Reffing hell

If it’s a rite of passage into the inner sanctum of domestic soccer nerdishness to feel the need to slag off League of Ireland referees then last Friday was another step for me towards the Holy of Holies. The game against Mervue United on Friday night was noteworthy for three incidents where the officials had a major impact on the game. The first was the Waterford’s disallowed goal. Normally I’m a believer in waiting until the green flag is waved before celebrating a goal, or to see the ref jogging back to the halfway line in soccer parlance, so I’m going to claim that it says something that I saw nothing wrong with the effort that looked to have given Waterford the lead. However, while wondering what specifically he saw that merited a free-out in a penalty area that was littered with pulling and dragging, I’m inclined to think that it’s likely the referee did see something that was noteworthy enough to chalk off the goal. Then there was the sending-off. In real time Seamus Long’s tackle didn’t immediately strike me as red card-worthy, but I have seen them given so wasn’t too surprised when the ref flashed red, even if it wasn’t instantly obvious that that was the colour of the card. Again, a decision that wouldn’t cause the ref Keith Callanan to lose any sleep over.

It was the decision immediately before the red card, and one that  created the circumstances for the dismissal, that would leave you scratching your head about what goes through the minds of League of Ireland officials. Etanda Nkololo, scorer of the goal seconds after our disallowed effort that gave Mervue the lead, had gone down in typical soccer player taken-out-by-a-sniper fashion on the right wing, something that did not elicit jeers of derision because there was no point writhing in agony if you were off the field of play. Then to my amazement – and I was looking right at it, sensing that something quite wrong was unfolding – the fourth official shepherded Nkololo back on to the field of play while Mervue were on the attack. Suddenly Waterford found themselves having to defend a player who effectively had appeared from nowhere, and it was directly from here that Long lunged in to produce the red card.

Now, it’s probable that there was nothing strictly speaking wrong with what the fourth official did, no ‘law’ governing the re-entry of injured (ha!) players back onto the field of play. On the other hand, how often do you see referees behaving like Napoleon when ostentatiously marshalling players onto the pitch? It can be mildly irritating when a player is left loitering on the sideline while the play ebbs and flows around him, but it is surely preferable to what happened here. My wife’s driving instructor imparted unto her an iron rule of motoring: if your actions cause another vehicle to change speed or direction, then you were in the wrong. Much the same could be said of referring. The actions of the fourth official put Waterford on the back foot and it said much that Paul O’Brien, to his immense credit, made no comment to the referee while firmly shaking his hand but had a mild dispute with the fourth official over what had transpired. Not decking the official for his shoulder-shrugging response was a display of Herculean restraint.

The whole spread of the evening’s events made me ponder on what makes a good referee. The job as advertised is literally impossible. You’re expected to judge everything that happens on the field of play, yet there’s no way you can see everything that happens even with the aid of the extra eyes of your officials. Referees compensate for this by anticipating. A former work colleague was a prominent referee in the Waterford junior leagues for many years, and I asked a mutual colleague whether he had been any good. As the former refereeing colleague was a crabby character I didn’t necessarily expect a positive response so the story told was high praise indeed. They were both involved in their respective roles during a match and the ball broke quickly up the field just as two players were about to tangle. The playing colleague was looking right at it but the referee colleague had no reason to be looking anywhere but at the ball. Still, a sixth sense/experience/both told him something dastardly was about to happen and he turned away from the direction of the ball towards the two players just in time to see one flatten the other with a haymaker. You can guess what happened next.

Great refereeing. But it spoke of a cost-benefit analysis of the situation that must be made with lightning speed. What if he had looked away, nothing happened with the developing incident, and at the other end a defender handled the ball to prevent the attacker getting through on goal? To my mind, referees fix in their mind what is about to happen before it happens. Thus AN Referee-Colleague was able to visualise the punch before it happened. On the flip side, Keith Callanan saw a foul in the Mervue box before the cross went in a Waterford attacker duly obliged. He saw a red card tackle from Seamus Long before it happened, an attitude that was reinforced by his sending-off of Longford’s Willo McDonagh two weeks ago – hey, Waterford can’t say I’m harsh, didn’t I whip out the red card in their favour on that occasion? And he didn’t feel the need to question the wacky behaviour of his fourth official in causing the Waterford jalopy to change speed/direction because you would never, ever engage in a disagreement with one of your colleagues in front of the clowns who would happily change speed/direction if ever they saw you crossing the road. Forget about the rules, good refereeing is a form of witchcraft. The sooner we introduce the magic of television into our games, the better.