Issue How respect is lost through a lack of understanding about football

As told by Paul Firth

Let me begin with two important statements. The first is that referees hardly ever lose games; much more often players lose games or opposition players win games. Referees’ decisions can have immense bearings on the outcome of games, especially late on and in close contests. But those situations are quite rare. Jarnail Singh’s decision to play on after the obviously serious injuries to Lee and Moncur almost certainly cost City a goal, but they had 84 playing minutes to catch up. They were lucky it was only 1-0 at half time.

The second thing I have to say is that I really did start the new season in the spirit of Respect. I thought the trappings (walking out together, shaking hands and the like) were all about style and nothing to do with substance. As such, they represented very accurately the times we live in, which is a pity for our great game. But there we are, still looking for the substance and hoping to find genuine respect in our game.

So, with the statements over, let me express my grave disappointment after less than two months into the new season. Sadly the Respect campaign has, as I feared it might, already been found out for what it is. The totality of the campaign is that the players and managers are expected to give their unquestioning respect to referees automatically and at all times.

Real respect may be granted at the outset, but then has to be earned. I have always compared the status of the referee with my old job as a judge, while conceding that I had time to make decisions and referees may have to act very quickly. (An argument in support of technology, but we’ll leave that for another time.) There is, however, at least one perfectly valid comparison with my old job. Whenever I first sat in a new area, I may have had the initial respect of the professionals in front of me. I hoped that, as they listened to my decisions and the reasons behind them, the regular professionals would continue to respect me, without necessarily agreeing with every decision I made. We all make mistakes and with many decisions there must be a sinner and a sinned against; a winner and a loser.

Respect for referees, it seems to me, should work the same way. It should be granted as a starting point, but it may not last forever. If the referee is plainly not up to the job – I shall come back to that phrase in a moment – he will lose the respect initially given. And he will rightly lose that respect, just as judge or a policeman or head teacher or a manager who is not up to the job will also lose the respect of those over whom he has authority.

So, having said that retaining respect (as opposed to the initial granting) requires that the referee act in a manner that does not destroy what he started with, I must go on to a second point; respect works two ways. Many readers of this will spend much of their time in a workplace where either they supervise or manage others and/or those others supervise or manage them. When a new manager arrives, we all wonder what he or she will be like and we may well take time to get to know his or her particular methods and personality. We may not always agree with our new boss, but we will surely respect sound ideas, especially if they outnumber the dodgy moments.

But we have all had bosses who, for one reason or another, have lost our respect. I once had one who couldn’t face awkward truths and consequently told me what I can only describe as a right cock and bull story about my career prospects. All respect was lost once I worked out the truth and, having been lost, it was never recovered because she kept on avoiding the truth, thereby continually repeating the very reason for losing respect.

So what of a referee who loses the respect of the players, not because of a decision or two they don’t agree with, which might or might not be a mistake, but because of the general manner of his refereeing? Are the players and coaches seriously intended to remain genuinely respectful to such a person, despite the fact, as the crowd’s chant might put it, that he’s not fit to referee?

All of this has been brought to a head by two particular referees in the last week. What I believe they have in common causes me real concern for the way our game is refereed and for the future prospects for genuine respect. I question whether these referees (and probably several others who referee in similar styles – no, I don’t necessarily mean you, Mr Styles) understand how football should be played. More fundamentally, I question whether they, like the worst managers we’ve worked for, have any understanding of the people over whom they have authority. They may not even feel the need for such an understanding, so long as they know the rules and get the respect they think they deserve by virtue of their status.

A lot has been said about the first of these two referees. Mr Atwell, at 25, used to be famous for being the youngest referee in the Premier League. He is now more famous for allowing the goal that never was at Watford. Much as I was troubled by that goal and what the referee and his assistant thought they had seen, I was more concerned by how the referee reacted to the players. And I don’t mean just the Watford players. The Reading players were equally baffled. The only difference was that one team was laughing and the other arguing. Nobody but the officials thought there had been a goal.

