Don't be rough on the refs

Last weekend, when Portsmouth played Manchester United in the FA Cup, three key refereeing decisions overshadowed Wayne Rooney’s brilliant second goal. Henrik Larsson’s fantastic strike and Nemanja Vidic’s header should both have been goals and we were denied an obvious penalty. It set me thinking about referees, video replays and goal-line technology—not for the first time in my career.

I’ve always been dogged by goal-line decisions. My professional debut for Watford against Millwall, for example, featured my future nemesis, Teddy Sheringham, having a goal given for a shot that never crossed the line. Worse still, I’d saved it.

I was fuming. And then we lost 2-1. I walked towards the linesman with my arms outstretched trying to think of something smart to say, got halfway, but turned back before making too much of an idiot of myself.

It was the first of countless controversial decisions and “what ifs” I’ve experienced, most of which have changed games dramatically, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

What if, for example, the first decision at Old Trafford had been reviewed on a video replay and allowed? There’s every chance that United would have walked it 3-0 or even 4-0, so perhaps the correct decision could have robbed us of some of the game’s magic that afternoon. If me aunt had bollocks she’d be me uncle, as they say.

Every decision has the potential to affect the result and, with £500 000 riding on each higher finishing position in the Premiership, it could mean the difference in season-ticket prices or the acquisition of new players.

On the face of it, all this seems argument enough for the introduction of technology. It tidies things up.

If you watched the Super Bowl you’d have seen seven refe­rees and one video “eye”, perhaps American sports’ most distinctive feature.

Imagine the same in the Premiership—dubious goal claims cleared up, off-the-ball incidents dealt with on the spot, off-side calls corrected, penalties awarded. And when Ben Thatcher clattered into Pedro Mendes, a review of the tape would have prompted an immediate red card and the result of the game could have been very different.

But is that realistic? The format of American football naturally lends itself to breaks in play; our game would be held up and disrupted by the techie pause.

And is it even desirable? Would football still be football if it was sanitised, deprived of debate and controversy? If the referee was absolute, what would we have to talk about? A lot of journos would be out of a job for a start.

I remember standing on the terraces as a young man watching Luton, Watford, Spurs or Arsenal and listening to the fans spout off about the referee. It’s no different for players: we sit in the dressing room after the game and debate the decisions ourselves.

Even on the pitch I can’t help myself. I end up spouting the usual stuff about the ref needing glasses or wearing the opposition’s shirt under his kit. I usually do it quietly, though.

And then there’s the theory that certain referees have it in for you. Personally I’ve never been in the habit of checking the fixture list for referees—it’s usually the kitmen who do that, telling us about some infamous game the same referee officiated 10 years ago or insisting that we’ve never won a game under him.

Saying that, though, Matt Messias is one official I won’t forget in a hurry. He only refereed a few games for us while I was at West Ham, but every game he officiated we lost. I began to think: “Oh, here we go.”

I knew him from school in Welwyn Garden City and we were a bit competitive. We both used to do high jump and he held the school record. Well, one afternoon I broke it. Except my attempt wasn’t official, as it was after school hours. He wouldn’t let me forget that: “I’ve still got the record,” he used to go on.

But, on the whole, referees deserve plenty of respect. I remember Nigel Martyn was a big one for shaking hands with the referee after the match and I borrowed that off him. I think it’s an admirable trait. I used to avoid it and run off the pitch when I was younger, but now I make a point of going over and saying, “Well done.”

They have one hell of a job to do and they get scrutinised from all directions, especially now that there are so many outlets for discussion—online, newspapers, TV and radio. The TV pundits definitely have it too easy and it narks me the way they define footballers’ reputations and spread them. They go on about some being “fair”—the sort never to commit a foul or dive—or they over-egg the concept of the “dirty” player. It makes it harder for everyone on the pitch, especially the ref.

The officials’ jobs just seem to be misunderstood—people can’t seem to get their head around what a hard task they have. Maybe if players had a better idea of what it was like to be one, they might do a bit less effing and blinding on the pitch. Most academy players complete a basic referee course to help them learn the rules, but they never actually complete the experience by overseeing a game.

And it would help if players studied the rules. My first time as a ref was last year out in Malawi and it was quite an experience. My head was spinning trying to get the decisions right and that was without the pressure of international TV filming my every move.

Not all player­referee relationships are bad, though. There’s lots of banter on the pitch and I’ve seen plenty of retired players sharing a drink and joke with a referee. You wouldn’t want them to get too close, though, which is why it would never be a good idea for a footballer to retire and become a referee. People in football say: “How can referees oversee a game they’ve never played?” But you could never guarantee the impartiality of former players.

So is there an obvious way forward? Yes, there is room for modernisation, within reason, and of all the options goal-line technology is most critical. You’d think the know-how was out there, but you’ve only to look at Adidas’s disastrous attempt to include it at last year’s under-17s World Cup in Peru. How could they even think of turning up without having tested it properly? But if a feasible system is out there—and the issue of implementation in lower national leagues is addressed—we should use it.

But let’s not get distracted by the technology issue, or get all evangelical about squeezing every last human error out of refereeing. Of course, there are realistic improvements to be made, but we can still celebrate and protect what we’ve got. The thought of having the fuzzy edges taken away from football upsets me.

It’s like wanting Monet or Van Gogh with clean lines; Pink Floyd or Oasis live sounding like the studio recording. No thanks. The human element of football is the DNA of our game, whether our players are inept or brilliant, our officials blind or blessed with a sixth sense, just like at Old Trafford last week. Therein lies the beauty of the game.—Â

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