This column invariably takes the side of referees as respect from footballers is eroded, season after season. But Graham Poll's performance in Aston Villa's match at Stamford Bridge on Saturday was worryingly self-basting.

We'll pass on whether Chelsea should have played the bulk of the second half with ten men after Claude Makelele hauled down Juan Pablo Angel as he homed in on goal. Such decisions are always a difficult call.

What upset the Villa camp was that the ref appeared surprisingly chummy with some of the Chelsea players in the pre-match pleasantries and at times during the game.

I'm told that Poll was heard to call John Terry 'JT', Frank Lampard was referred to as 'Frankie' and Andriy Shevchenko was, believe it or not, 'Shevvy'. There was no corresponding matey chat with Villa players such as Gav, Olly or Gabby.

Not for a second am I suggesting that Villa cast aspersions on Poll's integrity or neutrality on Saturday. But it doesn't sound right when a high-profile referee, used to handling major games around the world, talks to big-name internationals in such an intimate fashion.

Like Caesar's wife, a referee must be seen to be above suspicion. He must treat players in exactly the same manner, irrespective of their stature.

If a team senses that the opposition is getting too friendly a reception from the match official before key decisions have to be made, then they'll kick up a fuss and try to regain some advantage by pressurising the referee.

That's one of the reasons why the Villa players and management were so wound up at Chelsea. They didn't see why Graham Poll should appear subconsciously more pally with seasoned internationals who would know him better than Villa's young players.

This doesn't mean that Poll favoured Chelsea last Saturday. His independence is not in question but Premiership teams are now so obsessed with winning that any perceived advantage or disadvantage is viewed with more gravity than necessary.

Try telling a Villa player that Graham Poll had a good game. They may be wrong in lambasting him but with his cheery demeanour to certain Chelsea players, he gave them unnecessary ammunition. And, sadly, professional footballers don't need second bid-ding to whinge about the ref.

Martin O'Neill defused the situation cleverly when he said, 'Graham was right, I shouldn't be contesting decisions' but then added a subtle barb: "There's only one referee in the match and it would have been good if he'd been it."

I wonder if Poll read between the lines of that comment. Did he reflect that Martin O'Neill has form when it comes to run-ins with refs and therefore can be ignored?

Or did he wonder if, perhaps, referees who have officiated in World Cups ought to keep their distance from players who have also reached the top of their ladder?

Football can't afford the merest whisper that referees are too chummy with certain players. We don't want pofaced automatons but we must have transparent, dignified neutrality.