Befitting of matches that carry so much reward, Championship Playoff Finals have been officiated by England’s elite referees since the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOB) was formed in 2001, when Uriah Rennie took charge of the final involving Bolton Wanderers and Preston North End.
Of the 15 finals since, 12 different referees have taken charge of the so called richest game in the world:
2002 – Norwich City 1-1 Birmingham City – Graham Barber
2003 – Sheffield Utd 0-3 Wolverhampton Wanderers – Steve Bennett
2004 – Crystal Palace 1-0 West Ham Utd – Graham Poll
2005 – Preston North End 0-1 West Ham Utd – Mike Riley
2006 – Leeds Utd 0-3 Watford – Mike Dean
2007 – Derby County 1-0 West Bromwich Albion – Graham Poll
2008 – Bristol City 0-1 Hull City – Alan Wiley
2009 – Burnley 1-0 Sheffield Utd – Mike Dean
2010 – Blackpool 3-2 Cardiff City – Andre Marriner
2011 – Reading 2-4 Swansea City – Phil Dowd
2012 – Blackpool 1-2 West Ham Utd – Howard Webb
2013 – Crystal Palace 1-0 Watford – Martin Atkinson
2014 – Derby County 0-1 QPR – Lee Mason
2015 – Middlesbrough 0-2 Norwich City – Mike Dean
2016 – Hull City 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday – Bobby Madley
The 2017 iteration of the world’s richest match sees the highly respected Neil Swarbrick take charge for the first time. Swarbrick has officiated 23 matches involving both Huddersfield and Reading since his inception onto the Football League select list in 2005.
A total of 84 goals have been scored in those matches, which surprisingly outnumbers the yellow card count that stands at 77. Mr Swarbrick has also sent off nine players in those matches, which are as follows:
28 Feb 09 – Reading 0-1 Nottingham Forest
3 Oct 09 – Reading 0-2 Middlesbrough
5 Mar 11 – Reading 5-2 Middlesbrough
10 Dec 11 – Reading 3-0 West Ham Utd
11 Dec 12 – Sunderland 3-0 Reading
4 May 13 – Fulham 2-4 Reading
18 Sep 13 – Reading 1-0 Leeds Utd
8 Nov 14 – Reading 0-1 Charlton Athletic
7 Mar 15 – Bradford City 0-0 Reading (FA Cup)
31 Oct 15 – Reading 1-1 Brighton
6 Nov 05 – Huddersfield 4-1 Welling Utd (FA Cup)
26 Dec 05 – Rotherham Utd 1-1 Huddersfield
28 Oct 06 – Huddersfield 0-3 Brighton
30 Dec 06 – Huddersfield 3-2 Swansea
8 Sep 07 – Crewe Alexandra 2-0 Huddersfield
18 Aug 09 – Huddersfield 7-1 Brighton
1 Dec 09 – Huddersfield 3-3 Tranmere Rovers
25 Aug 10 – Everton 5-1 Huddersfield (League Cup)
15 May 11 – Huddersfield 3-3 AFC Bournemouth (League 1 Playoff SF2)
21 Aug 12 – Huddersfield 1-1 Nottingham Forest
26 Oct 13 – Huddersfield 3-2 Leeds Utd
22 Feb 14 – Huddersfield 0-2 Sheffield Wednesday
30 Aug 14 – Watford 4-2 Huddersfield
Perhaps the most notable incident within the listed matches for Reading supporters is Jimmy Kebe’s "sockgate" during the 3-0 win against West Ham, which resulted in the retaliatory challenge from Jack Collison. Of course, as all footballing incidents are, Swarbrick’s response to the challenge was purely a reaction to the player’s behaviour, the resulting red card for Collison being the only option available to the official.
Overall, Swarbrick has handled matches competently throughout his career, and it is notable that just five years on from his 2005/06 debut in the Football League he was being lined up for the Premier League select list. Being human, though, is a referee’s constant enemy, and with refereeing displays constantly under scrutiny it is inevitable that he has borne the brunt of controversy.
Perhaps most notably recently for sending off West Brom’s Garath MacAuley instead of Craig Dawson at Manchester City, a regrettable case of mistaken identity. Overall though, we can be pleased to have been bestowed such an unassuming referee who displays none of the flamboyant "look-at-me" tendencies that seem to be becoming prevalent at the top level of English football.
It is perhaps a good thing for the Fourth Official, however, that the Championship Playoffs have some artificial assistance with goal line technology. How this person could have done with it on 20 September 2008 at Vicarage Road. For those that haven’t got it yet, the Fourth Official is Stuart Attwell.
Lastly, but by no means least, running the lines will be supremely experienced Darren Cann, who has reached the absolute pinnacle of officiating having acted as Howard Webb’s Assistant Referee in the 2010 World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain. Jake Collin runs the opposite flank, who is also a highly experienced official and on the FIFA select list. And finally, making up the team, is Derek Eaton who will act as reserve Assistant Referee.
I think with the exception of Stuart Attwell, who I believe is only at the very top level of officiating due to stubborn perseverance from the PGMOL despite performances to the contrary, it is reassuring that an unassuming and highly experienced team of officials are overseeing this match. Their history of consistency coupled with the comparatively small number of controversial incidents involving them is heartening.
Reading can certainly claim to have not received the rub of the green in playoff matches with refereeing decisions. Going so far back as the 1995 final when Jason McAteer should have been dismissed, to Phil Dowd’s unfortunate performance in 2011, while Mike Riley’s decision not to send off Brian Jensen for handball outside of the penalty area in the second leg of the 2009 semi final proved a critical decision.
Eddie Wolstenholme of course cannot be blamed for Barry Hunter smashing the ball against Anthony Rougier’s head in 2001, but given our misfortune in the three playoff finals Reading have competed in thus far, we are undoubtedly due some exceptionally good fortune, whether it be officiating or downright incompetence. 29 May 2017 is a good place to start rebalancing the scales.