Let me get one thing clear from the off: I hate discussing refereeing. I hate the discourse around the standard of them, the bias of them, the conspiracies involving them, which part of the country they’re from and therefore which teams they obviously support and how they’ve got it in for all of our clubs.
Fundamentally, I see referees as an administrative part of football. They’re part of the furniture. Like the clock in your living room. It’s there, doing its job. Everyone knows the telly is the main attraction, but it’s there, telling you the time, and by extension what you should be doing at whatever time it might be. You don’t always do what it says, but if you don’t there are consequences and no doubt your life will deliver those consequences of you not doing what the clock says you should be doing. But all the same, the clock will continue to perform its duties with a minimum of fuss.
There’s a well-told story involving the most famous cricketer of the Victorian era, W.G. Grace. In an exhibition game, he was once given out LBW by the umpire, before promptly remarking: “They came to see me bat, not you umpire,” duly continuing to take his place at the wicket. This is the thing about officials: they’re not the story. And yet here we are, with officiating continually making headline news as it appears to have reached its nadir in the Premier League.
Like many of you may have done, I indulged the long read in The Guardian on Premier League referees, mainly due to the fact that though they often feature in the news, there is little to no insight on the world of refereeing – I’d personally prefer it that way, but here I am breaking the habit of a lifetime.
There’s plenty to learn from the article, primarily that referees aren’t like clocks. They have ambitions and desires. They want to achieve, talking of ‘getting the golden games’ and totting up how many Premier League games they’ve presided over with pride. It’s described as fiercely competitive between referees and they talk about managing games in different ways. Not the characteristics of a group of people there to administer a football match.
But this is an objective role, right? We’re dealing in the matter of fact, the absolutes of the rules of the game? Throw in the fact there are ONLY 17 official listed laws of football and you’d think that the professionalisation of the position would lead to incredible expertise and execution of the role.
Football has forever been on a forlorn search for all major decisions to be ruled correctly. The rise of the media as a fundamental cornerstone of the sport allowed managers to highlight decisions and turn up the pressure on the governing bodies. The game turned from respecting a referee’s decision, to ‘how can we respect them when they get so much wrong?’ I’ve played grassroots football since I was 8 and still do to this day and over the years I’ve learned two things:1. No game of football is possible without a referee2. Referees use their position of authority to circumvent the need to earn the respect of the players
I’m sure we were all brought up to respect our elders, our parents, our teachers, and by extension our referees. But respect is a two-way street. It always has been and the traditional viewpoint of the aforementioned groups knowing best has given way somewhat in the modern world. We’re all ready to disprove any point made to us, and in the case of football we stand armed, slow-motion clips and freeze-frames at the ready, to berate whoever dare make a wrong decision. The problem is the incredible lack of accountability that exists across the governing bodies of the game in the public eye.
An Ivory Tower syndrome has been allowed to manifest, simply by the fact PGMOL, IFAB and any other relevant body has never come out and taken ownership of errors publicly. I stress publicly, because as is evidenced in The Guardian Long Read, referees are consistently reviewed, scrutinised and, if required, punished for any misdemeanours. Only now, after Howard Webb has taken the helm at PGMOLhas there been a perceived proactive step in liaising with clubsover decisions that can have huge ramifications on clubs. But of course, this is all undermined by the very existence of VAR.
It was sold to us as the answer to all of our problems. It works in Cricket, in Rugby and in Tennis. So why not football? Why was football the last man standing in this scenario? There seemed to be a reluctance and hesitation about bringing it to the sport, but ultimately – and I still think this was the case – fan and club pressure ensured the governing bodies caved on the issue. As we now know, it was just opening another can of worms for us all, turning a sport into a form of science, where you could break down each event and prescribe decision-making once an official had seen enough replays.
But football as a sport is not for taming. It will not bow to such autocratic measures. One man’s handball, is another man’s ‘arms in a natural position’ and so on. All of this created a storm for referees to navigate beyond the one out on the pitch. There are many takes in the Long Read regarding VAR and the one that sticks with me is that decisions can be made for the sake of a game, as opposed to applying the letter of the law.
