Let fans deal with the ref

Referees are still 'the wankers in the black', but the game will suffer if we over-regulate their antics.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

The choices facing football are twofold: ‘the referee is always right’ or ‘the referee is a wanker?’ Which is it to be?

All week, a debate has been raging about the crumbling authority of referees. Speaking as a fan, the referee has been a wanker, who is quite probably blind and almost certainly a bastard, for as long as I can remember. However, now it seems his esteem has sunk to such depths that he’s become an über-wanker, who isn’t respected by players or managers either.

The man at the centre of the latest refereeing storm is Graham Poll, the official formerly known as ‘England’s best referee’ but who is now more often than not referred to as ‘The Thing from Tring’. Poll’s rapid fall from grace has been dramatic. He was sent home early from this year’s World Cup finals after farcically issuing three yellow cards to Croatia’s Josip Simunic. Now it seems, every decision he makes is being called into question. In the recent game against Spurs, Poll reportedly told the Chelsea players, ‘Your discipline is out of order and you need to be taught a lesson’. His decision to give John Terry a second yellow card for what appeared to be a fairly innocuous bit of barging has been widely interpreted as a big ‘Who’s the daddy?’ declaration to the insubordinate Chelsea galacticos. A few days later, we saw Poll courting controversy again by giving James McFadden a straight red card for supposedly calling him a ‘fucking cheat’ – though the Everton striker insisted he only called him a ‘fucking shite’. (Poor old Mr Poll, not only is he blind but apparently he’s going deaf as well.)

How then, do we solve a problem like Mr Poll? Whenever a referee makes a blunder everyone usually starts complaining about ‘inconsistency’. Why did one referee brandish a straight red for a studs-up challenge but another merely issue a caution? Everyone seems to agree that the referee’s authority has been eroded but there is little consensus about how to put that right. Some would argue that inconsistency would be minimised through the use of video replays to settle disputed decisions. Others want more regulation of match officials; José Mourinho this week called for referees to be made more accountable and be forced to face the media after matches. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has suggested that having two referees on the pitch might be the answer. And invariably there are those who say that it’s time football imported the gentlemanly ethos of rugby union in which the decision of the referee – who must be addressed as ‘sir’ – is always right and never questioned.

I think they’re all wrong. My solution is quite simple: leave the referee alone. I don’t mean that fans should get off his back. Far from it – the time-honoured tradition of bad-mouthing match officials while questioning their competency, their eyesight and their parentage must, for the good of the game, be allowed to continue. No, what I mean is that referees must be allowed to control the game as they see fit.

We won’t eradicate error or inconsistency this way but is that such a bad thing? Inconsistency might be infuriating but it’s the necessary corollary of discretion. And, in my view, as soon as you fetter the referee’s discretion, you invariably start to undermine his authority. Referees have very little leeway these days over how they apply the laws of the game. In the past a referee was free to use his judgement to decide when to have a quiet word and when to show a card. But now, thanks to a raft of idiotic directives from FIFA, the scope for discretion has been reduced. It is now mandatory for the ref to issue a card for a range of infringements such as professional fouls, tackles from behind, abusive language, deliberate handball, timewasting, play-acting, use of the elbow, and excessive goal celebrations.

Discretion has not been eradicated altogether. The offside rule, for example, has been rendered almost unfathomable by extending discretion. But, in general, the scope of a referee’s discretion has been severely circumscribed. The better referees still try to be more flexible by talking to players and allowing tempers to cool down. The problem is that a referee is no longer the sole judge of how the game should be controlled. Top-flight referees are miked up and assessors monitor their performances. A referee can’t have a ‘quiet word’ with a player because the assessor is listening to everything he says. Has the close scrutiny of their performance helped to bolster the authority of referees? Evidently not. The referee’s authority has paradoxically diminished in inverse proportion to the increasing regulation of his performance.

I reckon it’s time we stopped demanding consistency and learn to love disparity. Give the man in the middle more discretion, that’s what I say. Players and managers will respect the ref a lot more if he uses his judgement rather than issues cards like a glorified traffic warden. Of course there’ll be mistakes and inconsistency but that, in my view, is a recipe for great theatre. And, more importantly, the fans still get to scream ‘wanker’ at the ref.

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Topics Politics


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