FORMER North-East top-flight referee George Courtney has expressed his sympathy with the current crop of Premier League match officials and labelled the recent string of penalties awarded for handball as an “embarrassment” for the game.

Newcastle United were given a controversial last gasp spot-kick in thei match at Tottenham yesterday and penalties were also given for at Brighton and Crystal Palace over the weekend to put the microscope back on the laws and how they are interpreted.

The three home clubs dropped points after penalties were given against them in controversial fashion, with the referees involved using the pitchside monitor after being recommended to do so by video assistant referee.

Now 79, Courtney retired from the professional game in 1992, but still officiates matches for the University of Durham, while he is an avid watcher of the Premier League and has been left perplexed following a weekend full of controversy.

“I feel very sorry for the referees because for me they have lost totally their independence,” said Courtney, from Spennymoor, who refereed the 1980 FA Cup final.

“When I refereed, I was independent, obviously adhering to the laws of the game and applying them in a very sensible and common sense way, but that has gone out of the window now completely.

“IFAB (International Football Association Board) have got to do some instant thinking and I have no doubt they will be in touch with FIFA to try and remedy what is becoming an embarrassment in the game.”

During his career, Courtney worked at two World Cups, one European Championship, was frequently involved in UEFA competitions and took charge of the 1989 Cup Winners’ Cup final.

The County Durham resident admitted to squirming in his chair after Peter Bankes pointed to the spot at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday.

Eric Dier was adjudged to have put his arm in an unnatural position when Newcastle forward Andy Carroll headed the ball against the unwitting England international’s upraised arm, helping the Magpies net a penalty equaliser deep into stoppage time.

Courtney added: “I literally squirmed in my settee yesterday watching the situation with Dier, it was awful.

“I felt a bit sorry for the referee, but he has to stick to the current interpretations and if he doesn’t, I presume he will get bombed out.

“Where are our senior people in the game? Where is Mike Riley (general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited) for example. Is he making any comment or keeping his head under the parapet?”

Spurs boss Jose Mourinho showed his frustration on the touchline at the decision while Palace manager Roy Hodgson was vocal against the interpretation of the rule after Joel Ward conceded a penalty against Everton on Saturday.

Hodgson said: “Every week games are being decided on so-called penalty decisions for handball which are definitely not handball.”

A Lucas Digne header hit Ward on the hand from close range and Kevin Friend deemed his arm was in an unnatural position.

“I am still a keen student of the game and I am becoming more and more disillusioned,” Courtney said.

“I am on Roy Hodgson’s side, who made some telling and caustic comments after the game on Saturday.

“It is a real concern of mine that we are losing the real spirit of the game through too much meddling in the interpretations of various aspects of the game.”

The PA news agency understands FIFA sees this as a ‘domestic’ issue of how the law is being interpreted, rather than a problem with the law itself.

At the start of the 2019-20 campaign, a change by IFAB resulted in a handball being awarded “if the ball hits the hand of a player who has made their body unnaturally bigger”.

Last season there were 57 handball penalty awards in Serie A and 48 in LaLiga, but only 20 in the Premier League, who now appear to be following a stricter interpretation of the rule.

“When I came through as a referee there was 17 laws of the game and my then instructor said there are 18 – the 18th is common sense and I have never forgotten that,” Courtney said.

“There is far too much meddling and people are becoming absolutely fed up.

“I have been wrapped up in the game since I was in the cradle. It was a simple game, it was enjoyed and I don’t think referees enjoy their jobs anymore.”

Chelsea boss Frank Lampard believes the new regulations have only added more confusion over just what constitutes handball.

“We all understand when people jump in the box, your arms will naturally move into different positions,” said Lampard, whose side face Tottenham in the Caraboa Cup on Tuesday.

“It has always been a difficult rule maybe with a certain bit of a grey area, but in the idea of trying to find some clarity, we have actually gone the other way and made it something which does not feel right at all. I would like to think something can be done to change it.”