Issue Bad Ref Afternoon

As told by Michael Wood

I’m becoming increasingly fed up with paying my money to watch games refereed by officials so one-sided you have to wonder whether they are cheating.

There is a problem in football and Andy Utley’s comment on the BfB report on the Rotherham United game sums it up. Tired from asking the question “bias or bloody rubbish?” supporters such as Andy – and myself – are frustrated at the inaction of the game’s authorities to these Bad Ref Afternoons are voting with their wallets.

Andy’s comments about contacting the Football League about a Referee’s performance are far from unique in the BfB post bag and a good few City fans after the Oldham/Blackpool/Southend/Shrewsbury games a few years ago wrote to the football authorities to complain about what they saw as bias in the officials and all got the same response of “say what you like about the Refs but never say they are cheating.”

Not that Andy’s comments – or my thoughts on the subject – are the only voice to be heard. Chris Barlow on BfB – late on an evening – added

To talk of conspiracy between referees against BCFC due to SM’s attitude even defies my current drunken state.

Chris has a valid point too and one which Tony Pulis the Stoke manager would agree with – he would not see Referees as against City but rather suggest that Lee Probert is just not giving the right decisions. The flaw in the idea that Referees are blighted by a bias against Bradford City is that they have seemingly been for Bradford City and while aspersion are not to be cast our chairmen are no whiter than any others.

This is countered by the idea that it is rare for a team who wins a game to have a lasting memory of any referee. Think back now to the last time City got what you could call a favour from an official. It is a much harder task than recalling the last time you stomped away in anger.

There is an attitude in football that any cheating in the game is always detected and thus the suggestion of cheating is always wrong. This is often and obviously untrue. In League Two Accrington players have been banned for betting on their own team to lose while at the other end of professional football the likes of Juventus were relegated for fixing matches.

We see that cheating is commonplace – certainly more commonplace than the Football League’s terse replies to genuine concerns suggest – with the Italian example being a very high profile collection of games in which teams had favourable Referees. One wonders if any Inter supporter trooping away from a game with Juve, AC Milan et al complaining about the offside goal that the Ref “just got wrong” was told that “referee’s don’t cheat.”

The word “cheat” has a strange set of connotations in football. It is a given that players cheat all the time – when Thierry Henry did it in the World Cup play-offs the reaction was a condemnation not for the player for blatantly abusing the rules but for the officials for not spotting the abuse – and in some cases plaudits are expected when players show any honesty at all. I recall being invited to admire Cristiano Ronaldo by a work mate because he had “cut diving out of his game” as if the fact that he no longer cheated was something to be celebrated rather than the fact he had condemned.

Managers tend to avoid the “cheat” word for fear of the FA sanction it brings although Stockport County’s Jim Gannon feared it not – and fell foul of it not – when he stated that he believed that having kicked up a fuss over one Referee’s poor performance officials were penalising County as a result. Gannon was never charged by the FA and the comments fizzled out after his move to Motherwell. He was last seen in colourful debate with Hugh Dallas about the standard of Scots officials.

The manager’s secret language though contains a number of phrases the heart of which is the asserting that the Referees have shown a bias. From “FIFA will be pleased” to “You don’t get those decisions at Old Trafford” they say meaning that bias has been shown against their side but stopping short of airing the words. Stuart McCall employed some Referee code saying that a recent official would find the decision embarrassing meaning simply that the man in the middle was wrong. As a result the people of Carlisle grew angry suggesting once again that anyone who questions the officials should be made to shut up.

McCall’s comments after the Carlisle United game echoed Andy’s as the City manager added that he felt sorry for Bantams supporters who had paid to come North on a Tuesday night only to see a game ruined by an official and his decision making. Tellingly in the spat between McCall, his old mate Greg Abbott and the local Carlisle newspaper the referee of the day – Tony Bates – kept his mouth shut.

Therein is the problem – and perhaps the solution – in Refereeing. For ninety minutes a week officials issue edicts to players which ripple through to managers and to supporters but once that ninety minutes is up they walk away from the ground never to utter a word about the game again (stopping only, perhaps, to summarily judge that someone has sworn at them in the car park).

Managers talk about games, players talk about games, fans talk about games but referees will not. Indeed it is in the Laws of the Game that officials are not to use body language as signals inform supporters of the reasons for decisions so the generous Ref who points to his palm to signal handball is risking the wrath of his superiors who would have him make, but never explain, decisions.

With that in mind Bates could not mime a second tug to show all why Simon Ramsden was sent off at Carlisle and Lee Probert could not make the dive motion he obviously though the Bantams defenders were doing when the Rotherham’s Broughton’s elbows were flying around. Perhaps this is for the best. Referees already seem to be falling into Pantomime, we do not want it to be mime.

Referee do make a detailed report for the FA after every game but trying to get a look at that report is out of the question. A polite mail to the authorities, a raging demand as a consumer of the football product, a pleasing begging letter. No matter what you are not seeing why the man who ruined your trip to Cumbria did what he did. It is a policy which is supercilious to the point of an insult.

Supercilious and utterly unnecessary. It is well within possibilities that a referee could fill in his report online with the ability to add a note on every yellow card or goal given, to make general comments on the game and give reasons that on a Monday morning every fan who had spent good money going to a match could log on and read.

So if Lee Probert had made a couple of notes on his match report: “44 mins – I felt that Ramsden was injured not the contact from the player and not by an elbow” and “3-2 Rotherham – I thought the Free Kick was taken from within an acceptable area of the offence penalised” then at least supporters would have a reason for the decisions. Communication is important in increasing respect and trust. It is good to talk, I know I heard it on an advert.

Sadly though the line from officials is not that they want respect – as the campaign is titled – but rather fealty and this is a problem for football. Supporters have past being tired with this position and have moved into an action of inaction.

Me, Andy and many others are fed up with paying money (and spending a day of the weekend) watching referees that behave in the way we so often see and knowing genuine worries will be summarily dismissed out of hand by the FL simply which only serves to thumb the nose of the footballing authorities at the supporters. The outcome seems to be that more and more supporters decide against a trip to Barnet or Exeter because of the risk of one of these “bad ref afternoons”.

There are other reasons why football trips are less enjoyable now that they were ten or fifteen years ago but no matter what list one draws up the quality of refereeing is a significant reason why a fan can’t justify spending the thick end of £50 on an away trip.

The culture of secrecy that officials live under not only leaves supporters asking the “bent or bloody rubbish” question but also creates a set of conditions in which cheating referees would be allowed to prosper. Start to address the issue with refereeing by creating a feedback loop in which fans can at least find out why decisions are made and one shines a cleansing light into the world of officials.

Failure to address this issue and the game carries on turning off supporters by tiny, significant and avoidable increments.