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They say referees should be invisible, that the sign of a good officiating performance is that you don't notice who the man in the middle is. A referee - or more specifically his whistle - is supposed to be occasionally heard but not seen, a sort of ninja with a whistle.
Of course, that is an absurdly unrealistic prospect these days, because a referee can't just slink onto the pitch unnoticed. We know exactly who the man 'in charge' is before the game, and we've all got our specific complaints in ahead of time - not necessarily complaints that our team has been wronged, but complaints that this chap is an utter buffoon and has ruined things for everyone.
We are familiar with each individual referee in a manner that is most troubling - in the Premier League at least. One of the benefits of supporting a Football League club is that there isn't generally that same moment of recognition. Sure, a name might ring a bell as someone who gave a rancid decision at home to Blackpool last October, but you usually don't know the names (unless, as occasionally happens, the name 'N.Miller' is listed in the programme, causing a brief but terrifying moment of identity crisis before I realise Nigel Miller, referee since 1989, is not, in fact, me), you can't really remember patterns of behaviour, whether he's card-happy and, perhaps most importantly, you don't have the first idea of his personality.
For that's the problem here. Referees are, tragically, personalities now. That in itself isn't necessarily new (years ago most people had a passing acquaintance with Jack Taylor, for example), but we now know the names, officiating styles and haircuts of every Premier League referee in the land.
This is good when it brings gold like Jeff Winter's infamous claim in his autobiography that the Kop was applauding him in his last game, but bad in basically every other way.
The thing is that with this increased profile has not come increased authority - quite the opposite of that. Referees are more famous now than they have ever been, but they are less respected than ever, both on the pitch and in the stands. In years past everyone hated the slightly ephemeral 'concept' of the referee ('Who's the b**tard in the black? The referee's a w**ker' etc), this card-waving amorphous mass of petty authority, but now we can't stand individuals for various select reasons, whether that's Mark Clattenburg's hair, Phil Dowd's sneer or Mike Dean's...well, Mike Dean.
One wonders why a referee even takes up the gig now, because although they're remunerated more generously these days, it doesn't seem to come close to compensating for the very specific and individual abuse they receive. Although in Howard Webb's case, working out why a policeman would want to take up a career that involves ordering people around and a general sense of haughty superiority, doesn't take too long. Presumably it was slightly better money and less anti-social hours than being a bouncer.
Webb's retirement means several things, not least that a series of 'banter' accounts on Twitter now have one less club in their bag, another lazy joke that wasn't funny in the first place and certainly wasn't on the ten bajillionth retelling, gone. The Photoshop of Webb wearing a Manchester United shirt can now be loaded into a cannon and fired into the sun.
Webb was the highest profile of these bafflingly notorious finger-waggers, and thus it was 'news' when he retired from the whistle-blowin' game on Wednesday - indeed, it was the top story on the football section of the Guardian, was high up on the Daily Mail and Telegraph sites and on the BBC homepage. It's one of those strange things about football that absolutely nobody should care about, but many people do. Who gives a stuff that a referee won't be refereeing anymore? Another one of equal ineptitude will be along in a moment, to infuriate and outrage you in much the same way.
So we shouldn't care about referees. Not individual referees, anyway. You care when they get decisions wrong, or act like an arse, and laugh when they get hit with a ball, but other than that just ignore them. They're basically quite insignificant people, when it comes to football, anyway. If you get annoyed by them, it means you know who they are, and there's no need for that.
In any case, they'll have the vanishing spray (or as Phil Neville called it during the World Cup the 'invisible spray') to keep them occupied. So that's something.
Nick Miller - follow him on the Twitter