Respect campaign

Rob Bradley recently made an alarming discovery – he no longer hates referees and even admires one in particular

Life is all about change. You go to school, then you work, you have kids, you get old. You have different hair styles and then you go bald. As the years go by you lose enthusiasm for things that you used to enjoy. Like Frank Skinner or keeping fit. But some things never ever change. At least you think they don’t. I’ve always hated referees. When I played Sunday League football I got sent off by them. I even got sent off for ranting at one and I was running the line. You hate them when you go to watch the club you support. It’s traditional.

My early years were spent watching Lincoln City and learning to hate refs like Pat Partridge who officiated at World Cups. At Sincil Bank my dad shouted out to him “you’re an arse” and he shouted back “it takes one to know one”. No one does that to my dad. Keith Hackett achieved that lofty position by missing an obvious penalty for the Imps when the opposing centre-half reached up and punched the ball away high above his head as seen by simply everybody in the ground.

In more recent times I laughed at the way Paul Alcock fell over when Paolo di Canio pushed him. Nobody normal falls over like that. And I laughed even more when Graham Poll (who confirms he’s egotistical by devoting the whole of his autobiography to telling us he isn’t egotistical) performed his three card trick in Croatia v Australia at the 2006 World Cup. Priceless.

But then, remarkably, things suddenly changed. A bit anyway. I don’t know if it was the getting older/getting wiser thing. Probably not, because in my case in a lot of areas getting older means getting more stupid. Like not knowing when someone is being sarcastic. Or thinking they’re being sarcastic when they’re being serious.

As you get older you have to mellow a bit if only for your sanity. My brother, who is of extreme far left persuasion, recently accused me of being “reasonable” during a heated political argument. That would have been an insult once. As the years go by it’s not the principle of the argument that’s important, it’s not having a heart attack that matters. Or at least acid indigestion. My change of view about refs isn’t down to avoiding stress though. It can’t be, because, unlike politicians (and Radio 1 DJs, planners, rappers, royals and Grimsby Town) I enjoyed hating them. No, it’s down to one thing. And that thing is Mike Dean.

I don’t want to get carried away here, but I reckon – shock horror – he’s a bit cool. And a bit hard. Not easy when you look like Jasper Carrot but nonetheless true. When he’s in charge of a game I like to watch how he does things. His body language is cool. His facial expressions say: “You may earn millions young fellow but do you know I don’t give a toss.” He makes plenty of mistakes and he certainly likes dishing out cards and penalties, but his actions say “I’m not a nerd”.

Perhaps all this has come about as a reaction to how players have lost their appeal. Maybe when most of a team are wearing gloves in September and tripping over the shadow of a blade of grass in the penalty area you’re going to like them less and feel a bit more warmth for the people who have to try to keep them in check. And along comes this guy and you think if some awful spell was cast on you and, when the smoke had cleared, you saw you’d been turned into a ref, you’d want to do the job like he does.

Anyway, the thing that finally swung it with Mike Dean was the way he dealt with the goal celebration when West Ham took the lead against Chelsea recently. The players ran to the crowd and some group-hugging went on with the fans and a smiling steward. Andy Gray, one of a legion of pundits who don’t know the rules, got it right this time and said Dean would have to flash the yellow card. But no. The West Ham lads ran back past him and he scowled his disapproval, probably letting his assessor know he wasn’t happy. But he didn’t book anyone like the rules say he should. He just looked hard. Cool or what?

So, Mr Dean, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep showing us how a referee can look firm and in control. Keep showing sad old cynics like me that refs don’t have to be strange, lonely individuals who take it up because they want to do the job rather than because they’d be good at it.

Don’t sign autographs when some misguided souls thrust their programmes at you. (Under no circumstances should a referee ever be asked for an autograph, even by a distant relative or family friend.) Don’t smile all the time like some of them do, pretending they’re in control when they’re not. Most of all, don’t write a self-indulgent autobiography like Jeff Winter did, droning on and on about his flourishing bloody “media career”.

And whatever you do, don’t referee a Lincoln City game. It’s taken me decades to get over what some of your mates have got up to. I don’t want that spoiled by a harsh red card or a dubious penalty against us. I’d hate that.

From WSC 276 February 2010