Monday, October 6, 2008

Respect Respect: Referees are human too (honest) - Mountainstriker

How many of you have actually refereed a real football match? I mean an eleven a-side, league or cup match (friendlies don’t count) with linesmen, nets, cards in pocket, watch on wrist and whistle in hand. Being a recently retired player of many years, and something of a club stalwart (read ‘mug’), I’ve stepped into this particular breach on several occasions in the last few years. Each time I’ve done so with considerable reluctance because refereeing is an absolutely awful experience. I consider myself a competent referee and I’ll defend my impartiality to anyone, but the fact is that the moment you blow the whistle you become fair game for insults, abuse and, on one occasion verbal, and physical intimidation. And that was just from our team. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to subject themselves to this on a regular basis.

So it was with some interest that I viewed the introduction of the FA’s Respect campaign back in the summer. Perhaps the principal outcome of a massive FA consultation exercise, Respect is long overdue. Anyone who’s been involved in the game for a while knows the stories: referees who’ve been attacked on the pitch, damaged vehicles, anonymous phone calls, written threats, excrement posted through letter boxes. One that sticks in my mind was of a young female referee who was forced into a locked cupboard after the match, her changing room was ransacked and her possessions flushed down the toilet. It sticks because I noted that the people who told me thought the whole thing hilarious. In any other context they would’ve been appalled. But, see, she was a referee, right? Fair game. Serves her right.

When Respect was announced the media spent some time analysing how different sports treated their officials - the most common comparison being of course with rugby union. For all its social pretensions, rugby has, at its heart, a propensity for serious violence. Anyone who’s read Martin Johnson’s description of how his Leicester team would pass the hours on the bus by punching each other in the face, or Ben Kay’s description of skulduggery in the scrum during England’s 2007 World Cup semi final against France, can be under no illusions on this score. Yet, even at the highest levels, it’s not uncommon to see a six foot seven forward, hands behind his back, head meekly forward, saying, ‘Yes sir, I understand sir’ while a referee wags a finger gamely at his chest. Compare that with Rooney, Terry, Ashley Cole, Roy Keane et al obscenely disputing every throw-in and the difference couldn’t be more marked.

The most commonly advanced argument for this difference is class. In England and Scotland rugby players tend to come more from families in the middle and upper income brackets. This manifests itself in the choice of school and the games played therein. Football on the other hand is largely considered to be a working class game and as such its player inherently more unruly.

Arguments about social Darwinism aside, I’m not so sure about this. I grew up in South Wales in the 70s and 80s where there was no question that rugby not football was the workingman’s game of choice. Yet the difference between how the two sports treated their officials was just as marked. You didn’t argue with the referee in rugby, in football it was considered rude not to. Nor can this argument be transferred overseas. In The Italian Job, a comparative analysis of the football cultures of England and Italy, Gianluca Vialli notes that in Italy players tend to come from more wealthy backgrounds and are better educated. Yet the treatment of referees in Italy is, if anything, worse. Not only are referees routinely abused by staff, players and spectators but the consensus is that the majority are corrupt as well. In England it is simply not acceptable to question the integrity of a match official. Their competence or parentage however? Well, that’s a different matter.

I think a better explanation lies in how these sports - and I mean this in the widest sense to include the media that report them - view their officials and what they expect from them. I would argue that football referees are expected to be inhuman and are criticised if they are not. In rugby the opposite is true. A few examples - how often have you heard a criticism that a referee is being too fussy, or is not letting the game flow? How often is a referee criticised for not implementing the laws in exactly the same way from game to game or differently from how another referee interpreted the laws in a similar situation?

Personally, I don’t think any of these expectations are realistic and it is the failure of football as a game to understand this that leads to referees being so routinely criticised. No two instances are identical, often they happen very quickly and the referee must make an instant decision. Unsurprisingly the referee will sometimes get it wrong. Exactly the same criteria apply in rugby, but it is at this point that the difference in expectation becomes manifest. In rugby there is an acceptance that the referee is human and makes mistakes, in football there is not. This is grotesquely unfair because within the game this expectation is carried by referees and referees alone. Everyone accepts that Ronaldo can have an off day, that John Terry can miss an easy tackle or that Rafa can stuff up his selection. Mike Riley can’t miss an offside call however, because ‘there’s now so much money riding on these games.’ If he does, he’ll need a police escort to get off the pitch, and can expect to be hounded by the referees' nemesis Andy Gray and the rest of the media.

