Former ref slams Henry for 'slight' of hand

LIMAVADY refereeing expert Leslie Irvine has laid the blame for the Republic of Ireland's (ROI) controversial exit from the World Cup last week squarely at the door of French forward Thierry Henry.

The Limavady High School PE teacher - now confirmed as the only Irish representative set to play a significant role in South Africa next summer - insists Swedish match official Martin Hansson and his linesman were wrongly maligned for their inaction after the Barcelona forward's handy ball control led to Willam Gallas' winning goal in the World Cup play-off last Wednesday.

The former Arsenal centre-forward showed neat basketball skills in the build up to the French goal in the crucial tie. Referee and linesman subsequently took quite a bit of stick after controversially failing to award a free-kick for the obvious foul and thus ensuring the Republic's exit from the competition.

"The Hand of Fraud" - as it's been dubbed - condemned former 'Stute and current Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson to a summer at home next year.

It damned the Hazlebank man to the same World Cup wilderness as fellow Londonderry native Patrick McCourt, the Celtic winger a disappointed member of the Northern Ireland squad that went so close to qualification for football's premier contest over recent months.

But Mr Irvine, who was last year appointed as FIFA Instructor on the referee selection panel for the World Cup by Head of Refereeing at the world football governing body, Jos-Mara Garca Aranda, said Mr Hansson is being wrongly maligned.

The fifty-year-old said that within the Laws of the Game his colleague had not made a technical mistake insofar as administrating the rules was concerned.

A FIFA decision to replay an Uzbekistan Bahrain game in 2005 after a referee awarded an indirect free-kick for an encroachment into the penalty area when he should have ordered a penalty to be retaken, differed substantially from last Wednesday, in that laws were wrongly applied.

But how can an official give a foul if he does not see an incident? And besides - moral responsibility for Wednesday's sleight of hand obviously lies with Mr Henry, said Mr Irvine.

"This guy cheated, conned and tricked his way to South Africa, whatever way you want to call it," said Mr Irvine.

"A lot of commentators have been talking about the referee but it was not a technical mistake within the Laws of the Game. I think the referee is being made a scapegoat here, when clearly the instigator of the incident is to blame," he added.

Mr Irvine should know. During his career as a FIFA-recognised match official, spanning fifteen years, Mr Irvine presided over such prestigious soccer occasions as the final of the FIFA Youth Cup in Ecuador in 1995 between Brazil and Ghana, as well as Champion's League ties at Camp Nou and the Bernabu, the respective grounds of football giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The popular teacher also holds the record for officiating at the highest-attended FIFA match ever, namely the final of the U-20 World Cup between Portugal and Brazil in the Estdio da Luz in Lisbon in 1991, with 127,000 spectators looking on.

For his part Thierry Henry has apologised for any hurt caused by his handling of the ball and remarked that a replay would be a fair outcome.

But the County Londonderry man said it was highly unlikely the game would be replayed as requested by the FAI.

"The referee's decision is final. If the game was replayed you would have managers asking for games to be replayed because of offside decisions," was his verdict on Irish pleas for a rematch.

Mr Irvine recently attended the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. The West African trip was one of the last opportunities for the FIFA instructors to have a look at some of the refereeing talent available for the World Cup next year.

"I've just returned from the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. The World Club Cup in December will be the last chance for us to have a look at officials before South Africa," said Mr Irvine.

"Sixteen trios were involved along with the fourth officials. At the moment we have about 37 trios that we need to get down to about 24 or 25, " he added.

He said the Nigerian competition was a real appetiser ahead of FIFA's gala contest next summer but that he was somewhat saddened that there will be no Irish involvement in the contest after so much promise from both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

"The Nigerian supporters are really passionate about their football," he said. "Switzerland actually won the competition as rank outsiders, beating the host nation in the final, in what was a total upset in front of 65,000 passionate fans."

And as for the lack of Irish involvement in the finals he commented: "It's a shame. To have the possibility of two, even one of the teams qualifying would have been too much to ask," he said.