"The events of Sunday afternoon at the Emirates Stadium left me raging," was ex-Liverpool star John Aldridge's reaction to the decision not to grant a blatant penalty that would have given Liverpool the chance to draw level with Arsenal in Sunday's FA Cup match. The error wasn't the only reason Liverpool lost, but it does raise questions about Webb's standing as England's top referee.
The official has become something of a celebrity referee in recent seasons, a situation that peaked with his selection for the last World Cup final and has continued ever since. Speaking tours, the spotlight, and seeming to embrace his role in any big occasion with a photogenic approach to officiating that, knowingly or not, plays up decisions and player interaction for the cameras and feeds the Cult of Webb.
It all adds up to Webb being the most recognisable referee in the sport, one who at times almost appears to see himself as being as integral to any major match he officiates as the players. In the end, it's not about Webb's quality as a referee—it's that increasingly he seems to become caught up in the moment, and to see himself as part of that moment rather than as the detached outside observer a good referee must be.
"I was still angry about his woeful decisions from the Chelsea game," said Aldridge. "I was still furious he didn’t award a penalty when Luis Suarez was brought down in the area—and seething that he failed to send Samuel Eto’o off for a career-threatening tackle on Jordan Henderson. I called it before the Chelsea game and I called it ahead of Arsenal at the weekend: Webb gets too many big decisions wrong."
Once the sort of sentiment written off as sour grapes by fans seeking an excuse, increasingly Webb has come under fire from all sides for his tendency to let the big occasion get the better of him—a tendency to call the moment, the reputations, and the narrative rather than the action in front of him. He may still get more calls right than wrong, but many now expect him to regularly mishandle the biggest decisions.
And it isn't only those with ties to Liverpool who have questioned Webb in light of his latest blown big call. Following Sunday's decision to deny Liverpool a second penalty, Mark Halsey—who refereed in the Premier League alongside Webb until retiring at the end of last season—openly questioned if the demands of Webb's pseudo-celebrity have begun to get in the way of his refereeing.
"Howard has made an error of judgement," said the former referee. "He has not had the best of seasons, and perhaps he may need a little rest because he is perhaps doing too much. He is not just refereeing football matches, he is doing a lot of work outside of football. He has to take a good look at himself in the mirror and ask himself what he wants.
"This is his full-time job and he has got to concentrate on this. He has to forget about what he is doing outside of football. He has got to put that on the back-burner and concentrate on what he is being paid for full-time."