What this suggests to me is that either the officials weren’t watching the players or they didn’t feel the need to observe and understand those over whom they had authority. Anyone with a basic understanding of football observing the Reading players would have spotted immediately that not one of them had thought for even the briefest moment that there might even just possibly have been a goal scored. Now what does that tell us? It tells me that there wasn’t a goal.

But what did it tell Mr Atwell? Nothing at all, it seems. I don’t know where he was looking at the time, but it can’t have been at the ball. If he had been watching the ball, he would surely have seen that it never went anywhere near the goal posts. He must, then, have been watching the players nearest to the incident. But what did he actually see? Not enough to suggest to him that there was something very wrong indeed here, when both teams were playing on, when not one Reading player was appealing for anything at all, when no fans were shouting for a goal and when the only person in the entire stadium who thought he had seen a goal scored was his assistant.

Let me go back to Mr Singh and what he has in common with Mr Atwell. A minor incident it may have been in the context of TJ’s injury, but in the last few minutes Grant Holt hit a shot yards wide, cursed himself and turned to trot away for the goal kick. Rhys Evans went to retrieve the ball for the same reason. Mr Singh gave a corner. What was he watching? What had he seen that no one else on the pitch or in the crowd had spotted? Why was his eyesight so much better than everyone else – including Grant Holt? And didn’t the unanimous reaction of the players on both sides tell him he might just have got it wrong? Apparently not.

The Moncur-Lee incident is in my eyes a much more serious symptom of the same problem. According to Stuart McCall, Mr Singh says he saw the clash of heads ‘and felt they were both okay.’ I might be inclined, with another referee, to put it down to just one single human error, albeit one with potentially the most devastating consequences. The resulting goal was a mere nothing compared to what might have happened. Even from the stands it was immediately obvious that this was very serious. Listen to the commentary. Listen to anyone who saw the incident and understands football or has even a rudimentary knowledge of falls. But Mr Singh ‘felt they were both okay.’ He, of course, has form for this sort of mistake, as City fans know only too well. I think Steven Schumacher will also remember more of his head injury than TJ can recall.

In the second half at Shrewsbury there was another head injury. From my seat some 80 yards away I was sure the Shrewsbury defender was the victim of a foul by Omar Daley, an arm or a hand to his face, as Omar took the ball away from him. Where the ref was looking is another little mystery. The defender went down, play carried on and, so alarmed was she by what she saw of her player and what she knew of the referee’s earlier failure, the Shrewsbury physio ran on to the pitch while play continued for quite some time. OK, she broke the rules and the ever efficient Mr Singh told her off. But she acted on a genuine human concern for a man obviously suffering from a head/facial injury. She was up to her job.

Later in the game two Shrewsbury players collided, both going to the ground, although not in the same bone-crunching fashion as Lee and Moncur. Mr Singh had finally learned his lesson and stopped the game. Neither was, as it happened, all that badly injured and both carried on after the briefest treatment and the mandatory leaving of the field for five seconds.

Now what concerns me about these two referees and those others like them is not that they make mistakes; not that they make important and possibly dangerous mistakes; not even that they make lots of mistakes; but that they do not understand what football and footballers are all about. In that sense they are plainly not up to the job. They have other and wrong priorities. They want to demonstrate their knowledge of the rules, rather than their ability to evaluate. They feel the need to satisfy the assessor or, in the Premier League, the TV cameras.

In the old job I always had to give a public explanation for each decision, which could be used on any appeal. There was always someone who didn’t agree with the decision, but at least we all knew how it been reached. Referees explain very little and most of their decisions are immune from appeal.

But if referees don’t understand what they’re doing and why some of them are doing it so wrongly, not just making human errors, then the respect will soon be lost, never to be regained. Long before Saturday I’d lost respect for Mr Singh, not just because of the Schumacher injury, but because he failed to send off Darren Holloway at Yeovil for a waist-high scythe. I would have been furious if he’d been an opponent. The yellow card, while a relief from the team’s point of view, finally convinced me that Mr Singh doesn’t understand football.

How many more referees come into the same category? And does the FA really expect fans, players and coaches to forget what they see and dutifully respect them? If that is the FA’s expectation, they too do not understand those of us who care about this game and its future.