My view is that referees set the standard for what a foul is as soon as they start making decisions in a game. Whether they let things go, or bring things to a halt, they set a unique bar in each and every fixture, in spite of what the laws say – Andre Marriner himself described the Laws of the Game as a ‘framework’.
Fundamentally, everyone wants a game to flow and constant refereeing intervention is a pain from an officiating point-of-view, as well as a spectating and playing point-of-view. This naturally puts referees on the backfoot and an over-zealous referee will be trying to command some form of respect in anunfavourable environment.
It’s almost like parenting – do you go hard-line and disciplined to try and stamp your authority, or a more laissez-faire style to get players on side? Given footballers are essentially overgrown children, you can forgive the officials for going with the stick ahead of the carrot, but as the W.G. Grace example highlights, this ISN’T the sport. Even on a Sunday morning, a whistle-happy referee isn’t likely to garnerthe respect which the game is convinced the officials should expect to receive. It’s a two-way street, as I say. Even if referees do tend to dangle the carrot with players, one decision can turn things on their head, correct or not. One thing you do have to maintain though, is an intensity to the game, because referees can easily find themselves degrading the product and degrading the sport. That, for me, doesn’t necessarily mean applying the law to the letter.
Professionalisation of the role back in 2001 has rightly brought higher expectations and greater levels of scrutiny. This is no longer a weekend job, for portly school teacherswho wanted to partake in the sport as a means to earn extra money, and essentially turn a hobby in to a job. But the simple fact that referees are football fans (it may not always appear to be the case given how some of them officiate a game), flies in the face of how an overt professional would operate. The article talks about having the best seat in the house for the most elite level of the game, as a driver for wanting to achieve within the profession. It’s commendable. It’s understandable. It’s also entirely selfish and subjective in the only on-field role that demands objectivity. It opens up a minefield of potential behaviours – which referees can be the most popular with players, the most authoritative, the first to apply a newly-introduced rule, all with the eye on climbing the ladder. I’m sure we’ve all seen it in our own professions, the propensity for those who shout loudest, who kiss the most backsides to find their way working themselves into positions of prominence. Should we expect a different level of behaviour from our referees? Perhaps, but perhaps not. But these people are also working at their skillset in an effort to reduce the margin for error which seems to bog the game down.
So what am I getting at here? I think I feel sympathy for referees, mostly for the conditions they find themselves in. They’re applying a bad set of laws under bad conditions, complicated further by VAR. But as with anything involved in football, there’s still something vulgar about referees competing with each other in order to officiate certain games.
Being a Premier League referee SHOULD be enough. There’s no title to win, or individual award for the mantelpiece (as far as I’m aware). The meritocracy of it should only apply to a point, that point being the best referees are selected to manage at the highest level i.e. the Premier League. Contrary to popular belief, I also think referees aren’t trusted enough to use their own intuition. Slow-mo replays and absurd wording of the Laws of the Game – talk of handball and ‘making your body unnaturally bigger’ is just odd – are the types of things that create greater margins for error, but Marriner isn’t far off when he talks about there being a framework in place to interpret the rules.
There are certain decisions nobody really wants to see given, that do far too much to influence the end result of a game. RB Leipzig may have gone on to lose 7-0 to Man City anyway, but going 1-0 down, to a penalty awarded in the manner it was just leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Now that football is well down the road to further technological involvement in officiating, resistance is futile, but a frank and honest conversation between two high-level referees entrusted to come up with the correct decision by using their intuition just shouldn’t lead to incorrect calls. And for the majority of the time, I’m sure they will be, despite what conspiracy theory you have in your mind about the Premier League’s agenda against *INSERT CLUB NAME*.
Wolves may or may not be in the Premier League next season, and if we aren’t we had our opportunity to be better than be influenced by refereeing decisions.
And honestly, just stop showing replays in slow-motion in order to make a decision, for crying out loud.
Now please, we’re not here to watch you blow your whistle, we’re here to watch Ruben spank one in from 25 yards. On we go.