9 March ~ I was surprised to learn from the obituary of Keith Alexander last week that he had been a qualified referee, because it’s unusual for players to train for anything vocational within the game besides their coaching badges. That’s where they’re likely to make money on the side, or in the future, because there’s not much cash in refereeing, especially if you don’t retire from playing until your mid-30s. It speaks for Alexander’s love of the game that he would have trained to be a match official. Yet thinking about this a little more, shouldn’t every player be a qualified referee?
I spent 18 hours this past weekend training to become a referee at the lowest grade. Despite playing and watching the game for the best part of four decades, I wasn’t surprised to find there were many gaps in my knowledge of football’s laws. And there were plenty of things that I thought I already knew, but I didn’t. If I were to play my life back on video, it could turn out that on many of those occasions when I was yelling at the referee from the safety of the stands, or the sofa, or even on the field of play (though I try not to), I was completely and hopelessly wrong.
We all, professional players included, probably think we more or less know the Laws of the Game, but I can guarantee you that if you are not a qualified ref, my instructor this past weekend would have caught you out on at least a dozen questions. If taking and passing a referee’s course was mandatory for all young professional players, wouldn’t there be a lot less carping and dissent on the field? Well, you might argue, carping and dissent are part of a pro’s default behaviour, because that’s how they intimidate or subtly influence a referee. Having players truly know the rules would make no difference.
So don’t just have young players train as referees, have them actually go out into their localities and officiate games. This would not only raise a club’s profile in the community, but it would give the players valuable experience in seeing the game from the referee’s perspective. Let them learn how to deal with angry coaches and screaming parents. Let them understand that referees make mistakes, and that it’s not humanly possible to be in the right place at all times during the game, and to always make the right decision. Let them learn how to be flexible, and how to apply Law 18, which was drummed into us all weekend – the unwritten law of common sense.
This would allow referees at the professional level to say to whining, gesticulating players: “As you will know yourself as a qualified referee, I gave that foul against you because in my opinion it was a reckless tackle, and so you will understand why I’m about to give you a yellow card.” In fact don’t just have the younger players take the refereeing course – make it obligatory for every player who signs a professional contract in this country. Coaches and managers too. And commentators and pundits. If there’s enough time, get the fans to take the course as well. No entry into a league ground until you show your ref’s pass. I’m only half-kidding.
It won’t make everything perfect overnight, but it would be much more effective than the FA’s bogus Respect campaign that was roundly ignored by everyone once the bunting from the launch party was binned. If every player and manager properly understood the laws of the game, and what it’s like to referee a match, we might see a gradual abatement of the tedious and predictable histrionics that Sky has helped to make a statutory part of football’s entertainment role-call. The broadcaster could save itself the cost of the cameraman who focuses on Arsène Wenger clutching his head and screaming at a decision made 60 yards from where he’s standing. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard showing up unannounced to referee an Under-12 girls’ match might start to repair the public image of players as detached, spoilt and with too much time on their hands. What’s not to like? Ian Plenderleith