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Once upon a time on Planet Football, a set of rules were written. These rules existed, not to get in the way of the fun but to provide uniformity, fairness and a platform on which the best version of the game could unfold. In this sporting Shangri-La, referees were among the most important figures on the pitch.
Meanwhile, at the Legion of Doom – AKA the International Football Association Board (IFAB, if you like) – the Laws of the Game were being progressively twisted, brutalised and neurotically formalised to such an extent that the modern formulation seems like it exists, not to facilitate a game of football, but to stop one from breaking out.
In this postmodern hellscape, Premier League referees are little more than glorified babysitters…
Okay, perhaps I’m being melodramatic. But it is difficult not to look back whimsically to a time before VAR, before relentlessly tedious handball laws, before players had to shave their knees to avoid infinitesimal offside calls.
So, in the name of nostalgia, let’s have a look at the ten best referees to have graced the Premier League in times gone by.
10. Peter Walton
Martin Atkinson could halt Crystal Palace vs Southampton mid-flow, announce that Royal Family were shapeshifting lizard people and in the BT studio Peter Walton would still declare “Yep, that’s the right call, Fletch.” But while his borderline fanatical loyalty to his fellow officials may grate viewers in his retirement, Peter Walton was an excellent referee in his days on the pitch. He took charge of 169 Premier League matches between 2003 and 2012.
9. Jonathan Moss
One of three active referees on this list, Jon Moss balances his time between officiating Premier League matches and running a Leeds-based record shop called The Vinyl Whistle – lovely stuff. As well as the 2015 FA Cup Final, Moss has overseen 226 Premier League matches to date and is known for his chatterbox style on the pitch. Earlier this year, Bournemouth’s Dan Gosling got upset with Moss during a defeat to Sheffield United, alleging that the referee told him “you’re having one” and “you’re still in the relegation zone.” The news was received with a mixture of pearl-clutching and hilarity. Moss is a good official and, by all accounts, a good bloke.
8. Steve Bennet
When Javier Mascherano – a man who could start a fight with his own shadow – decided to continue his wild-eyed harassment of the referee in Liverpool’s meeting with Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2008 despite having already received a yellow card, there was only ever one way it was going to end. Steve Bennet was the official on the other end of that red card. He was never shy of giving out a caution or two – on four occasions, he handed out ten yellows in a single match. Perhaps the most memorable fixture he officiated was 2003’s Battle of Old Trafford in which he dismissed Patrick Viera and awarded Manchester United a last-minute penalty which was famously missed by Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Unafraid to stamp his authority on a game, he is the kind of referee English football is now missing.
7. Graham Poll
Referees are invariably remembered for the decisions they got wrong rather than those they got right. It’s a state of affairs which has not been kind to Graham Poll, who nowadays is chiefly associated with giving three yellow cards to Croatian defender Josip Šimunić at the 2006 World Cup before eventually sending him off. It was a rare – albeit significant – lapse of concentration in an officiating career which lasted nearly 25 years. In that time, he refereed 329 Premier League matches, went to two World Cups, and oversaw the UEFA Cup Final in 2005.
6. Mark Halsey
While sometimes a match demands a referee assert himself upon it, others call for a more measured approach. Mark Halsey was of the more lenient school of thought. He took charge of 279 Premier League matches between 1999 and 2013, awarding an average of 2.36 cards per match – no other official with over 100 Premier League appearances has a lower rate. In 2010, Halsey returned to his Premier League duties after an enforced hiatus following a cancer diagnosis. When he officiated his last match, a Premier League clash between Manchester City and Norwich City, he received a standing ovation from both sets of fans – a real rarity for a referee.
5. Michael Oliver
As a lover of football, it must be a dagger to the heart to hear Gianluigi Buffon say you have a “bag of rubbish for a heart.” That’s what Michael Oliver had to deal with in the aftermath of the Champions League quarter-final second leg between Real Madrid in Juventus in 2018. Oliver sent Buffon off following the fallout of awarding Real Madrid a late, late tie-deciding penalty. It was a close call but probably the right one – and that’s Michael Oliver, a stickler for the rules. He was probably a prefect and if he wasn’t refereeing some of the most high-profile matches in world football it’s easy to imagine him working as a traffic warden. His diligent character makes him a fine referee.
4. Mike Dean
The Premier League’s very own rock star referee, Mike Dean has transcended his officiating role and mutated into something more. In 513 Premier League appearances, he’s given out more cards than Clintons – 1879 yellows and an astonishing 105 reds. In fact, he seems blood-starved when he’s gone a few games without sending someone off. In the past few years, he has embraced his meme-fuelled stardom, appearing on Peter Crouch’s podcast and being all too happy to play up for the television cameras as his beloved Tranmere Rovers won promotion to League One last year. Away from the media spotlight and the card-happy theatrics, however, Dean is a top referee. But he’s a marmite figure, and 4th place, therefore, seems like a diplomatic ranking for him.
3. Mike Riley
Since retiring in 2009, Mike Riley has acted as Managing Director for PGMOL, the organisation in charge of officials in English football. His appointment proved how well-regarded he is in the refereeing world and was a glowing endorsement of his work across 283 Premier League matches since 1996. Perhaps the most memorable came in October 2004 as Manchester United beat Arsenal 2-0, ending the away side’s 49-match unbeaten run. It became known as Pizzagate after an Arsenal player – allegedly Cesc Fabregas – threw the foodstuff at Alex Ferguson. It goes without saying that it was not Riley’s easiest – nor his best – match as a referee, but it was the exception that proved the rule. Riley was a common-sense official, letting games flow rather than pointlessly grappling with them. When he put down the whistle in 2009, English football lost one of its best refs.
2. Mark Clattenburg
The first time many folks heard Mark Clattenburg speak was when he announced he was leaving the Premier League to referee in Saudi Arabia. For whatever reason, people were surprised to hear that he spoke with a soft North East accent. Maybe that sums up why he was such a great referee: he was rarely the star of the show. Only five officials have made more Premier League appearances than Clattenburg (292). In 2016, he reached the zenith of his career, taking charge of the Champions League Final and the European Championship Final a month later. That same season, he oversaw one of the most ill-tempered matches in Premier League history as Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur drew 2-2, handing the title to Leicester City.
1. Howard Web
One of only three Englishmen to have refereed a World Cup final, Howard Webb was awarded an MBE for his services to the game in 2011. He held the whistle for 298 Premier League matches and was widely respected for his commanding approach – in posterity at least. Prior to beginning his professional refereeing career, Webb was a policeman, a job which needless to say had a few valuable transferable skills. After separating from his wife in 2016, Webb began a relationship with elite German referee Bibiana Steinhaus – together, they are quite possibly the only power couple in the world of football officiating. Like Webb, Steinhaus is a trained police officer. Has one household ever had such a relentless commitment to discipline?