Issue A good laugh about bad refs

As told by Michael Wood

Having watched a Referee try restart a football match unaware that a player was receiving treatment in the penalty area on Tuesday night I had some sympathy for Anthony Bates, the man in black as City played Accrington Stanley on Tuesday night.

Bates might have got some calls wrong on the evening and lacked an authority, but his job was made a much harder by what seemed to be a campaign of gamesmanship by the visiting team. That the Accrington staff were sneaking onto the field to delay the game is something that Bates should have dealt with, but the fault lays more with the Physiotherapist in question then the man who could not curtail his actions. Bates might not have showered himself in glory, but his job was made harder and we should all recognise that.

Nevertheless, and utterly predictably, BfB was contacted by a Referee from Bradford complaining about what he saw as (para) “another one dimensional article having a go at Referees.” And there was me thinking my articles were one dimensional defences of Stuart McCall, another dimension and I might have started looking at things from multiple angles.

(A note here on comments. If a comment starts with the name of the writer and then goes on to talk directly to the writer it is treated as an email and not a comment for the public to read. The writer may choose to reply by mail or may not. Comments for publication need to be relevant to the readers, not just the writer.)

Joking aside the Referee in question got in touch with BfB and gave some “corrections” to my opinions – often dealings with referees send my mind back to being at school – on the basis of the BBC highlights he had seen. Watching the BBC clips made it clear – I was told – that I “haven’t a clue.”

I paused for a moment to consider the idea who would say that having watched a football match live your view on it would be less valid than someone who watched the highlights.

Opinions are great, especially those that come from experts, but frequently the tone of communications from Referees is troublingly authoritarian. The phrase “I’m a Referee and this is what happened…” features often as if those of us who have spent decades watching the game were incapable of making a judgement on incidents. There is a high-handedness in Refereeing which does them, and the rest of football, no favours at all.

Scotland, where the Referees roam wild

This weekend the SPL games are – it is hoped – to be refereed by guest officials from foreign leagues after the home Refs declared a strike in a demand for more respect. The Scots situation is unique in world of football – any other place where such raw religious fundamentalism is allowed to go unchecked is usually associated with a deadly numeric – but as Celtic manager Neil Lennon turned on the officials after the now infamous game with Dundee United he did so in full knowledge that as the manager of one of the teams involved he would not be invited to any sort of dialogue with the man in the middle.

Of course one might wonder how much managers would welcome increased contact with Referees, and how they would respond to it. A Premier League experiment with increasing officials communication back in 2003 reached a point where after a game with Manchester United the then Southampton boss Gordon Strachan accused the Referee of being too scared to show his face.

Strachan’s reach neatly deflected some attention away from his team’s defeat for sure but the damage done in the press seemed to end the experiment. These days referees are making their decision in a sea of analysis and their voice is unrepresented in that conversation.

Respect the rules I lay down, the system say, and question nothing. Default respect without communication is something that some can give and other cannot, I know I am in the latter group.

The structure of football demands respect for the Referee and largely is right to do so but seemingly there is a need for this respect to be granted and never earned. The Referee wants your respect but he will not address you in the same manner.

All of which is a great shame. Referees are experts and they have interesting and fascinating opinions on football and they are people with emotions who want to do a good job. Yet the FA would rather we did not know this. The Referee is famously silent after a game and the report which he submits on that match is not available to the paying public.

Anthony Bates was no doubt not happy with his performance and furious with the gamesmanship which made it harder for him, but having watched the game one would not know it. I would like to read his views on the handball, on the elbow, on the pitch invasions; but in the most autocratic way the game offers I am not able to.

As a supporter I’m expected to pay my money, accept the Refereeing I get and shut up about it. And so are you.

I believe that it would advance the cause of Refereeing to allow the man in black to have his say. To humanise the guy with the whistle who might say after a game that yes, he has seen something again and thinks he got it wrong but he made his decision at the time and while people might not agree then at least they would understand.

We shall not, dear reader, at this point talk about the less then glorious history of bias in refereeing which is proven – only four years ago Juventus were relegated for fixing games using “favourable referees” – and concentrate on the officials trying to do a good job in difficult circumstances. I would love to read Bates’s views on the Accrington antics, but I’m not going to get to, so I give him the benefit of the doubt and say that his job was made harder. For all I know he might have thought that there was nothing going wrong.

The high-handedness though continues.

There was no complaint from the defence and City scored. Move on! I realise that ref baiting is a national if not world sport, but your reports are becoming unnecessarily one dimensional Michael – A Referee Speaks.

Moving aside from the fact that there was complaint from the defence – although that did not show up on the highlights – and to the idea that Referees feel that they are part of a jokey “national sport” as if the mistakes they make are only highlighted as a part of a comedic campaign and because the losing team is upset at the result. It is not the case that the only reason that Sir Bobby Robson’s England were upset about the Maradona handball is because they did not win the game.

It is judged to be a good laugh and “part of football” that the quality of refereeing is often so low that supporters are left complaining about games being ruined is not a reason to continue it.

Over the ten years of BfB the same theme has come from Referees both in my postbag and in the wider press that any complaints are the result of disgruntlement on behalf of fans and that moaning about officials is something which as part of the “fabric of football” is some how enjoyable. It is not, bad refereeing is like a poor pitch, it gets in the way of the game and should be rolled out.

So now then

It is the “Move on!” comment though which strikes me as insidious. Anthony Bates allowed a situation where gamesmanship ruined a football match and rather than recognising that we are to “move on”? Ignore the faults, protect the weak Referees and, in doing so, harm the game.

Protectionism that keeps weak referees close and protects them, stopping them from improving and inflicting them on paying football supporters later is disgraceful and people involved in carrying it on should be ashamed.

There is no good laugh about bad referees.