There are several consequences. The first and most debilitating is that an expectation of perfection from referees appears to absolve players and managers from accepting their own responsibilities. A referee who has carded players for dangerous play early in a match must continue to do so throughout the rest of the game or else be accused of inconsistency. If so there is a responsibility on players to understand this and adapt their play accordingly. Rarely does this logic seem to apply however. Perhaps the best example in recent years was the match between Holland and Portugal in the 2006 World Cup. Having carded several players for blatant fouls early in the match, the referee Vlentin Ivanov had little choice but to carry on when both sides continued to kick lumps out of each other. Costinha was sent off for a second yellow card when he virtually caught the ball on the half way line, Deco went, also for a second yellow, when he launched himself two footed at Heitinga from all of five feet away. In the end, both sides were lucky to finish with nine players still on the pitch. However whom did the media, the teams and FIFA President Sepp Blatter blame for ruining what was potentially a thrilling match? The players who had virtually assaulted each other? Nope. Perhaps it was the coaches who allowed them to do it? Don’t be silly. It was entirely the referee’s fault. He lost control. He was card happy. He was sent home in disgrace.

A second consequence is that this expectation puts off sensible people from becoming referees. Why would anyone give up his or her weekends to be verbally and physically abused trying to achieve perfection? You’d have to be nuts and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a significant proportion of football referees in this country tend to be, (how can I put this so not to offend or unnerve? Oh well, in for a penny…) – attention seeking geeks. Appropriate apologies for gross generalisations of course, and there are exceptions, Steve Bennett looks and sounds relatively sensible, but Mike Riley must know how camp he looks when he skips around in his tight schoolboy shorts. If not, someone tell him please. Graham Poll, the man who dedicated his autobiography to ‘The people of Tring for their unfailing support…’, was dropped by the BBC the moment it became apparent that he was an inarticulate buffoon. And do I have to mention Uriah Rennie? At the grassroots level, I can say with all candour that there aren’t too many company directors, policemen, fireman or natural leaders of the community wearing the black. Many of them play but very few go into refereeing afterwards. They're too sensible. On the other hand, I’m always struck by the fact that rugby referees at all levels seem to have more natural authority than their football counterparts. The reason? Rugby attracts and retains people more suited to the role.

It is here that the Respect campaign really has its work cut out. It is one thing to insist that communication with referees is limited to captains. It’s excellent that referees at all levels are now being supported against physical intimidation and verbal abuse. It is high time that the likes of Ferguson and Mourinho were prevented from attempting to influence the behaviour of referees with pre match comments and being given carte blanche to criticise their performance afterwards. However, if Respect is really to deliver there has to be a change in expectations which would relegate the importance of the referee’s performance to a point where it was regarded as having no more importance than other playing conditions like the length of the grass or the weather. Not least this would attract better people to the black. Referees are human too. Football needs to accept this and modify its expectations accordingly.


andrewm said...

Well, I think you've pretty much said it all - and very impressively too. One small point I would add is that I'm sick of managers and players, when they criticise referees, saying "Respect has to be earned" - no, it does not. Football is based on the understanding that you respect the referee's decision at all times, no matter what. You may not respect their ability, but you respect their decision.

MotM said...

Mountainstriker - Top quality stuff and a damned good first comment from Andrewm too.

I've umpired cricket matches so know how hard officiating is and how different it all looks when all the players look at you for the decision.

I'm going to make a couple of comments, then take issue with a couple of points.

I watched my boy's school play football against another Sarf Larnden school of Saturday (Year 7, aged 11-12). Referee totally respected - it looked good and it even felt good.

That Blatter et al came out against that ref in Portugal vs Holland was a disgrace. He did well to keep it to 9 vs 9.

I take issue with you re rugby. The big lock does stand there taking his medicine, but only after the ref and line officials have been ignored for anything up to 90 seconds, sometimes when they are physically pulling brawlers apart. That's disrespect, albeit of a different kind to Rooney and co.

