This season was always going to be a big one for football referees. The evolutionary scale has shifted once again from one man, one whistle to five men, one whistle, two flags, one board, umpteen cameras and one TV screen. We’ve dropped the wand-wielding idiots on the touchline, but we’ve inherited a far more dangerous precedent.
That is, with new tools now at their disposal, referees no longer have an excuse to be wrong. With the best trained officials on the touchlines and video replay assistance in the sky, they have effectively become the pilots of a foolproof system to match officialdom, all of which is predicated on the notion that the game will surely be better off for it.
At least, that’s the view of the proponents of the system, which generally include those who believe winning is their God-given right. Without a ball being kicked this season Barcelona star Gerard Piqué, who is renowned for regularly hitting out at refereeing decisions, was quick to offer his two penneth on how to ‘make refereeing better’. Announcing that he wants to ‘change the refereeing system’ in order to ‘eliminate injustices and to ensure there would be less controversy’ he set out a technological agenda that has largely come to fruition this season. But are we cutting off our nose to spite our face?
Writing in When Saturday Comes, Sean Cole argues that the change the game really needs is not technological at all. In his words, what football needs is ‘an end to referee-blaming culture’, and I for one would agree. Speaking from experience, refereeing at an amateur level can be a miserable affair. Turning up to godforsaken local park on a Sunday just to have some lard arse bark down your ear because his son doesn’t understand the offside rule is no picnic, but they do it because they think it’s ok. Referees are viewed with less esteem than the opposition by most teams, and it’s having a devastating trickle-down effect.
According to research by Dr Tom Webb at the University of Portsmouth football in England could be on the brink of a major shift due to an appalling lack of respect shown to referees. His nationwide study revealed that referees at all levels are routinely subjected to verbal and physical abuse, resulting in a disenfranchised workforce, an uneven distribution of power and serious issues concerning the structure of the game itself within England. Games now take place every weekend without a referee due to shortages, and the FA has been forced to review its Respect program to stave off a crisis at amateur levels.
Given this context, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed with Darren Ferguson’s remarks about Andy Haines following the Plymouth Argyle game. The Rovers’ manager can consider himself lucky to be walking away with a £1,000 fine after saying he would ‘shoot’ League One’s ‘appalling’ referees. His comments echo those seen on a weekly basis at an amateur level, except there’s a great deal more animosity when they’re been shouted at you from ten feet away on an isolated park.
As I see it, we have three options in regards to football officialdom; we either eat it up, shoot em, or leave it be. In the first instance, we can embrace tech and the ideal that it will lead to a fairer game. It will mean unwanted stoppages, muted celebrations and, crucially, a tiered system of refereeing which will inevitably pour scorn on those refereeing at lower levels. So we’ll shoot ‘em. We’ll continue to see comments like the ones aired by Fergie lamenting the quality of our officials and that will have a trickle-down effect on participation levels of referees in the amateur leagues.
Better, in my view, to leave it and put an end to referee-blaming. Although much is already said of the contrast between football and rugby union, if you compare Eddie Jones’ comments following England’s Six Nations defeat to France to Fergie’s you get an idea of what folk mean. Although England have had no favours from the refs in this year’s Six Nations [ahem, don’t think you’re sneaking that past a Welsh editor] and arguably lost the game against France owing to a controversial penalty try (awarded by VAR), Jones was rather more humble in his assessment of the referee and of the laws of the game, simply saying ‘whatever the referee decides is right and I’m quite happy to accept it’.
Now isn’t that a refreshing, and ultimately more self-serving response than the hapless Cloughism that Fergie spat out? You can implement all the technology you want in order to get a fairer system of refereeing, but until we change the blame culture and start shouldering responsibility ourselves nothing is really ever going to change.
by Jack Peat