Stop treating referees like footballing pinatas…

What’s the worst job in football? Goalkeeper? Manager?

No. The worst job in football is being a referee. Successfully spotting infringements is your job, so you rarely garner any praise. But if you make any mistakes, and I mean ANY mistakes, you will receive a right royal media shafting, as you might typically have witnessed on Soccer Saturday this weekend.

As the Zlatan Ibrahimovic/Tyrone Mings situation unfolded, Jeff Stelling got progressively more irate at Kevin Friend’s decisions, with every replay of the elbow incident provoking even more, increasingly undignified pantomime balling. After the sending-off, he declared Friend was having a nightmare. Some observers might have felt there was only one ‘mare happening and it was in Middlesex, not Old Trafford.

But it was typical. Get something wrong and you’re torn to shreds. It must be so galling to be savaged by pundits and presenters who often missed the offence in real time, then after watching it in slow motion, ask the rhetorical question “how did he not see that!?” with ever-rising outrage and disbelief, all the while seemingly unaware and unashamed that they only know what has really happened because of the replays – a luxury the officials don’t have.

At every game you can see fans screaming abuse at the referee for decisions that are actually 100% correct, blinded by a mixture of one-eyed fandom and ignorance. And you’ve got to put up with it for 90 minutes twice a week, every week, and in a dozen discussion programmes, and all for an average yearly income of £70,000.

Imagine having a job where, not only are all your mistakes played out in public to up to 75,000 spectators (none of whom will applaud the myriad decisions you make correctly), but also where everyone else in your workplace is cheating at every opportunity, expressly to make life as difficult as possible for you.

Footballers lie and deceive and play-act and exaggerate. They will never tell you the truth if it does not benefit them. They bitch and moan, and swear blind that black is white, from start to finish. And yet despite the constant attempts to deceive, it is still you – the referee – who’ll get it in the neck when you fail to spot something, or make a wrong judgement in a split second.

Imagine having a job where not only are you expected to apply hard and fast rules, you are also expected to judge something as metaphysical as ‘intention’. Did Tyrone Mings intend to stamp on Zlatan’s head, or was it an accident? There’s no intent-o-meter to measure this metaphysical notion. You just have to guess and whichever way you guess, a lot of people will berate you.

Wanting referees to always be right all the time is fundamentally unreasonable, and slagging them off so viciously is equally unreasonable. Clearly, instant replay technology would stop the simple mistakes from being made, such as blatant handballs and offsides, but it probably won’t solve every issue because too many people want definitive answers where no definitive answers are available.. You can see that head stamp a thousand times and still not know what was in Mings’ head.

Maybe the expansion of stat culture is partly to blame. Everything a player does is sliced, diced, dissected, downloaded and reassembled in search of hard truths and certainties, when the glorious, brilliant reality is that football is chaos and you don’t know what’s going to happen at any one moment, because it’s played by humans, and humans are weird bags of chemicals and hormones, impulses and emotions and you will never be able to rationalise and explain everything they’ve done, or what they might do, not matter how comprehensive your data. But once addicted to this idea, it must make the vagaries of subjective refereeing decisions feel incomprehensibly imprecise, hence the outrage.

One blink and you can miss even the most blatant incident. I know this because recently, I was walking down a street, my head full of butterflies, breakfast comestibles and beefy riffs, as per usual. I saw a woman step out to cross the road. As I saw her, a tall wire-haired terrier, the professorial type that looks like it should wear glasses, trotted past me with a determined look on its face, as though on a mission to find a butcher to flirt with in return for a bone. I glanced down at the dog, just as there was a screech of brakes. I looked up to see the woman lying in the road having been knocked down by a car (she was okay).

It had happened at exactly the instant I’d glanced at the dog. At the time, I was the only person nearby, so later when giving a statement to the police they asked me, as I was facing her and had an unobstructed view, why hadn’t I seen what had happened? All I could do was say I looked away briefly. In the flick of an eye I missed it and couldn’t tell if it was her fault or the driver. I just didn’t see it. It was a classic “how did he miss that?” moment.

That must be every referee’s experience in every game, be it for big or small incidents. And then you get the punditocracy telling you that you were right in line with an incident and it’s a “shocking decision” if you miss it. But it’s not shocking if you remove yourself from football’s bullying culture. Blink your eyes at the wrong moment and you can miss something which the unblinking camera captures.

And given the ramping-up of the ‘shouting beats clever’ culture, which is always looking for someone to blame in order to entertain, sometimes the ceaseless criticism of refs looks a lot less like analysis and lot more like a form of bullying. It must annoy, upset and disturb many a referee.

This week, the idea that two referees had been drinking on a stag do earlier in the week was dragged up to further vilify and humiliate. Will the kicking never end? Exactly how much more abuse do you expect a referee to take for about 50 grand after tax? Look in any public place; dole offices, post offices, on buses and trains, and you’ll see a sign requesting the employees be treated with respect. But no such protection is offered to football officials, without whom the game couldn’t even be played.

They’re ridiculously exposed and are not even given the right to their own defence. They should be allowed to come out and repeat what was said to them by players and managers, to highlight the hypocrites and idiots and serial cheaters. Make the pundits say their criticism to their face instead of to an anonymous camera. It’s only fair. As it is, referees are routinely painted as fools or incompetents and used as football pinatas without any recourse.

And just to add insult to injury, some get accused of grandstanding and wanting to be the star of the show. I mean, what sort of people do you expect to want to be referees? Of course it’ll attract people who like to administer authority and have a bit of power over people. Of course they’re going to have an ego and some self-confidence. If you didn’t, how could you survive being abused by thousands of people twice a week? This isn’t a profession for the meek, the mild, the nicey-nicey. You’ve got to stand up for yourself and, one way or another, be a bit of a sod with big cojones. Anyone sensitive would be crushed from the get-go.

The idea that refereeing perfection is possible in a game of speed, nuance and subtlety is merely a delusion brought on by the expectation created by intense media coverage, by thoughtless pundits who seem unable to realise that declaring things “shocking” or “disgraceful” on the back of slow motion replays is facile nonsense, and all part of the trend for seeing football as a provable science, rather than the chaotic free-form art that it really is.

TV people: need a good idea? Have this one on me. Get a panel of referees to sit in judgement on the verdicts of pundits and presenters and, with the help of replays, critique them as they have been critiqued.

Then we’ll see who’s really having a nightmare, won’t we? Shocking.

John Nicholson