Ref Justice

Who would be a referee? That’s not a rhetorical question, who in their right mind would want to be a referee? I have a theory, one not based on a shred of scientific evidence, that there is a sub-section of the general populace who are invariably drawn to jobs that (supposedly) have to be done. Look at Germany under the Nazis. Most of the population got on with their lives, turning an embarrassed blind eye when their Jewish neighbours were herded onto a truck and vanished to…well, they never took the trouble to investigate where the neighbours ended up. They were passive onlookers, guilty only in doing nothing. At the other end of the scale were Eichmann’s of this world, people who took it upon themselves to exterminate entire peoples with extreme prejudice. They probably got a kick out of the whole enterprise, and happy the man who loves his job.

Then there were the middlemen. Who drove the truck to the train station, who ticked the bodies passing onto the carriage, who manned the train, who cooked the staff dinners at the concentration camp? Studies have shown that not one official who asked to be transferred away from implementing The Final Solution was ever disciplined, yet they still found plenty of people willing to do these jobs that, while not strictly evil, required an ability to justify the unjustifiable. In Nazi Germany, these people found all the above jobs. In peaceful 21st century Europe, these people find jobs as referees.

(This obsession with Nazi Germany should get me a job with the Daily Mail. Hurrah!)

Look at David Elleray – don’t look too closely though, or you might be turned into a pillar of salt. He rationalised being a referee on the basis that he realised in his early teens that he wasn’t ever going to make it as a top footballer, or even a mediocre one, so he plumped for being a referee so he could stay as close to the action as possible. To whit, referees are football groupies, willing to do the unglamorous but oh-so-necessary work while the heroes strut their stuff and get all the accolades. At least they get some of the reflected glory of a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Referees don’t even get that though, unless those kitbags they carry around contain a few bags of blow and a box of Durex provided as a benefit-in-kind by the FA.

Of course, referees are not helped by the fact that every player, coach, kitman, water carrier and fan is an unrepentant cheat. The cock-up perpetrated by Neale Barry at The Pit when the Blueslime played Newcastle provoked the usual howls of outrage from the victim and sheepish c’est la vie shrugs from the beneficiaries. Alan Shearer’s self-righteous bleats about Thomas Gravesen might have carried more weight had Shearer foresworn his usual habit of flinging his elbows at any opponent to come close enough to him to smell his farts, or even tried not to back into his marker before hitting the deck and then claiming a free on the premise that he is the Greatest Living Englishman and deserves the free. Hearing Alan Shearer question anyone else’s integrity is guaranteed to generate more tears than concentrated onion vapour.

Before anyone puts their neck out nodding with agreement of that dismissal of Shearer – although Evertonians have such brass necks that this seems unlikely – we were also treated to the sight of David Moyes giving his best it-weren’t-my-fault-guv speech. You had to admire the chutzpah of the Everton manager in standing up and proclaiming that the controversial incident was one of those things in the same week that he accused all referees of having a vendetta against Everton. It was a spectacular failure on the part of the media not to ask him how or why this conspiracy was perpetrated. Perhaps there is a Masonic conspiracy against Everton, or a Zionist conspiracy, or a Red conspiracy where Liverpool bribe referees with a couple of bags of blow and a box of Durex. The ease with which Moyes was able to get away with such weak, weasel-minded words should have united all hacks in disdain but seems to have passed by with barely a whimper.

Not that our own boss has anything to be proud of in this department. While not as monotonously two-faced as Arsene Wenger, Ged has made use of the ‘that’s football’ defence when we benefit from a refereeing clanger while being happy to denounce the referee as having ruined our season when the decision goes against us. When we had that calamitous run either side of Christmas, not a game went by where the conniving ref didn’t deprive us of something. Nothing to do with the fact that we were playing crap, God forbid. Managers only ever seem to realise that these things balance out over the course of a season – which they do – when a decision goes in their favour.

Having said all that, it’s utterly impossible to feel any sympathy for referees, mainly because of the personality type that is necessary to keep you sane in the job. No doubt there were many of us who failed to suppress a guffaw when Neil Warnock spat his dummy out as yet another (as he sees it) refereeing decision went against his band of merry men. A recent study of Mike Riley’s refereeing at Old Toilet revealed a propensity to give the home team the odd penalty or six. Similarly intriguing results might be yielded by an examination of how many times in his career Neil Warnock has attributed defeat to the ref. But for all the Schadenfreude spawned by the unfortunate manner of Sheffield United’s defeat against Arsenal in the cup semi-final, the whinging one was dead right about one thing. Graham Poll went home that night and felt he did a really good job, and ne’er a doubt entered his head that maybe – just maybe – he might have had a direct hand in the outcome of the game.

There is no room for doubt in a referee’s mind. If there were any misgivings, they wouldn’t be able to survive as a referee. In yet another of those studies performed by academics when they should be doing something truly useful like finding a cure for cancer or creating an all-you-can-eat tube of Pringles, it was found that referees are stubborn to the point of idiocy. When they thought they were right, they were right, and no amount of evidence to the contrary would dissuade them. The aforementioned Elleray makes much of the fact that referees are human and entitled to make mistakes. This would be fine if referees were ever prepared to admit to a particular mistake. But point out a particular incident which David Elleray got wrong, and you can be certain that he will claim that he got it right. Interviewed after the 1994 FA Cup final, where he got one penalty award exactly right and the other hopelessly wrong, he insisted with utter conviction that he had gotten both right, even though the amount of contact between the defender and the attacker wouldn’t have interested a basketball official.

It’s all right to make mistakes in general, but referees never make mistakes in particular.

You think this a slightly over-the-top generalisation about referees? A few months back, there was another one of those sporting bloopers programmes on the telly that pad out the schedules nicely. In the highlighted incident, Arsenal were defending against a team whose identity currently escapes me; never mind that though, I’m entitled to make mistakes. The Arsenal goalie found himself stranded in no man’s land and was duly lobbed. An Arsenal defender clearly knocked the ball onto the bar with his forearm before heading the rebound out for a corner. The result? A corner. The ref and his linesman were the only people in all of Highbury who hadn’t spotted the handball. In fairness to the linesman, they weren’t expected to intervene in those days, but the ref had no such excuse. It was an outrageous cock-up, but these things do happen. The problem was that the ref that day, interviewed for the programme, refused to admit he had gotten it wrong. Even when presented with the television evidence, and knowing the jig was up, he still blithely insisted that what he had seen was the Arsenal defender heading the ball onto the bar and then heading it out for a corner. To admit he was wrong would be a sign of weakness, and weakness is the preserve of the, uh, weak.

So the next time someone tells you that we should be fairer to referees and that there would be no football without them, tell them that there will always be referees. When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, a whole legion of minions bubbled up from the bottom of the swamp of humanity to administer his hellish schemes. And there will always be people who want to referee, because everything they do is right. Even if God Himself were to descend to tell them that they were wrong, His beard bristling with righteous indignation, they would still insist they were right, and they’d sincerely believe it. The person who is never wrong sleeps easily at night, and few must sleep as restfully as referees.