When he realised his career had imploded in a moment of global humiliation, referee Graham Poll needed to be alone.
But solitude is hard to find when you are at a World Cup match. Eventually, he managed to shrug off solicitous colleagues, forced his head up and walked out into the bowl of the Stuttgart stadium.
The spectators had long gone, but Poll could see cleaners picking their way along rows of seats and there were lights still on high up in a stand where journalists were still hunched over laptops. Poll walked out into the darkness of the pitch and made his way to the centre spot – as far as he could be from anyone – trying to calm his thoughts. He did not succeed. But he staunched tears and summoned a determination not to let anyone realise the devastated state of his mind.
That image of a referee alone in the middle, and its symbolism, resonated with me so profoundly a few months later when he and I were working on his autobiography that I persuaded him to use it as the starting point for the narrative of that book.
Poll’s calamity occurred at the 2006 World Cup. He showed two yellow cards to the same player yet did not send him off. Later he showed the same guy a third yellow, and belatedly brandished the red. It was an infamous blunder. Fifteen years on, the stain it left on Poll’s life remains indelible.
Poll’s ignominy all those years ago was forced back into my thoughts when I was, yet again, defending referees on Twitter after a weekend in which Norwich fans felt, yet again, that our club had been hard-done-by.
One wit posted: “Mick thinks Graham Poll got it right when he booked a player twice but didn’t send him off.” He added a winking emoji. Another person, whom I like and admire, replied with a comment which included laughing emojis.
I understand why my relentless positivity about match officials is inexplicable and grating to many. I concede, readily, that I start from the position that they are probably right – but only because it seems the rest of the universe starts with the belief that they are all useless, or corrupt, that they ruin games, and favour everyone more than little Norwich.
I completely comprehend that those two blokes on Twitter probably didn’t know that Pollie has been a loyal and generous friend to me since before we collaborated on two books. I don’t think for a minute and that the two guys were wilfully mocking the crushing mental health crisis that game in Stuttgart provoked for Poll. How could they know?
But it might be salutary if I detail the train of events which began in the days before that 2006 match. The relevance to Norwich City is that their every game has a fallible human alone, in a sense, in the middle.
All that is required of you, dear reader, is an interest in the human condition.
Poll had been on FIFA’s list of the world’s top refs for a decade before he became England’s only ref selected for the Germany World Cup.
FIFA wanted him to succeed. I know for certain they had pencilled him in for the final. England was then the only nation to have full-time, paid officials and FIFA wanted Poll to demonstrate what a good idea it was.
Phil Sharp and Glenn Turner were picked to be his assistants, and they worked together throughout the season building up to the World Cup.
Their first two matches in Germany (Korea v Togo and Saudi Arabia v Ukraine) went well, but then FIFA took a miss-step. They chose Poll, Sharp and Turner to take charge of another game only two days later. FIFA thought that the probably feisty clash between Croatia and Australia would need Poll and Co and that the English officials would prove a point by churning out another top display. But scheduling a two-day turnaround, including travelling, ignored the draining mental and physical exhaustion of operating at that level. It short-circuited the carefully thought-through, usually longer schedule of recuperation and re-preparing.
The large Croatian community in Australia produces lots of footballers, the best of whom must decide which country to represent. There were Croatian-born players in the Australian team and players born in Australia in the Croatian side. The game would determine who finished second in Group F and joined Group leaders Brazil in the knock-out stages. A draw would be sufficient for Australia. Croatia needed a win.
The match officials had all been in Germany for more than eight weeks. And every day Poll had emailed a diary of sorts to friends and family at home. He jotted bits down whenever he had a moment in the day, and then sent the whole thing the following morning. The mundanity of what Poll jotted on his way to the game still strikes me as a reminder that he was just an ordinary bloke about to do something extraordinary.
He wrote: “Woke earlier than I would have liked but still feeling good. A couple of hours in the city centre walking round with Phil. I needed a haircut and managed to find a hairdresser’s which looked OK. Emerged feeling ready for the game.”
At the stadium, Poll prepared his match notebook using a system which had carried him through exactly 1,499 previous fixtures. On a clean page, he created two vertical columns. At the head of one he wrote “Red/White” for Croatia. At the top of the other he wrote “Yellow” for the Aussies. Then he entered the numbers of the players down each column.