I've never seen poorer refereeing than this season. The refs appear to have no empathy with the game, nor even with competitive sport. They hardly ever talk to the players, just raise the card in that awful nazi salute. If I were Keith Hackett, the first thing I would do is ask the refs to talk to the players and captains during a game - "Look lads. I've let a couple go, but the next one will be yellow unless you ask your boys to take a bit of the heat out of it." "Skipper - a bit too much lip from your team - cut it out or it's a yellow". "Look son - no penalty and you went down a bit easy. Go looking to fool me again and it's a card". "You know what's coming - I warned you." (Someone's going to come on and say that cards are mandatory for offences and not "matters of judgement" but we all know that's not true).

Finally, the willingness of SAF and some other managers to pressure refs to make sure they get the next fifty-fifty is disgraceful. Roy Keane wasn't the refs' friend as a player, but he's very decent to them as a manager despite significant provocation. He learned more from his brief spell under Clough than under the bully Ferguson.

mimi said...

A brilliant piece - and much needed at the Corner - and should be disseminated elsewhere as I know Mouth has advertised.

I listen to 5Live and Graham Poll is often on on a Sat and despite a light-hearted approach has said a lot of very sensible stuff.

I've never played rugby or football (after all, I am a girl)but in hockey it just never occurred to us to argue with the ref. Same in tennis. Even if a ball was obviously called wrong, you did what you were told.

Perhaps a difference of generation, I don't know, but I am sure that the game of football would be better off if the crap about referreeing decisions was dealt with behind closed doors. The Medja must take some responsibility for the current state of things.

andrewm said...

Mouth, I couldn't agree more about refs talking to players. I've never been a ref at any level, but surely that's the only way to sensibly run a match.

clamark said...

Me too, I liked M.S stuff very much. Also Andrewn's first comment should be printed on huge bilboards in each club's dressing room-"respect the ref decision"
Finally Mouth should write a manual for the referees:
"the art of the communication or the best 20 words to use during your 90 mn on the pitch."

guitou said...

sorry the above lousy comment was mine ,and strangely someone else's pseud came out of nowhere
should we call the refs?

munni said...

Fully agree with Mountainstriker and with the above comments. BUt, if the ref's decision is to be respected absolutely on the pitch, then there should be a fair, consistent and non-farcical system of appeals. And there isn't one.

guitou said...

Your point justify the need for a Video replay because
the system will remain farcical as long as it's almost impossible to overturn a bad decision after the game even if it has influenced the result-In such case the league will never allow the match to be replayed-

mimi said...

You what???

The point is that in the olden days we played sport for the fun of it, and so did our teams. Even when they were paid a few sovs - in a brown envelope.

I mind well the NZ international Chris Laidlaw cheating. Watch Mr Laidlaw put the ball in Ref - the cry went up at Iffley Road.

But we didn't care much. It would balance out in the course of the game.

Now it's all different. Too much dosh at stake.

munni said...

Mimi, was that directed at me? In a perfect world we wouldn't need refs at all, but since they're there, and they've got power, there need to be controls to help ensure that power is used for good, is all I'm saying.

bluedaddy said...

Nice work Striker. The 'so much at stake nowadays' line always makes me want to punch something. In what conceivable way can more be at stake nowadays? It wouldn't surprise me if the economy of movie-making is greater nowadays than in the past, but it doesn't make the movies any better and/or more important, does it? Grrr. If people/players are investing too much in the highs and lows of their teams, then maybe a dose of recession will teach them a lesson. Rant over.

I feel the exposure has a lot to do with the disrespect. Decisions are 'proved' to be 'wrong' by action replays and bloody computer programmes FFS. If it takes a gizmo to show a decision was borderline wrong then the refs are automatically exonerated for me. Err ok rant not quite over.

The answer - it's all about the managers. They've got to drill it into the players, and have their captains be enforcers on the pitch. How I'd love to see John Terry tearing into Ashley Cole for ranting at the ref. Instead we get a bleedin choir of red-faced, blue-shirted madmen. Ok rant actually over.

Rugby is far too incomprehensible for the players to argue with the ref. How on earth would anyone know if he's made a mistake?

PS any sign of the Frenchman in Flip Flops?

mimi said...

God no, Munni, not at you at all.

My point in all of this is simple.

I was young - we never argued with the refs in girl sports.

I hate how my team now gets in fights and I think the ref should have the last word.

byebyebadman said...

