Despite three red cards at Oakwell that nearly resulted in a riot in the stands, Richard Darn feels that referees don't deserve the abuse they get 

In just 40 tragic minutes, Mr Willard, a “top” referee from Worthing, was crossed off 16,500 Christmas card lists in Barnsley. His crime was to cack-handedly preside over a home defeat at the hands of Liverpool. For most of the crowd, a bit of foul-mouthed bellowing sufficed. Others were moved to throw coins and spit. A few carted their beer-inflated carcasses onto the pitch to exact instant revenge.

There have been some pretty odd games at Oakwell this season, but this entered the twilight zone. Three Barnsley players sent off (previously only a couple had been dismissed in the last two seasons), a referee who vanished up the tunnel for five minutes (“he’s even sent himself off” chortled one wag) and an eight-man Barnsley team making Liverpool look like a set of frightened bunnies.

Reason was suspended as home fans saw conspiracies everywhere. Surely Mr Willard shot JFK? My cousin, a mild-mannered systems analyst, was convulsed with rage. He couldn’t say why apart from blathering something about being cheated and favouritism to top teams. It was that sort of game.

But this anarchy had very little to do with the “return of violence to the national game” as the editorials in the pathetic Daily Mail and Express intoned, seemingly free from the constraints of actually having been at Oakwell.

The "pitch invasion" was in fact seven individuals coming onto the playing area at intervals. One did get near the referee, before he was bowled over by a Barnsley player. The others ran out of steam after a few escapist yards, one being subdued by a tiny policewoman. Not much hope of invading even Lilliput with that lot.

Meanwhile, I felt sorry for the referee. Obviously, I didn’t say so at the time. Apart from making a complete balls up of one sending-off, most other things were done by the book or open to interpretation. That didn’t register with our local MP who accused him of nearly starting a riot. True, Mr Willard’s overall performance was poor, something which had more to do with his authoritarian streak. But he hardly deserved to be pilloried as a heretic, threatened with violence and smuggled out of town in an unmarked car.

In fact, the occasion said far more about the current state of English football and the Premiership in particular. Whether it’s money, Sky-induced hype, or too many violent videos, it’s the crowd, players and managers who have lost the plot. A few years ago everyone was crying out for referees to be more consistent. Now they are, we want them to use more discretion. As more and more seems to hang on every decision on the pitch, so the pressures on a referee’s fallible human senses increase.

Why is the standard of refereeing going down? It isn’t. It’s just that the blanket TV coverage with up to five different camera angles reveals what many have always suspected: the interpretation of an offence depends on where you are standing at the time. Mr Willard honestly saw two offences which added up to sendings-off. He didn’t see Paul Ince raise his arm, so he stayed put. The third Barnsley player walked on the say-so of the linesman.

I’m risking life and limb saying this, because the prevailing mood in the town is to hire a coach, load the rocket launchers, and get down to the Sussex coast. But if mistakes were punished by capital punishment, every Barnsley defender this season would be in the cemetery.

I felt sickened by the situation Mr Willard found himself in. He was isolated and, in my opinion, frightened. Arguably the pressures of football, in both financial and athletic terms, have overtaken the ability of one man to maintain effective control.

The time has come to to beef up the officials by having four linesmen – two in each half – and giving these individuals greater power to call for an offence. In the cauldron of Oakwell, having a video replay facility wouldn’t have worked. But the referee could have benefited from having four other sets of eyes around the pitch to rely on. In that situation, referees would be obligated to consult with assistants before reaching decisions where possible.

It’s only a theory and for a tiny, tiny minority of Barnsley’s following, being confronted by four linesmen might simply mean taking more loose change to games. But anything has to be better than the shambles witnessed at Oakwell.

From WSC 135 May 1998. What was happening this month

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