He put the goalkeepers’ numbers at the top (in this case, 1 for Croatia but 18 for Australia). Then came the starting ten outfield players for each team, in number order in each column.
Then he drew a line horizontally across the page, under which he put the numbers of each team’s subs – again in number order.
By a quirk of coincidence, among the jumble of squad numbers, both teams had a number three and they appeared in third place in both columns of numbers.
The match was every bit as fierce as FIFA expected. But Poll kept the lid on things, upping the tone and tempo of his own performance as needed.
There were two Croatian bookings in the first half. Each time Poll showed his yellow card he wrote the letter “C” (for caution) against the correct number in the correct column. Croatia took the lead but Australia equalised. The half ended 1-1.
In the second half things heated up still further.
Croatia took the lead for the second time after 56 minutes. Five minutes later, as Croatia battled to secure the victory they needed to go through, Josep Simunic – known as “Aussie Joe” to his Croatian team-mates because of his pronounced Australian accent – body checked an opponent. Poll booked him and entered a “C” correctly next to the number three in the left-hand, red/white column.
The Croatian goalkeeper collected a caution – the fourth booking of the game – and then, after 79 minutes, Harry Kewell grabbed an equaliser for Australia.
The desperate Croats, with nothing to lose, started flying into frantic tackles. The Aussies met fire with fire, utterly intent on holding on.
Australia’s Brett Emerton became the fifth player to get a “C” after 81 mins.
Four minutes later, Croatia’s Dario Simic collected his second “C” and was sent off.
Two more minutes past and Emerton followed him off when, once more, two yellows made a red.
Confused? Of course. It was very confusing. There were three late subs by Australia too. On the touchlines, the two English assistant referees plus Fourth Official Kevin Stott and standby fifth official George Barkey (both USA) couldn’t keep up with all the cards and who was on the pitch.
But Poll was still in control, still using his great experience, phenomenal fitness and total commitment to what he was doing to facilitate a dramatic contest played within the framework of fairness provided by the laws of the game. As he always had, he was keeping his note-taking simple, using shirt colours and numbers instead of names.
Like all refs, he was wearing two watches: one which he paused when there were stoppages and one that he kept running during each half. The second watch had just ticked on to 90 minutes when Aussie Joe committed another desperate foul and Poll booked him again – but didn’t realise it was “again”.
For reasons Poll has never fully worked out (despite countless nights lost to thinking about it) he put the letter “C” in the right hand, yellow column alongside the 3 there. That wasn’t Aussie Joe. It wasn’t just someone with an Aussie accent. It was an actual (innocent) Aussie, Craig Moore.
Josep Simunic wasn’t sent off. He just trotted away and played on.
All around the planet, TV viewers had the mistake pointed out to them by puzzled commentators.
I was working at that World Cup but was having a night off in Frankfurt and not watching TV. Two friends telephoned me separately to tell me about Poll’s shocking mistake.
But nobody in the ground told any of the five match officials.
The game finished 2-2. Croatia were going home. On his way off the pitch, Simunic sought out Poll and started abusing him. Poll showed him a yellow card, saw from his notebook that the defender already got a “C” by his number, and sent him off – as he should have done three minutes earlier.
In their changing room after the game, the five checked their notebooks together. None of them had three cautions against Simunic. Poll was the only one with a “C” alongside the Aussie number three.
Poll couldn’t understand that. It was something he would have to sort out.
What seems to have happened is that the five support officials were so sure Poll would be scrupulously accurate that when he booked Simunic the second time without sending him off, the two assistants and the fourth official and fifth officials just assumed they’d misunderstood what they thought they’d seen.
So, in blissful but puzzled ignorance, Poll went for a quick leg massage. He was interrupted by a top FIFA functionary who burst in and announced: “You must return to the officials’ room. There has been some confusion.”
Poll’s mistake did not affect anything other than his own reputation. It was too late to alter the balance of the game, the score, or the result.
He owned it straight away and ever since has never once sought to spread the blame. He was allowed to leave Germany and fly home after issuing a statement: “What I did was an error in law. There can be no dispute. It was not caused by a FIFA directive; it was not caused by me being asked to referee differently to the way I referee in the Premier League. The laws of the game are very specific. The referee takes responsibility for his actions on the field of play. I was the referee that evening. It was my error and the buck stops with me.”
He also announced his retirement from tournament football.
