Imagine getting in from a late night at the office and flicking on the TV at half-time, just in time to hear a pundit embarking on a rant: “I think it’s the fans have had a shocker. They’ve spent all game trying to influence the officials, and then complain that they’re not doing the job impartially.
“They just don’t know what they want. They say they want the ref to apply common sense, but if they introduce an element of subjectivity they’re lambasted for being inconsistent. I mean, who’s the ones who are really being inconsistent here?
“They’ve all leapt up to cry foul for this decision, but the replays have shown the officials got it right. It’s a really poor one from the fans, that. Look at Nigel in row S here: terrible positioning. How he can give that kind of decision when you’re not certain I’ll never know.”
The losing manager is then shuttled in front of the ad boards for his interview.
“You don’t like to criticise the fans but I think they have to admit they’ve got that one wrong,” he says.
“We really need to look at the standard of supporters in this league because it happens every week.”
I get it: the last thing a player, club, league or broadcaster wants is to go around insulting their own paying customers. But by refusing to countenance that the supporters may need to do a little bit of self-recrimination, the institution is unwittingly teaching fans that it’s totally reasonable for them to expect nothing but impossible perfection from players and officials alike.
There is an irony in fans’ demands for perfection: they themselves are the only ones who aren’t held to that standard.
The one thing you’re not allowed to do in football is criticise the fans. You can have a pop at the board, the players, the manager, and most especially the referee, but if you are foolish enough to suggest the fans may not be helping the situation, you’ll likely be for the chop, whether you’re a manager, a player, or a pundit.
As a result, football discourse has to abide by weird rules whereby if the fans are up in arms about something, it must be worth examining the performance of those involved to see who got it wrong. Should the keeper have kept that out? Did the referee make the right decision? Yet despite television coverage’s default mode of carefully attributing blame for every little thing, it is unthinkable that the fans’ own judgement could ever be questioned.
If you’ve been a neutral at a game alongside a mate who supports the home side, you’ll have seen how bafflingly, wholeheartedly angry otherwise rational, lovely people can get about player performances and refereeing decisions that you saw no issue with.
Obviously, this is an issue of bias: they want their team to win, and will get upset about anything that stands in the way of that happening. That’s great; that’s at the heart of being a fan, and can be both cause and effect when talking about why we fall in love with our team.
We are familiar to the point of hyper-sensitivity and paranoia about the part this bias can play in our assessment of the game as 90% of the responses in any high-profile journalist’s Twitter feed will demonstrate. (I’m not convinced that bias is necessarily a bad thing, anyway, but we’ve had that discussion.)
But there’s another consequence of the fan’s irrational one-eyed views that is so overlooked that it has become the very foundation of punditry and journalism – particularly on TV – without anybody particularly noticing: our standards for players and referees are way, way too high.
This makes sense if you’re a fan, because setting an ambitious bar for players makes clear the level you want them to achieve. And even if you support a team of useless duffers, you still ideally want the refereeing decisions to be perfect so that at least you’re getting thumped on your own terms, rather than feeling like it’s out of some random and cosmic unfairness.
But does it make sense for impartial discussions about football – whether down the pub, live on BBC One, or on your favourite football website – to apply those same standards? Frankly, it is wilfully perverse that every set of fans in every ground at the world has been complaining for decades that referees aren’t good enough without ever settling on accepting “you know what? Maybe we’re expecting too much here”.
As far as referees go, we will never be satisfied. The fans and manager who have been calling for video reviews for years are now being faced with the reality that they might still disagree with a significant portion of the decisions they give: Gareth Southgate admitted after Raphael Varane’s video-assisted red card in England’s friendly defeat to France: “Even with the video, you won’t always get it 100% right.”
Do we in the press therefore have a responsibility to help set a realistic standard by pointing out when the fans have got it wrong, rather than blowing things up even further by looking for controversy and incompetence where there’s actually only a reasonable and understandable level of error?
Yeah, right. I can’t see it happening, and not just because controversy creates cash. It’s just so much easier for us to understand the world if we accept the delusion that standards should be all the way up here – and as I say ‘here’ I’m karate chopping the air at my arm’s fullest vertical reach.
In fact, it’s not just that it’s easier, faster, and more attention-grabbing to say ‘this manager should be sacked, this player is crap, this referee is useless’; it’s actually a necessity of having any kind of opinion whatsoever. Otherwise, all we can ever say is ‘this player’s presence at this level suggests he is in the top 5% of his profession, and though they have obviously made errors, the overall frequency and nature of their errors is within the expected parameters for a player at this level. This single terrible game may simply be an outlier; however, if this becomes a prevailing long-term trend there may be cause for concern’. And who wants to read that? I don’t, and I just bloody wrote it.
What it comes down to is that while we know where the ceiling on player performance is, we are terrible at determining what our minimum acceptable standard is. In short, we all know that it’s ridiculous to compare everyone to Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, but we also find it nearly impossible to set a floor level on our expectations.
This is why we are so obsessed with talking about whether player X is “world class” or not: we are desperate to identify the benchmarks against which we can judge other players, yet the fact that it is such a persistent discussion shows how difficult it is to even set a standard in the first place, let alone go about evaluating players against it.
It’s also how excellent players like Emile Heskey can end up as punchlines despite playing first-team football at the very highest level for nearly 20 years. Imagine being one of the best 30 people in the country at your job for two decades but still being constantly portrayed as awful at your job. That’s pretty messed up.
Where we need to be cautious is that we have become so habituated by watching so much truly elite-level football that we have come to accept that level as the norm rather than the exception.
Football’s global reach, diversity of body types, high pay, and low barriers to entry means that it attracts an overall higher calibre of players than any other single sport in the world; yet the chaos of it being a low-scoring team game means there is a lot of noise to filter out when determining what is an acceptable level of performance in a way that doesn’t happen with more clear-cut sports like athletics or tennis.
It may be that for players and managers, the only way we can talk about football in any kind of relatable way is by scrabbling against the constantly shifting sands of our own expectations being broken and reset; it may be that this is the shady yin to emotional football support’s wonderful sunny yang.
When you expect that standard to filter into all parts of the game – especially the officials – you’re only going to be disappointed, and when we’re disappointed we get angry, and when people get angry they can say some vile, hurtful things. When you are used to brilliance, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s decent.
Former rugby league referee Ian Smith has spoken this week about the effect this has on officials, telling the BBC 5 Live Rugby League podcast: “The external pressures that referees and match officials are put under, from all stakeholders – from owners, to players to coaches, to fans – I think what people don’t understand is that inside that uniform there is a human being that does make mistakes.
“They think it’s unacceptable for a match official to make mistakes. That pressure that’s placed on them can have a mental health impact.
“It’s incredibly lonely. You speak to players and they have the comfort of their team-mates. And, even though we have touch-judges and the match officials’ department, when you are out there it is still a very lonely and isolating place.”
Regardless of how vain or egotistical some officials’ motivation for getting into the game may be, they aren’t monsters out to spoil the fun: they are people, doing the best job they can so that everyone can enjoy the wonderful game we love so much. Do we really want to leave them feeling like that? Or can we agree that it might be healthier for us all to just lower our expectations and enjoy it for what it is, mistakes and all?
Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter