Bum notes are part of live referee experience

Date published: Monday 5th September 2016 9:13

There are people who, when they go to see a rock band, want them to play the songs exactly as they sound on the record, and if the band don’t do that, they feel cheated or find it unsatisfactory in some way. They’re not there to see your new jazz odyssey direction, they want the hits and they want them to sound like they do on the radio.

I could never get with that idea. Why bother to go and see a band live if you don’t want it to be at least a bit different? Why not just listen to the record at home? This is art made by humans, not by a photocopier.

I once saw the Grateful Dead tune up for about 20 minutes before realising that they were actually playing a rambling psychedelic version of Estimated Prophet. It was all made up on the spot; the Dead being famous for the long sets of largely improvised instrumental sections and rambling reinterpretations. Similarly, I’ve got a record of the Allman Brothers Band playing one four-minute song for 44 minutes. You need a certain kind of relaxed, non-uptight mindset to dig this jam band sort of thing.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I take a jam band attitude to the refereeing of football matches. Yeah, there are the basic rules and riffs, but beyond that, so much is open to interpretation and improvisation, and I’m happy for the variables to play out in whatever way happen to occur to the ref, at any one point in time. A handball when a goal was scored? Not to worry. An unseen elbow in the face? So be it. A missed offside decision? Whatever. The ball was out of play? If you say so. Just relax and enjoy the ride. It isn’t the refereeing decisions that spoil your fun, it’s your attitude to the decisions.

And man, people are so uptight about referees and what they do or don’t do. They’ve become part of the entertainment, part of the Monday Night Football dissection, as though they are the players. But whereas players each make many mistakes from slight to massive – and it’s accepted as part of the game – a referee isn’t allowed that generosity.

However, football is an improvised art form, and just as with a jam band, there are bound to be a few bum notes along the way, but you accept that as an inevitability when you’re dealing with humans who are having to think on their feet, with only split seconds to make decisions.

The idea that referees can get even the majority of decisions right is mind-blowing enough, because everything happens in the blink of an eye and all participants are trying to cheat, but even more mind-blowing is the idea that they’re not allowed to say they simply got a decision wrong. And that seems to be at the root of the accusations of corruption levelled by Gary Neville at the PGMOL; say you didn’t see something, rather than admit to an error. Whether the whole Mark Halsey thing is true or not – and you can’t imagine why Halsey would say it was, if it wasn’t – it is indicative of the siege mentality surrounding referees, largely caused by media and fans being locked together in an unholy alliance, wedded to being somewhere from indignant to hysterical about refereeing decisions.

It should be a non-event, post-game, to get an official on camera and say, “look, you can clearly see he’s removed the striker’s scrotum by judicious use of garden secateurs there”. And the ref can just say, “Oh yeah, I just missed that. I thought it was odd that his balls dropped onto the pitch like two boiled eggs. Sorry.” And then we all get on with our lives.

Quite why there is a rule that retrospective punishment can only be handed down if the referee hasn’t already awarded a card, or hasn’t seen the incident, is bizarre. Let the gig happen, look at it afterwards and make additional decisions if you have to, end of story.

Halsey had the seen the relevant incident, but made the wrong call on the day, but so what? What’s wrong with everyone concerned just admitting that and being understanding? It’s childish to think an official will get everything right. Humans make mistakes. Referees are human, and being human is the blessing and curse we all carry to our graves.

What is really behind this defensiveness from the authorities is a huge public hunger for intolerance of refereeing mistakes. Sometimes, those “how did he not see that?” moments are elevated to a status of moral laxity, verging on corruption. The harrumphing and head shaking as they replay it from six angles and simply can’t understand how he didn’t see the incident, is ridiculous and far too harsh.

The fact he might have blinked, glanced away or was just looking at the wrong thing at the moment a half-a-second-long offence happened, seems unbelievable to too many. But that’s so easy to do. Sometimes you look but you don’t see. Sometimes you buy the lie the player is selling you. Yet such outrage at refereeing mistakes has grown so intense and widespread that to try and remove the pressure, more and more technology is being introduced to iron out errors. Many feel a game played by humans can no longer be trusted to the humans to officiate. As this feeling grows it is a win for those who want to see groups play everything note perfect and want a refund if they don’t. The poindexters and uncool uptights are bossing it.

You can see the logic of this upgrading of technology but logic is the killer of beauty and romance, because there is no glory in facts, only in truth. It goes against the very nature of our species and even striving to achieve it is reaching out for a goal that not only is unachievable, but will only deliver more frustration and anger.

Because, ironically, even technology designed to iron out human error, needs humans to assess the information it delivers. I can imagine a day, a few years in the future, where there is a camera on the people who are trying to agree what a camera or a piece of software has shown them. And there’ll be another camera hooked up to that camera, to see if it is being operated impartially, which in turn will be subject to a biometric which assesses the innate bias of the software programmer who created it all. And still no-one will be happy because our eyes are ours and ours alone.

We need to get away from this and reach a situation where we just accept that mistakes big and small will be made. By trying to pretend officials don’t make mistakes, the officials are only encouraging the nerdy obsessives, who hate the fact that we are as we are, and want everything right all the time, and want to introduce more anti-human elements into the game, a trend which will only lead to ever more disgruntlement.

In music and in football, the live experience is a confirmation of humanity, not a failure to achieve perfection.

John Nicholson

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