When I spent a year living in New Zealand, I brought my undoubted footballing talents to the country too. Whether it was putting a 60-yard pass on a sixpence, or doing the Cruyff turn, I could be relied on to deliver the goods.*
But our league – Men’s Division Four – had a problem. No referees. There just weren’t enough people around who wanted to dress in black and be shouted at for ninety minutes. So the solution in Men’s Division Four was for each team to provide a referee for 45 minutes. The end result was much abuse, disagreement and frustration.
These poor guys were doing their best. I don’t believe anyone who put the whistle in their mouth was biased for their own team and I think they honestly ditched their colours for 45 minutes. My team captain didn’t agree. He was a fiery fella at the best of times and after giving away a penalty in a game (that we eventually lost 10-1), he refused to accept the decision. He was firstly booked by the referee (an opposition player) and when he refused to leave well enough alone, he was sent off. He then refused to leave the pitch. It was a bit embarrassing to say the least.
I reffed three halves as far as I remember and one of them didn’t pass without controversy. A goal kick from our goalie was hit straight back up towards our deep back four. An opposition player came from behind our last defender and challenged him for the ball. I of course blew up for offside but the amount of abuse I got was shocking. Even two lads on the sideline got in on the act. No one would listen to me explain how their player was coming back from an offside position and if he hadn’t challenged I wouldn’t have blown the whistle. I put it down to Kiwi naivety but these guys weren’t five year olds – they understood football. So was it possible I was wrong? I didn’t think so.
When I look at referees these days I feel sympathy for them in the main. It’s a damn hard job no matter how much training you’ve received. But sympathy can be eroded when you see them chickening out of the big decisions – the very things that are their bread and butter, as such. It’s not a case of them, like me in the example above, making a decision that they are 100% sure is right, but rather that they are afraid to make the decision.
This weekends Carling Cup final demonstrated that. A goal up but struggling to mount attacks, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was bundled over by Chelsea’s Claude Makelele in the box. For those of us looking on TV, it looked like a penalty. But for referee Steve Bennett, it was a tangle of legs. Essentially it cost Liverpool the match because a second goal at that point would have killed off Chelsea, even at that early stage. Is this the result of the antics of Jose Mourhino, a man whose middle name is, hilariously, “intimidation”? Another in a long line of referees bottling the big decision?
You need look no further than Roy “Clanger” Carroll’s spill over his own goal-line in the Spurs/Manchester United game in January, a moment that will live as long as Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous 1966 commentary or Ronnie Radford’s winner for Hereford against Newcastle in 1972, for another example of officials cowering away from the big decision. Although it can never be proven, one suspects that the goal would have been awarded at the other end. But imagine handing Manchester United a home defeat at Old Trafford in a game that they have had the best of, and ensuing the wrath of Alex Ferguson and 68,000 prawn-sandwich eating fans?
But sometimes the ref and linesmen surprise us. Ashley Cole’s disallowed winner against Southampton this weekend was a great decision, the full-back having floated about a step ahead of the last man. And earlier in the season Bolo Zenden netted for Middlesbrough against Liverpool and looked a yard offside to even those of us watching replays at home. But on closer inspection the linesman had got it absolutely spot on. These decisions are uplifting and show that they can make the right decision if they are concentrating and are in the right position.
As I know from first hand experience, it’s a thankless task. The call for technology to be used has gone on for years now and is gathering pace. FIFA’s decision to use goal-line technology in an underage tournament this year is a step in the right direction. The call is on-going for it to be used around the pitch as well, and if they could use sensors to catch offside decisions it would be a brilliant move. The Cyclops system introduced at Wimbledon went in without any fuss and has kept bother and argument to a minimum. Imagine if specially coded sensors could be used to tell the position of all players in relation to each other at the time a ball is kicked? That’d be the end of those dodgy offside calls.
Southampton’s David Prutton’s assault (read: slight shove) on referee Alan Wiley at the weekend was a disgraceful event. Clearly Prutton had ‘lost it’ (wrongly too, as he admitted a few days later) and it shows that the increasing abuse of match officials is nowhere near becoming a thing of the past. Match officials didn’t receive guff from players in the black-and-white days but that was an all-round more respectful time – and of course decisions were easier as the game wasn’t as fast. It is now ingrained in our young players that if you disagree with something, you argue about it. 99% of the time the match official won’t change his mind unless he has missed something obvious to everyone on the planet but him. So what’s the point?
It’s a cliché to say it but refs are human and they are as prone to mistakes as Alex Ferguson (his formation and team selection versus Milan a case in point) or Steven Gerrard (capping off a dismal Carling Cup final performance with missing an open-goal and an own-goal). There is a difference though between mistakes and the bottling of decisions such as the Mendes ‘goal’ or the Liverpool ‘penalty’. When they overcome this, with or without the help of cameras, bleepers and respectful footballers, the game will recover a small bit of its lost dignity.
Mourhino’s finger-to-lips gesture to the, ahem, media was hilarious. Ok, ok, we know it wasn’t to the media despite his protestations. Liverpool fans had given him guff for the whole game and finally he could hit back –with a move of his finger. You got to love it. And as much as the pig-headed Chelsea manager bugs me, you can only agree with his gesture.
Football fans around the country think that it’s fair game to abuse people. They shout disgusting things at managers, footballers and officials. The police rarely see fit to escort fans from the stadium unless it’s a racist slur. So abuse is ok but racist abuse is a no-no you see. Mourhino made his point to abusive Liverpool fans and the police made the wrong decision. It’s time for fans to act respectfully to others – it’s a simple human trait to be civil isn’t it? If atmosphere can only be generated at football matches by allowing fans to behave like vicious, ignorant animals, then maybe we should pull the plug and all go home.
* This may not be true