Jul 7, 2015
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Refereeing: A thankless task

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Football fans have several excuses when their team haven’t quite carved out the desired results – notably the quality of the pitch, the fixture scheduling and, of course, the referee. The culture we have in football today ensures that referees double up as scapegoats as well as match officials, with every small mistake punished pitchside with a crescendo of abuse. What I want to explore is; to what extent is this justifiable?

Firstly, I think it’s important to recognise that, as a nation, we all fancy ourselves as footballing experts. In reality, I would argue the average football fan in this country knows only a portion of the rules of the beautiful game. Refereeing runs in my family, my Grandfather having officiated at Divison One level in the post-war era (for those who don’t tend to believe in football before Sky, that’s the Premier League). I’ve seen several of my Dad’s rulebooks and the length of these books can extend into hundreds of pages. Bear in mind the rules are listed in bullet points beneath each category, very little is left to discussion or explanation.

For example, I can quite confidently say I’m pretty sure most people in the UK are completely unaware it is, in fact, impossible to score an own goal from a free kick – the ball is then given as a corner. Equally, if a player attempts to flick the ball up and then head it back to the keeper, thus avoiding a traditional “back pass”, it is automatically a yellow card offence. Substitutes cannot take throw-ins or corners when they come on as it means they have technically not entered the field of play. Whilst these are all trivial rules that make no difference to the majority of professional games – I feel it raises a significant point; we slate referees for being unfit to do their job, when in fact we don’t even know how to carry their job out in the slightest. It would be like watching F1 on the TV then marching into Lewis Hamilton’s garage and telling his engineers you know how to make the car work perfectly.

Secondly, bias. This one never fails to amuse me when I’m watching my own team, Swindon Town. Even from our own supporters, a single decision against our team results in accusations of bias, which only flares up if someone finds out the referee is from within 100 miles of the opposition’s ground. All I’ll say is; there is a reason they don’t print where the referee is from on the back of match day programmes anymore.

The bias accusations always amuse me because, firstly, the FA takes measures to ensure a referee is never appointed to a game where there is any conflict of interest. The extent to which they monitor this is shown in Graham Poll, who supported QPR as a child but let his support abate once it became clear he was entering into an impartial career path in football. The FA still kept a note on his file saying “lapsed Queens Park Rangers supporter”. So the attention to detail on appointing referees to games in which they have nothing to impair their judgement is stringent by the governing body – why on earth would they bring their own game into disrepute?

Equally – what does a referee gain from being biased? National television coverage about an incident that will almost certainly lose him any respectability amongst his peers, end his refereeing career in terms of progressing up the ladder and make him a household name synonymous with cheating? Sounds like a bit of a raw deal just to give a penalty against your beloved side, to me.

Now for the big one – mistakes in refereeing. Please don’t assume because it’s a family affair I look at refereeing with rose-tinted spectacles. Quite frankly, some of the refereeing in this country is farcical at times – getting the identity of a red-carded player wrong and giving “ghost goals” in Championship matches standing as two notable examples. Both of these incidents are clear examples of the match officials not doing their job correctly. No argument.

However, why is it acceptable in modern football for a player to make a mistake and get an endearing little ‘just had a off day’ from supporters? Both the players and the referee are human, so why is the treatment the same? Some would argue the referee is paid good money to get the decisions correct. Fair point – but aren’t the players paid so much more to play to a consistently high standard and avoid the need for refereeing decisions to pose any threat to them taking home the three points?

Another one we commonly get is ‘the occasion got to him’. Bear in mind that, just as an FA Cup Final is one of the pinnacles of a players career, the same is true of the referee. He will have been officiating for the best part of two decades to reach that point – nerves and mistakes are just as natural, if not more for the officials. Although, having said that, the officials work towards their ultimate ambition for a longer period of time – given most top-flight referees are older than the players – so you could say they have more experience on which to avoid making ridiculous errors.

Also, I would imagine a referee is able to make his best calls when he is comfortable, relaxed, able to concentrate and aware of his surroundings. So how, as a nation, we’ve decided the best way to blame our team’s shortcomings is on an official trying to concentrate amidst a crescendo of noise is beyond me. We can hardly preach the shortcomings of referees if we can’t accept we don’t exactly make the position of the match official any easier. Imagine trying to focus on your office job with a group of screaming children lining the edges of your desk. It’s effectively the same thing. Though I imagine the children would chant more intelligently than some sets of fans I’ve come across – no names.

Refereeing is far from a perfect discipline at the moment. Technology is only just catching up, poor calls are still made in the most important games and, as a practice, there seems to have emerged a clear divide between officials and the rest of the footballing world. My case in point would be the ‘Respect’ campaigns initiated by the FA in recent years.

However, whilst it is perfectly acceptable, and true, to say refereeing needs some reforms, I ask you; should we not also be looking at ourselves? We don’t make it easier – we make it worse. One day shouting abuse and distracting the officials could cost your team.

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Damian is an A-Level student from Trowbridge, Wiltshire. He is a supporter of Swindon Town and will (hopefully!) be starting at the University of Southampton in September to study History.

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