The fourth official: The worst gig in football

Date published: Thursday 11th February 2016 9:24

It’s a weird place, stadiummk, formerly stadium:mk, home of MK Dons. Not least in the frankly maverick approach to capitalisation and punctuation, and the imposition of unnecessary italics in its name.

This, incidentally, is genuinely how it is and has been officially styled, prompting a couple of questions: firstly, why? And secondly, which marketing or PR agency is currently laughing and lighting cigs with fifties after solemnly advising them to drop the colon and make the first bit all slanty?

It’s in the middle of a seemingly endless retail park, Ikea to one side and a vast-looking Primark to the other. To get to the press area and other parts of the stadium you have to walk through a hotel lobby. It feels like more of a half-finished arena that should be sponsored by a local radio station and host the Here & Now tour rather than football games. The place is fairly devoid of atmosphere, despite the hearty efforts of a few MK Dons fans. It is not, to say the least, the first thing that springs to mind to illustrate the phrase ‘a Mecca for entertainment.’

The Dons’ game on Tuesday, as they snatched a draw from the jaws of victory against Middlesbrough, did feature a few entertaining moments, not least during the first half when one of the Boro coaching staff gave fourth official Graham Horwood a robust dressing down because he had the misfortune to be slightly in the way as the coach tried to retrieve the ball for quick throw-in. Shortly afterwards, a sight a little more familiar presented itself as after a 50-50 challenge both Dons boss Karl Robinson and a different Boro coach – one cross that a free-kick had been awarded and the other livid that a harsher punishment wasn’t forthcoming – simultaneously gave poor Mr Horwood both barrels. That’s four barrels, all at once. Ouch.

This emphasised one thing on which probably everyone can agree, that the fourth official has the worst job in football. His or her purpose is threefold: firstly to carry out routine administrative procedures like holding up the board for substitutions and injury-time, checking studs and so forth; secondly to be ready lest one of the other three officials do themselves a mischief; and thirdly, most importantly, to be screamed at by both sets of coaching staff when an on-field decision displeases them.

The first seems banal but tolerable enough, the second barely ever happens, but the third is the bit they must dread. Well, perhaps not so much dread but regard with a heavy heart, like clearing out a cupboard, or a maths lesson. Presumably when they’re having drinks at their officials’ pub – which one assumes does exist, called something like the Raised Arms or the Clive Thomas Inn – someone will wryly comment over their half of mild that they’re on “fourthers” duty on Saturday. This news will be met either with mumbles of sympathy (Martin Atkinson), hoots of mocking derision (Mark Clattenburg) or stony silence and a cold, lifeless, joyless stare (Mike Dean).

It’s bad enough for the referee that his every decision is howled at, competence and parentage questioned, but at least they’re their decisions. The poor fourth official is routinely met with volleys of abuse and flecks of spittle due to something they have absolutely no control over. They are angrily asked to explain what on earth the bastard in the black (ask your dads) is thinking of with that outrageous decision, when they a) in all likelihood have no earthly idea what they’re thinking of and b) with that in mind, can’t exactly say “I know mate, he <i>is</i> a w*nker.”

They exist as a verbal punching bag, something tangible at which managers can vent their frustrations lest they burst. Perhaps in that respect they perform something like an important role, preventing these clearly highly-stressed managers from doing something rash to either themselves or someone else, but it’s nonetheless an utterly thankless task. It is rather like screaming at a poor, hapless airline employee when your flight has been cancelled, or a call centre operative to complain your gas bill has gone up. It clearly isn’t their fault but they are there, so they get the brunt of the ire.

There is such a wide range of styles too when it comes to the berating of the fourth official. Jose Mourinho’s canning must have provided much relief for the officials of the land, not necessarily because of him but more that his chippy sidekick Rui Faria was no longer around to yap and nip at their heels like an irritating and un-spayed Yorkshire terrier. That said, Mourinho did once complain that Clattenburg’s steps for marking out the ten yards for a free-kick were “giant” and mimicked them to the fourth official in the technical area.

Arsene Wenger is another scourge of the fourth official, but his method is one of irked exasperation, like a man impotently flapping both hands at a bus that’s just driven through a puddle and soaked him. Gus Poyet was a sod for haranguing the fourth officials, as was Alan Pardew before he got the idea that he could be the next England managers so started pretending to be all respectable. Predictably enough Steve Evans is also a pain, and earlier this season during Leeds United’s game against Sheffield Wednesday, he complained with some gusto about a decision he hadn’t even seen, having been doing a wee at the time. And then there’s Jurgen Klopp .

Managers often acknowledge that referees have a very tough job (usually shortly before declaring that they’re idiots), but at the same time bawl and scream at poor old fourthers. Have a heart, managers. They’re just doing their jobs. The worst jobs in football.

Nick Miller

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