The Folly Of Outrage Over A Referee's Error

More than any other individual in the game, a referee gets abuse, hatred and investigated for making a genuine error. John Nicholson thinks things must be addressed...

Last Updated: 07/04/14 at 09:36 Post Comment

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The popularity of some things are just hard to explain. The Daily Mail, Coldplay's musical anaesthetic or the modern affliction for starting every opening sentence with the word "So" - the world would surely be a more joyous place without all of them.

However, a Buddhist monk once told me something quietly profound. 'How would we know anything was good if nothing was bad?' And, of course, everything is relative, nothing absolute - except for my fury at that "So" thing, obviously.

Yet modern football, through wall-to-wall TV coverage and media analysis, has encouraged us to believe that absolutism is possible when it comes to officiating a football match. The limitless pleas for technology to be used to find out the truth in any given circumstance are all part of this. Every weekend in football, and the one that has just passed was no different, we have another new refereeing outrage with some decisive decision being made in error and then being discussed, analysed and opined upon for days.

How did they miss Carroll's punch to the goalkeeper's head for the West Ham goal? Did they give the second penalty to Liverpool to even it up? The officials are slated, insulted and even despised. They're spoken of with a sneer and shake of the head as though making a mistake while you're running around a lot is the most ludicrous of weaknesses.

The game is enforced by one man in a split second, his lungs burning from the ten kilometres he's already run, a man with tens of thousands of voices of abuse in his ears, with officialdom and a hundred cameras scrutinising their every move. On top of that, all the participants are dishonest and trying to fool you. Who else has to operate in a work place under those conditions? No one.

But what are we doing generating all this hate and invective every week of every season? He's just some bloke, not Robocop. Inside, his head is exploding with a miasma of neural signals as an incident occurs.One blink at the wrong time, one speck of dirt in the eye, one second of distraction, a glance in the wrong direction and you missed it. Everyone is screaming, people are on their feet telling you what to do, insisting they saw it. But you didn't. Oh god.

Players are all around you shouting. But they're all liars, they're cheats, they don't even know what happened, or do they? He didn't do it, he did do it - who do you believe now? You missed it. Someone got in the way, you can't apologise to everyone, you have to maintain the illusion of control or all hell will break loose.

Go to the linesman or woman. They'll help. No. They didn't see it. They couldn't. Something happened. But what? Don't know. It all happened so quick. Its down to you. Was it a trip or did he dive? What's the difference between falling over a foot and tripping someone up anyway? Did he intend to handle the ball or was it unintentional? How do you assess intent anyway? How can you read what was in a man's mind? Does that mean it is penalty or not?

The faces of the ex-pros in the commentary box and TV studio, some of whom who don't even know the laws of the game are looking on, ready to hammer you, to attack you, to tell you what you should have done. They're so good at getting the right call after three slow-motion replays. They will excuse the player, especially if he's English, and they will destroy you instead.

It's all in your brain now. It's all bearing down on you. More yelling. Should you send him off? What'll happen if you do? Mayhem, that's what. It's just football. Its a damn sport. It doesn't matter. It's not war. No one dies, it's just a bit of fun. And now all this. Oh god, please make it stop. What are you supposed to do? You'll be hauled over the coals by the FA, by the tabloids, by the bloke in the corner shop. Your kid will get bullied at school because you got this wrong. Someone will spit at your wife in the supermarket because you didn't see it. But you didn't see it. You can't pretend you did or can you? They'll all think you're a bad person but you just blinked at the wrong time that's all. It's not your fault, everyone has to blink. It all happens so fast it's a wonder you see anything at all.

So did you see it? Referee? Did you see it? What are you going to do? Yes. I saw it. Yes. Just say yes. Make a call, one way or another, just do something, do anything. Every decision has consequences. Blow the damn whistle. Penalty. It's a penalty. Definitely. Look sure about it. Wave away the dissenters. You know. You bloody do. Definite pen.

Inside you're already broken. Another terrible day for football. Another example of awful refereeing. Another useless official spoiling everyone's day, spoiling the game, ruining the spectacle and then the dissection, the gutting, the filleting of your performance by TV, by radio, by smart, post-modern websites and, just when you think it can't get any worse, by Robbie Savage.

But all you had was a just a split second; a fragment in time; a shard of your existence, so how can it have all come to this? To all this horrible nastiness. It's just football, it really doesn't matter and now so many people are so angry at you. It's not right. And, in the night, the unseen, sleepless tears of humiliation, upset and rage will fall to the echoes of people making a living from your disgrace.

Referees will always get things wrong. Even if we give them the option to default to technology for the big stuff, they'll look at the screen and make the wrong call, sometimes. They'll get some little stuff wrong too. They'll never be always right. There'll always be room for outrage if outrage is what we want to feel.

As another tirade of opprobrium is poured upon an official's head, maybe it's time we learned that to err is to be human and to feel some sympathy for the refereeing devils, rather than outrage. Save that for the Daily Mail, Coldplay and starting sentences with "So".

Johnny now writes superb northern crime novels. We love them. Check them out here:

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ilarious, thanks for that. But if I may, I do suspect the reason of your partners' ire is not Tottenham, but most probably all the compusilve gambling :)

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