Who’d Be A Referee?

A Friday evening Sky TV fixture and it’s Nottingham Forest 1 – Newcastle United 1. Then the visitors score a late winner before … . Pause.

In a different sort of fixture we had the fallout from the Gary Lineker v BBC ‘Match Of The Day’ shambles. Unscheduled but it’s taken up – and continues to take up (see here!) – more newspaper column-inches, TV coverage and social media traffic than many clubs get in a year! How did it happen?

On the one hand, we had a world-renowned commentator confident about his rights (freedom of speech) and responsibilities; on the other, we had an institution that was hesitant and fearful. Fear of what? Of rabid noises from certain quarters of society who could be in a position to wield a lot of influence whenever the future of the BBC (our public broadcasting corporation) is up for revue. Being in a position of fear is not a good place to find yourself when making decisions. And so it proved.

Transpose this fiasco onto the football pitch and we have a referee making a highly contested decision whilst surrounded by a posse of incensed players as a penalty is given. The official turns to VAR and, after much deliberation, that decision is overturned. It’s a scenario about rules and their interpretation, what needs to be taken into consideration and under what circumstances.

We’ve all been at games where officials don’t endear themselves to supporters. But that’s not their job. Their job is to ensure fair play, to uphold the rules of the sport without fear or favour. Football, being a full-blooded, contact game, watched by passionate fans, makes for a cauldron of heightened emotions.

Nothing wrong with that. But it has to be overseen by a dispassionate team of neutrals: match-day officials. The Lineker-BBC saga highlighted other issues that have their equivalent on the football field. (Put aside the irrelevance of what we think about the incendiary language used by the Home Office relating to migrants.) What was in contention was perceived bias and inconsistency. Lineker was being ‘outed’ for speaking his mind. The same employer (BBC) didn’t respond in the same way when others made their opinions known in public. For example, Alan Sugar of Apprentices fame used similar Nazi-Germany references against the Labour Party at the last election without being sanctioned.

Two key features help consolidate quality refereeing: clarity and consistency. The BBC demonstrated neither of these when reprimanding Lineker. Referees must. Which is easier said than done! Working in the USA in the mid 1980s, I refereed some high-school soccer (ten dollars a match came in handy) and spent an age explaining offside infringements to mystified PE teachers (raised on American football) every time I turned out. And as frustration tuned to temper, there were plenty of opportunities for me to practise mediation and de-escalation skills! Low-key stuff, I know, but it highlights the importance of clarity.

Let’s face it, the offside rule is frequently a bone of contention, even with the addition of sophisticated technology. Yes, VAR can determine player position and whether someone is offside by a toenail or a foot. Interfering with play, though, is a matter of interpretation. It’s an example of where rules need to be reviewed. I have no idea what the communications network is between the FA and referee representatives and maybe they do share priorities, values and pressing issues on a regular basis but it doesn’t always feel like it.

Why do referees – even, and especially – in local, amateur football, find themselves on the receiving end of so much vituperation? It’s a problem on the increase and what gets embedded at grass-roots level in youngsters filters through to the highest levels, which is then aped by youngsters and fed back down the chain.

The Premiership is likely the richest league in the world now. A whistle blown by a ref can result in dizzying amounts of money blown. Given the huge financial implications of their decisions, are refs remunerated to reflect that? By the same token, are they trained and fully equipped to meet the demands of the job? It’s interesting that we find very few ex-players turning to whistle-blowing for a profession and perhaps we’re missing a trick there.

The conduct of the BBC in the Lineker incident has led to a loss of confidence in it by the public. It will be hard to win back. We must guard against anything similar happening with match officials in football. Contentious situations need to be kept to a minimum for the health of the game and referees need active support in carrying out their role. Clarity and consistency are the bedrock to excellence. Accepting that players might congregate around an official with whom they disagree, for example, is not conducive to the level of respect required to improve standards and needs to be challenged more forcefully. (It’s worth noting that, during a distinguished career at club and international level, Gary Lineker was never booked!)

Back at the City Ground, VAR cancels out Newcastle’s goal. Forest fans must think it’s their lucky day to get away with such a one-sided draw. Not so. If the naked eye missed the offside infringement, a flailing Forest arm in the penalty area is a red flag waving to be punished and so it is. A late penalty goal. Forest are going to need more than ‘rub of the green’ decisions to secure safety.

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @premierleague Paul Tierney had tough decisions to make at the City Ground on Friday.

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