Unless you believe in a particularly strict version of determinism in which referees are gods, you have to admit that football is a pretty random sport.
Any match that ends with a one-goal difference could certainly have gone either way, with bad bounces, poor decisions and a breath of wind being among the tiny factors that could swing it. That being the case, league tables – like school league tables – are relatively meaningless.
Unfortunately they do decide promotion, delegation and trophies, but a moment’s reflection will tell you that it’s all luck, and there’s no use making a fuss about it.
Take Norwich City. They are likely to be relegated, but most of their losses have been by single-goal margins, and even some of the ones that weren’t could have been victories.
In the first game of the season they lost 3-1. But they had a perfectly good goal – actually an excellent one, according to the opposing manager – disallowed, a penalty turned down, and the third goal by the opposition came in the final minute when they were desperately trying to retrieve the situation. So clearly, they could have won 2-1.
In the recent game against relegation rivals Sunderland they had, if I remember rightly, 14 corners against nil. The first Sunderland goal was a contentious penalty, the second came after an unpenalised foul on the Norwich centre back, and Norwich had an obvious penalty (possibly two) not given. So that could easily have been a draw, or a win if they hadn’t missed an open goal. But the records will tell you they lost 0-3.
This is not a desperate attempt to demonstrate that Norwich City deserve to stay in the Premiership and pick up all the gold at the end of the rainbow. Who could make such a judgement? Only someone who took into account all the little knocks and accidents, the unlucky injuries and appalling decisions that make football such a fascinating – or, looked at another way, pointless – game.
I don’t want to have a go at referees. Well, that’s not strictly true: I do want to have a go at referees, because some of their decisions are unbelievable. Why is manhandling the opponent in the penalty area not penalised, or only penalised sometimes? Why does Vardy get a penalty when he runs in front of the centre back and falls over?
But of course refereeing is difficult. I’ve done it only a few times, and I found it very, very difficult. And this is not an attack on referees; it’s an attack on the idea that the right team wins. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t – usually when Liverpool is involved.
So why watch at all? Well, some of it is beautiful. A lot of it isn’t, which is why I prefer highlights. But as a consistent and accurate measure of the excellence of competing teams? Give us a break. Only a pundit would think that.