he nearly caused a riot."

Opposing manager Mark Hughes had partly agreed, saying: "Both sides would argue the referee didn't have his best game but can't argue about the sending off."

He was also involved in controversy that year after the sending off of a Levski player in a UEFA Cup 2005-06 quarter final tie against the German side Schalke. He showed a second yellow card to Cedric Bardon, although it was disputed whether there was any contact between him and the opposition player. After the game, the Bulgarian club's president Todor Batkov called Riley, who is happily married with a nine-year-old daughter, a 'British homosexual'.

After Chelsea's 1-0 win at Reading in October, 2006, Riley received more criticism, having allowed goalkeeper Petr _ech only to crawl off the field instead of stopping the game with what turned out to be a serious head injury.

In a lighter vein, during the first half of the home match against Newcastle in 2007, Kingsley Royal, the Reading club mascot, was sent from the field by the referee for standing too close to the pitch.

It was reported that one of Riley's assistants mistook Kingsley for one of the players and almost flagged him for offside. A spokesman for the FA said: "The referee reported to us that the mascot made a number of inflammatory gestures. I don't know what the gestures were and we are now making further enquiries and will look at video evidence."

After reviewing video footage the FA confirmed that it would be taking no further action.

In a Euro 2008 qualifying match between Albania and Holland on September 12, 2007, Riley denied Albania a goal in the last minutes of the first half when Dutch defender Mario Melchiot headed a ball behind his own goalkeeper after an Albanian free kick. Riley cancelled the goal and gave a free kick to Holland. He was also said to have finished the game two minutes early, due to fireworks being thrown from the spectators' area. The criticism in the Albanian media and from the Albanian players was very harsh and the Albanian Football Federation decided to file an official complaint with UEFA. Riley was also involved in last season's 'Ashley Cole' incident which has led to a crackdown on the behavior of soccer stars and the way they behave to officials on the pitch.

The England defender and Chelsea star had jumped at Tottenham's Alan Hutton from two yards away catching the defender half way up the shin at roughly the same point where Eduardo was kicked in the tackle that broke his leg.

After the tackle, Cole, ably assisted by colleagues Terry, Lampard, Drogba and Carvalho, surrounded Riley ridiculously claiming that the defender had played the ball, and then verbally abused the referee as he patiently held up the yellow card to book the player. What followed was one of the most bizarre incidents last season when Cole turned his back on the ref and in a childish fashion ignored the attempts to book him. Mike was quoted as saying to Ashley: "Your foot's up in the air... No, calm down Ashley, no. Turn around... Ashley. No turn around and face me... Ashley you'll get sent off in a minute. Show some respect. Calm."

The tackle was worthy of a red card on its own, meeting all the criteria of what a dangerous career-ending tackle is: he jumped into it, he went in high over the ball and he had his studs showing.

The ref, however, opted for a yellow card. As Mike saw the incident and sanctioned the player as he saw fit, the FA was unable to take any further action. The petulant show of disrespect after the tackle could have easily earned Ashley a second yellow card and his Chelsea teammates who surrounded the ref were also lucky to escape bookings.

Cole was then asked by the Professional Footballers' Association to start acting as a role model to stop football's battered reputation being dragged deeper into the gutter.

He then apologised for his tackle on Alan and for his reaction towards Riley.

Refereeing has proved painful at times too but Riley says sometimes you simply have to put on a brave face and grin and bear it. He recalled: "I was refereeing an FA Cup game between Middlesbrough and a non-league team. The non-league team were great fun because they had drawn the first game on their ground and got a replay in Middlesbrough. So they were having a great time in the replay and it was a close game.

"I was running into the penalty area and a player shot at goal, the ball hit the defender and came back and hit me somewhere it shouldn't have! So I keeled over and the captain turned to me and said: "I bet you don't fall down because you're on TV". I bravely stood up and staggered on but it is still a painful memory!"

Riley said: "We have one referee, two assistant referees and a fourth official on the pitch. Every two weeks we meet as a group of referees and spend a whole day going through the video analysis for the previous game. Sometimes we do disagree with each other and there have been times that even I disagree with myself!

"Sometimes you see things you've done on the screen and you say; why did I make that call, it's wrong!

"The important thing to ask yourself is not how did I get it wrong but why and what can I do for next time to make sure I don't get it wrong again.

"With so much television coverage now, you can see things on a pitch from one angle and then you can have six television angles to support your call. But at times there is a seventh angle that shows a completely different picture which makes the decision wrong. Players accept us getting these decisions wrong but as a referee you want to get it right and you strive to be better.

"As for which team wasn't too fond of me ...which season are we talking about? It is inevitable that a team may not be fond of me during that time but it's because supporters will still see everything through their own team's eyes.

"As for having problems with football fans, of course you do, because refereeing is all about making decisions in the game and some times you'll be making unpopular decisions.

"When you are in the stadium on the pitch you don't get harassed because everything is very safe. Spectators will stand and shout but that is as far as it goes.

"It's when you are out doing other things like grocery shopping with the family that people recognise and stop you.

"Somebody might come up to me saying you made a bad decision and cost us this game or that but after five minutes of talking football we both realize that we are football fans and it's quite a good conversation from then on."

Riley has visited referees from around the world to teach and share his experiences with them. Before visiting Bahrain, he spent 10 days in Iceland refereeing a youth tournament and also working on coaching the country's referees. He said: "One of the really nice things is that I get to go and talk to referees all over the world and I was honoured when the Bahrain Football Federation asked me to come and prepare their referees before the season's start.

"I held a three-day course which covered rules and regulations of proper refereeing, sport psychology and physical endurance.

"The first day we started off with the roles and responsibilities of the referee. I also explained how important it is to have good relations with the players and coaches.

"The next day we spent some time working on the technical side of refereeing, slot positioning, detection of foul play and so on.

"It's funny, if you show a video of a previous match to a room of 20, no matter where you show it, 10 people think it's one thing and the other 10 think it's something else. The reason I do this is because it's about learning from each others' experience because sometimes there is no right answer.

"We then talked about the benefits of sports psychology and how you cope with stresses and strains on the field and off the field of play as well.

"We then trained outdoors because referees need to prepare themselves physically too. There is a programme called Prozone that traces player and referee movement in the game. What it tends to show is that the referee would run more than the players on the pitch. The difference is that the players are heading, tackling and kicking. So we are fit in terms of sprinting, speed and endurance and the players are fit in terms of stamina with the added bonus of football skill and ability."


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