For 26 of the 46 years of his life, he’d worked relentlessly hard to be a good referee. But at the moment when his career was expected to be peaking, and in front of a worldwide TV audience, he’d made a simple, basic, crucial error. It nearly broke him.
Yet, somehow, he got through one more season in the Premier League, because he did not want Stuttgart to be the way his refereeing career ended. Instead, it ended at Wembley, with the 2007 Championship play-off final between Derby and West Brom.
I sat with his family at Wembley. We were the only ones who knew he would retire once the game was over. I felt honoured and truly privileged to see the curtain fall on a career which had begun 25 miles north of Wembley on a park pitch in the Hertfordshire village of Woolmer.
His family and I were anxious throughout. We knew how much Poll wanted to avoid controversy and wanted to get all his big calls spot-on.
There was one moment when we were extremely worried. That tackle in the Derby penalty area, was it a foul? Poll waved play-on. Was that right? He had sprinted hard to give himself a great view. But, at the other end of the ground, the entire West Brom support erupted, certain that they’d been denied a blatant penalty.
One of those fans texted me at that moment. She was a professional colleague, a highly skilled journalist: clever, rational, great company. Her text read: “Tell your mate Graham Poll he is a cheat.” She had no idea I was sitting next to Graham’s lovely mum, Beryl. I deleted the text, quickly.
That tackle? That night on TV everyone saw that it was perfectly timed and 100 per cent legitimate. But that wasn’t the point. Poll had “given what he saw”, which is the essence of refereeing – the hard kernel at the centre of it all. It is what I say to the teenaged refs I mentor on Sunday mornings: “Give what you see. Be brave enough to make the decision, whatever it is. Just give what you see.”
A few months after that play-off final, at the launch in Poll’s hometown of Tring of his autobiography, Seeing Red, I noticed that his mum, Beryl, was wiping away a tear. I asked her what the matter was. She said: “I’m OK. It’s just that I’ve never seen people all being nice to Graham before”.
During his 27 years as a ref, Poll developed a persona to cope with the abuse that came with the role: a hard shell of bravado. When he was on the pitch, he would keep smiling. When he was out with his family and a stranger swore at him about some decision he’d made years earlier, he’d keep smiling. He put on that shell so often, that some people never got to see the bloke underneath. They saw him grinning during games and decided he “thinks it’s all about him”.
But Sir Alex Ferguson, with whom he clashed frequently, agreed to write the foreword to Seeing Red. It included these words: “It is not just me who thinks Graham has been a good decision-maker … never afraid to make big decisions. The other aspect of his character which struck me, as well as his ability and readiness to make decisions, was that he smiled when he refereed.”
In his final season, before one match when Poll and his assistants went out to look at the pitch before getting changed, a group of school children near the players’ tunnel begged Poll for his autograph. He obliged. The Guardian writer who saw that incident included it in his match report, accusing Poll of thinking he was important enough to sign autographs. One can imagine what would have been written if Poll had imperiously ignored the schoolchildren.
On another occasion that season a veteran journalist said of Poll: “He just loves being in the media”. The writer made that comment on a TV programme on which he seemed to enjoy appearing.
You know that when someone says: “I am not a racist but …” a racist remark is about to be made. When someone says: “I know referees have a tough job but …” you can be sure they don’t have a clue how tough it has become.
There are current refs – Mike Dean comes to mind – who attract opprobrium because of the way they act on the pitch. But the likelihood is that, like Poll had to, they are putting on a persona to cope with the scrutiny, pressure and dreadful, constant carping.
Each of them is, after all, alone in the middle.
While you’re here…
In these difficult and trying times, MFW too is struggling. Generating income streams through ad revenue is a challenge across the globe and we have taken our own hit.
As such, we become increasingly reliant on the good people whose generosity extends to supporting us through a monthly Patreon subscription. For these kind folk we are, and will forever be, eternally grateful.
We appreciate times are hard for all of us, and every penny counts, but if any more of you could see fit to help us in this way, we’d be so thankful.
We also recognise that we have not expressed our gratitude sufficiently for the kindness of our existing donors, and so there’ll be some exclusive content on its way by way of a small thank you; something we intend to make a regular feature.
So, once again, thank you. Without you, the readers, we would not even exist. Please stay safe.
If anyone is interested in taking a look at our Patreon page, it’s here.