Monday, 8 October 2007

You don't know what you're doing?

First published in The Grecian, 06 October 2007, Exeter City -v- Grays Athletic

As the saying goes, ‘who’d be a referee?’ Before the whistle this afternoon, most fans and players would be united in agreement that keeping good order and fair play in a game as fast, passionate and heartily contested as football is an unenviable task.

But as soon as kick-off has passed, feelings soon change. Fans harangue, players challenge, and when a few decisions go the wrong way the old terrace chant goes up: “You don’t know what you’re doing!”

This, of course, is tosh. Even refs who have ‘a bad day at the office’ have spent hours getting on top of their craft, being monitored, watching play-backs and opening themselves to criticism. Yes, in the Blue Square Premier too.

Of course, as with footballers, standards aren’t – with the best will in the world – exactly the same in the lower divisions as they are at the very highest levels. In particular, the reaction times needed to adjudicate a tight decision about a foul in a Champions League match (say) are minutely but decisively better.

For many supporters, therein lies the problem. Outside St James’ Park we are used to watching officials like recent legend Pierluigi Collina ply their trade on TV, subject to inch-perfect analysis and playback. Even unconsciously, this is the yardstick we use to judge what happens at Exeter.

I’m not defending poor practice in saying this. Occasionally, I too have thought that non-league officials would benefit from more scrutiny and support. But overall they do a pretty good job, and are as committed to keeping up standards as you and I.

What doesn’t help sometimes is the attitude of players. That’s why FA chief executive Brian Barwick has recently announced plans to try to improve behaviour on the park, with one idea being to allow only captains to talk to the referee when a decision is being disputed.

Personally I think the captain and one other player of his choosing might make more sense, since sometimes the skipper may not have been anywhere near the incident concerned. Furthermore, such restrictions shouldn’t interrupt the general flow of communication between officials and players during the game, which remains crucial.

Commentators point out that both codes of rugby broadly work along this principle, and there’s no reason why it can’t take take root in football.

Mr Barwick’s plans are to start at grass-roots level where many of the current problems have more impact. Abuse of referees has even led some to give up the game altogether.

A number of high level managers and coaches admit privately (and some, like Steve McClaren, publicly), that standards of player discipline and respect for officials has been in decline since they came into the game.

McClaren also told the BBC that he resigned as a president of a boys club because of some of the parents’ behaviour, reminding us that what happens on and off the pitch are not unrelated.

Bear all this in mind the next time you hear someone yelling ‘cheat’ at the ref after a few decisions go the wrong way – something I’ve sadly noticed in ‘the polite seats’ at Exeter.

Even when you have a perfect view of an offside decision from the stand (say), it’s incredibly difficult simultaneously to judge both the moment a ball was played and the exact position of the player targeted at one and the same time.

So officials may not always get it right. But they do know what they’re doing. Which is more than can be said for at least some of us fiercely partisan fans, if we’re honest.

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