Critical mass

wsc300 If referees are as awful as claimed, we should help them out with some some extra body parts – or a microphone. Ed Wilson reports

There are some sections of society that it is difficult to feel sympathy for, even when you know they have been treated harshly. Reality TV stars fall into this category, as do Tory MPs – Edwina Currie is the point of intersection in that particular Venn diagram. Previously, I would have lumped referees into this demographic too. You only need to hear the enthusiasm that greets a referee falling over to grasp their standing among most football fans. But in recent months, my attitude to them has softened. I no longer see them as slightly absurd pantomime villains. Referees are people too.

This revelation – an appreciation of the essential humanity of, for example, Lee Probert – has been prompted by the amount of criticism dished out to referees this season. Hardly a weekend goes by without an official being accused of having made a decision so heinously bad, and so vitally important, that it will lead to the immediate relegation of the wronged club, followed by the sporting, economic and spiritual depression of the area it represents. It feels like things have got a little bit out of hand.

Managers are the most frequent and self-righteous critics of referees and it is not hard to see why. When a microphone is urgently shoved towards them in the immediate aftermath of a defeat, they are hardly likely to offer an unflinching denunciation of themselves and their players when they can blame something, or somebody, beyond their control. Television also has to take some of the blame. Blindingly obvious refereeing mistakes are more easily analysed than the gradual accumulation of minor collective and individual playing errors that, more often than not, determine the outcome of games.

Presumably, it is also far more comfortable for players-turned-pundits to linger over the mistakes of officials than criticise former colleagues. Consequently, the waxy Alan Hansen mannequin that sprawls across the Match of the Day sofa gladly changes the setting on his voicebox from Standard Monotone to Heavy Sarcasm to speculate about the root cause of refereeing problems. Are the officials incompetent? Do they not understand the game, having never played at the “highest level”? Were they given daily wedgies by the sporting heroes of their schools, leading to a sick desire to persecute these übermenschen in later life?

The collegiate fug that stupefies punditry means it is rare to see players’ mistakes subjected to this same mixture of incomprehension and ridicule. During Chelsea’s New Year’s Eve encounter with Aston Villa, Frank Lampard played a comically bad blind pass across his defence that led directly to a Villa goal. Rather than laughing sardonically and wondering aloud whether Lampard had received a lobotomy for Christmas, Mark Lawrenson described the Chelsea player’s pass as “a bit sloppy”. Where are these generous euphemisms when Howard Webb makes a blunder?

There are a few courses of action that may improve the situation. One suggestion is that referees explain their decisions to the media after a match, in the same way managers and players do. This would be fine, as long as they are given the same freedom of speech. It would be refreshing to hear a referee refuse to acknowledge his own errors, and instead call into question the moral integrity of the professional shysters he is trying to control.

Many pundits, managers and players advocate the use of technology to reduce the number of contentious decisions referees are required to make. This might make football significantly less interesting, but if technology is what the professionals want, then technology is what they should have. Give them all the technology it is possible to muster – equip referees with lasers in their eyes and bionic legs to help them keep up with the play. Then, in the future, when a manager is called upon to explain a particularly embarrassing defeat, rather than blaming unjust decisions awarded against him, he would be forced to look straight into a camera and say: “It was our fault. I was tactically negligent and the players were rubbish. It is as simple as that, Motty.”

A final option would be for everybody to exercise a little proportion and acknowledge that referees are doing an extremely difficult job without the help of instant slow-motion replays or different camera angles. Mistakes are inevitable and maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter all that much, anyway. But that is not going to happen. Football and proportion parted company when people realised that proportion doesn’t fuel endless hours of televised debate, or sell razor blades. Bring on the bionic-legged referees.

From WSC 300 February 2012