Anyone who is shockingly incompetent at their job is open to criticism, referees included. The problem with the really bad ones is a lack of feeling for/understanding of the game. If somehow ex-players could be fast-tracked into top level refereeing that would help no end.

Until then it's as you were, no return to a golden age where every referee's decision was respected, which whilst people have had competitive fire in their bellies I'm afraid has never existed anyway.

zeph said...

Interestingly, the day after Mountainstriker's excellent article, this new Association was launched. Will it achieve anything, I wonder?

In cricket there's a real shortage of elite umpires, and certainly at least one 'attention seeking geek' regularly officiates at Test matches. Each time umpires get publicly criticised - or, as in one sour episode last year, their removal is demanded by the Board of one competing nation - it gets less likely that more good candidates will come forward. As Mountainstriker rightly says, sensible people don't want the job.

munni said...

mims, I think you meant to say, Dog, no.

byebye, your point is a good one, but the thought of ex-players refereeing is making me laugh.

bluedaddy said...

BBB, I agree re with you re the misty eyes of nostalgia blurring memories of the likes of Bremner, Lee, Dougan and all the rest gobbing off to refs. But surely refs are on a hiding to nothing nowadays. Players are under the spotlight, but ultimately if they are effective for their team it seems to make no odds that they see fit to lambast officials each and every time a decision doesn't meet with their approval. What's wrong with muttering a 'FFS Ref' and a disapproving shake of the head.

Managers and players talk of wanting to hear refs apologising for mistakes, and sometimes they (rightly) do it. But you don't hear much about these same managers apologising to refs for slating them when it turns out the refs were fully justified in making their decisions, decisions taken in real time, with less than perfect views.

You are spot on BBB that some refs are consistently poor, even diabolical. Riley in the recent Chelsea v Man Utd is a prime example. But in return for refereeing that is sympathetic to the needs of the game, refs have got to be allowed to make mistakes. I fear that the 'high stakes' merchants will get their way with video technology, and at some point we will all be wondering why we let football go to four quarters to fit in the breaks for replays (and advertising).

Football should be, as you say, full of competitive fire. And in that fire is forged controversy, error, brilliance and passion. That's why it's the coolest game going.

offsideintahiti said...

The secret with flip flops is to buy them 4 or 5 sizes over your actual size. This way, when you bump into something, you don't stub your toes. It also makes you a more grounded, balanced, and composed person. It changed my life.

Oh yeah, refs, don't get me started... they should be burned at the stake, the lot of them.

bluedaddy said...

Whereas walking in flip flops 4 or 5 sizes too small is akin to reflexology carried out by this joker:

mimi said...

Sometimes the more "elite" the level of sport, the worse the official decision-making becomes. Could there be anything more ludicrous than the farce of the Formula 1 stewards and their recent episode which ended with McLaren going to a hearing with the FIA in Paris, hours of debate and arguments presented, only for the powers that be to judge that the rules precluded the protest being heard in the first place!

There are times when it is those who run the sport (any sport) who are at most risk of bringing said sport into disrepute.

byebyebadman said...

bluedaddy - they are allowed to make mistakes though, Riley was atrocious in the United-Chelsea game but was given the Merseyside derby a week later. I've seen him referee numerous high profile games down the years and been aghast at his decision making. He stays in work though, ad keeps getting big games to handle.

Mac Millings said...


Yes, they do make mistakes, and get to ref games again the next week, but if you can them, where's the huge talent pool waiting to replace them?

If refs were cut a little more slack, we might find that better ones were more likely to join, and improve, the ranks.

As for incompetence - pretty much everyone I know shows at least some amount of incompetence in some aspect of their job. Perhaps I should get myself a new circle of friends, but isn't incompetence just a human trait? It's just that the incompetence of referees is exposed in a rather more public fashion than, say, mine. And it's hardly like mocking them mercilessly at every turn is improving results, is it?

Great piece, mountainstriker - again!

mountainstriker said...

Some really interesting comments and I could probably write another article picking them all up, but briefly:

Talking to players and adapting your refereeing style accordingly is undeniably the best way to do the job. But, this is precisely my point – you can’t. Football is explicitly moving in the opposition direction. Referees are forever told 'all we ask is consistency' - those that use discretion based on the state of the game or anything else are marked down and never get promoted. Tackle from behind. Yellow card. Lift your shirt. Yellow card. No room for thought, the situation or the state of the game. This is what I mean when I say that football referees are expected to act like robots. A ‘consistent interpretation of the laws’ is not only impossible, its borderline oxymoronic.

