12 December ~ Much of the football broadcasting on the first weekend in December was devoted to criticising what had been, by common consensus, a terrible couple of days for refereeing. Indignation levels soared. Each supposed howler – Gary Cahill being sent off, David Luiz staying on the pitch, the non-penalty awarded to Sunderland – was subjected to a mixture of uncomprehending ridicule and scorn. How could top-level referees make such obvious mistakes? The simple explanation, of course, is that they are doing an extremely difficult job. They’re trying to control a game played at high speed, by top athletes, who are often trying deliberately to deceive them.
Referees don’t have access to the instant replays upon which Alan Green surely bases his unshakeable belief in his own infallibility. They will, inevitably, make mistakes and some of those mistakes will have a significant impact on the outcomes of matches. Referees shouldn't be above criticism but they should not be subjected to a level of criticism far in excess of that directed at players and managers, either.
When a player misplaces a simple pass, falls over his own feet or misses an open goal, the criticism is leavened with sympathy. He has simply had an "off day". When a referee makes a mistake, more sinister motives are ascribed. He is trying to make himself the centre of attention. He is incompetent. Petty. Probably perverted.
It is not hard to see why hammering the referee is seductive for those directly connected to the game. For managers and players, it is a convenient smokescreen, especially when the alternative involves taking personal responsibility for a defeat or offering a resigned shrug followed by the explanation: "Yes, we lost, but what do you expect? We have Lee Cattermole in our team."
More insidious are those ex-players now working in the media, who instinctively side with former colleagues rather than officials. This professional solidarity doesn't apply if the player deserving criticism is foreign and psychologically vulnerable, like David de Gea or Fernando Torres. Pundits don't regularly bump into these players on the after-dinner circuit or at pro-celeb golf tournaments, so they are fair game.
Which means it is down to the independent voices – journalists and broadcasters who haven't been directly involved with football – to ensure that the criticism directed at referees is proportional to that levelled at players – to suggest that, occasionally, a team may have lost for reasons other than the incompetence of an official, even when that official has made a mistake.
If those on the playing side of the game won't reduce their criticism of referees from the vitriolic to the merely unsympathetic, the level of scorn directed at player errors should be raised correspondingly. In this brave and brutal new world, there would be no escape for anybody.
After Bolton's 3-0 defeat to Spurs, for instance, the journalist interviewing Owen Coyle would have refused to be deflected by Coyle's complaints about Gary Cahill's sending off, and instead asked: "Why was Gary Cahill trying to perform a Cruyff turn in his own half anyway? He's not suffering from a delusion that he is Johan Cruyff, is he? He does realise he is Gary Cahill, with all the limitations that implies?"
Highlights and analysis that refused to devote a disproportionate amount of time to scrutinising the officials' shortcomings would be able to run extended blooper reels of the glaring cock-ups committed by even the best players every week. As well as being great fun, this would give a far more accurate picture of how most games are lost – an accumulation of minor individual and collective errors, rather than dramatic blunders by referees.
Adjusting the balance of criticism between referees and players and managers won't be easy. Referees don't help themselves. Rather than humbly regarding themselves as necessary evils, they trot around with a pomposity that comes from knowing they are the only person on the pitch with their name sewn into their underpants.
Broadcasters can criticise them with impunity, knowing that upsetting Mark Clattenburg won't have the same implications for their programme as upsetting Kenny Dalglish or Alex Ferguson. But while referees aren't glamorous, or even particularly sympathetic, we shouldn't passively allow their mistakes to be exaggerated or distorted to serve other agendas. Ed Wilson