As someone who’s had to stand in front of a grown man and wave a card in his face, let me say that I felt utterly stupid doing it. Too many current referees seem to enjoy it however - hence their unwillingness to communicate and the nazi salute (great line!) when issuing cards. Remember that footage of Poll sending off Terry at Spurs a while back? He was saying (I paraphrase) ‘You’re out of control. You need to be taken down a peg or two.’ This is an ego of epic proportions doing the wrong job. No wonder players had no respect for him. Football needs to attract less of his kind not more but its current expectations of referees will deliver exactly the reverse.

Yes wouldn’t it be great if players were fast tracked into refereeing? The problem is supply, not demand however. They’re not exactly breaking the door down are they? The question is why?

There really wasn’t a golden age. I remember a certain geeky 12 year standing on the Bob Bank at Ninian Park in the late 70s heartily endorsing the prevailing view that the referee was a wanker. Not as much fun as singing to the tune of ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’ ‘You can stick you ‘f*kin rugby up your arse…’ but that’s another story… Abusing the ref is in football's DNA.

I don’t think most referees are incompetent and the criticism they get ‘disgrace!’ is simply not justified. This was the point behind my opening question – you have to do the job to see how bloody difficult it is. I played for over 30 years and it’s simply impossible to get every single call right every time. On the other hand, it’s REALLY easy to get wrong something that'a incredibly obvious to everyone else. This doesn’t make you incompetent. It makes us human. Football, and we as fans, need to get over it.

Cheers everyone,

PS – I’m disappointed that no-one spotted the Prince lyric.

mimi said...

Dog - you did a music ref and I didn't get it? That's poor. A yellow card for mimi. Still Mouth sould have picked up my dropped ball. Sendings off for us both perhaps?

I've thoroughly enjoyed re-reading your piece, Mountain, in the light of comments and I think I will follow whichever match I do next with different views.

I can't help wondering though, if the huge pay packets premiership footballer earn is a big part of the problem.

Why would you care about a ticking off if the worst that happens is losing two weeks wages?

For me that would mean no food, no electricity, no petrol for my car, but for them it is, literally peanuts.

Is Rooney, for instance, bothered? Not a tiny tiny wee little bit.

I think the club involved should pay a points penalty for fouls. Image a premiership where for each yellow card, the team lose a point, and a red card loses three.

Way to go!

greengrass said...

very enjoyable, thanks - and a lot of good posts!

It's good to see andrewm showing a leg, and anything that can tempt le gros flippe-floppe from his lair is welcome.

When I grew up in Deep Lancashire on a strict diet of jam butties, real rugby (League) and footy, we didn't see much of refs; if one turned up, we cherished him. That was definitely a working-class environment: thus I am not keen on the class explanation.

Society has changed; footy has changed. Our tribal culture is now world-wide entertainment, and good refs are as scarce as tapirs. Perhaps the entertainment industry demands anything but good refs. Perhaps mere footy - however high its class - is no longer enough. Perhaps a bit of strife - like mass brawls in ice-hockey - puts bums on seats.
Gladiators, anyone? Sadiators!

I, for one, have become less and less amused at the way footy has gone in the last few years. One of the consolations has been this very forum.

bluedaddy said...

To be fair though Mountainstriker, 'Do I have to mention Uriah Rennie?' is from Prince's obscure Slave period, of which only hardcore Princiacs and Sheena Easton have any knowledge.

mimi said...

Tapirs again.Why?

offsideintahiti said...

Because they taste so good.

guitou said...

here we go again with the Tapiromania.
but it's on topic because Refs and Tapirs have one thing in common, both are vulnerable and endangered specie.

mouth of the mersey said...

MountainStriker. Damn - I should have spotted that Prince line. It was when you suggested replacing the yellow card with a requirement that the cautioned player dons a raspberry beret for the rest of the match wasn't it? So cunningly hidden.

mountainstriker said...

mimi, mouth - not so much 'sending off' as Gett Off...

mimi said...

If I'm over sensitive to the tapir references, does that make mimi and endangered species too?

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