SCOTCH MIST DESCENDING
Mickey Blue Eyes
Interesting one, this Scotch referees strike, because it raises all kinds of questions not related to protection of earnings, which is the usual reason for any group withdrawing its labour. In the latter case I always automatically support the group or the union - nobody undertakes strike action easily or frivolously: there is too much to lose in the short term. It is an old military axiom that it takes more than a barrack room lawyer to cause a real mutiny; it takes a mass of discontented, organised men - anything else is just traditional belly-aching in the ranks. Paralleling this, Trotsky said, "The revolution only happens when there is no other way out," and if anyone would know, it's him. For the most part, employers would lie and cheat any way they could to avoid democratic decision-making with employees. It's much easier to sack people and/or cut wages unilaterally......see "the debt crisis." (Read: help capitalism screw your life up.) But the Scotch saga poses an intriguing conundrum for all footy fans, for the referees claim their impartiality and honesty are being abused by some clubs, managers and players, and that in some cases their and their families' safety is now at risk. Former English referee Graham Poll has expressed support for his Caledonian colleagues, which could be a plus or a minus depending on your prejudices. Much more appropriately and usefully Polish referees demonstrated solidarnosc and refused to substitute after the facts of the dispute were explained to them.
One of the root catalysts appears to be the case of referee Doug McDonald, now retired, who admitted publicly he lied about his reasons for overturning a penalty decision in a Dundee United V Celtic match. In the circumstances you could consider this either praiseworthy or foolishly inflammatory. But obviously the issue has been simmering for some time. Back in 2008 there was a dispute about wages, though it never developed to full blown strike action. The following year managers agreed to avoid mentioning referees in interviews. It didn't last. Last October Scottish FA referees supervisor Hugh Dallas resigned because he said his family was being threatened. Recent accusations of unfairness seem to have brought matters to a head. Some of the clubs seek tighter sanctions on referees and there is even one proposal for them to declare which club they support. Plainly, something has gone badly wrong in Scotland, even allowing for religio-nationalist muck that has scarred their game for far too long.
Now, let's be honest about the task of refereeing. It is impossible to referee a match in front of tens of thousands of people on all four sides of the stadium and satisfy them all that you got it right all the time. It is made even worse by television technology and its repeated slomo multi-angle playbacks at peak viewing times. After all, a referee has only seconds to make his decision and he can judge only on what he sees from a single sight line. All of it is intensified by TV "pundits" in search of a "controversy." At its worst the aggregate affect can be an inflated minor artificial hysteria that floats off with naive and shallow mentalities clinging to the balloon of absurdity.
Where physical threats to referees and their families are concerned we should hold the perpetrators in utter contempt for their insane cowardice. There are even reports some of these screaming internet nutcases have emailed employers outside the game urging them to sack some referees for a real or imagined grievance. In each of these cases this is one fan who hopes the guilty parties are caught and dealt with in the same fashion as drug dealers. This, if I had my way in my least democratic mood, would be to lock the riffraff up for the rest of their natural, suspend them upside down and keep them away from decent humanity. If there is one element of the game that leads me to consider dumping it, it is this distant relative of the organised gutless scum who nearly brought the sport to its knees in the 1970s and 1980s. These are the same kind of lunatics who provided an excuse for oppressive police tactics and who therefore ruined the whole experience of travelling to away matches. In Scotland it is made a whole lot worse by the Catholic-Protestant craziness. To their religious hell with them, and no mercy.
Let's be honest too about our own reactions to perceived bad refereeing. We have all - no exceptions - reacted badly at some point in our lives to decisions that went against us, while conveniently forgetting those that went in the opposite direction. In my case it was as recent as the Arsenal home game when Howard Webb had an absolute stinker. Sometimes you wouldn't be human to keep your cool in the heat of it all, not if you really feel for the game. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for the kind of extremes I quote above. Anybody with any sense retires muttering to the post-match ale-house, discusses it with friends and flushes the worst of it out of their system. You deal with it as best you can. What you don't do is lose your sense of humanity and intelligence. Fairness can be a difficult virtue to achieve but it isn't impossible, however imperfectly, and surely we should never allow it to be subsumed by evil or neurotic intent. The overwhelming majority of fans do manage this, which is why a big-mouthed minority should never be allowed to gain ascendancy. Bullies always back down when confronted.
One of the main problems is our own set of prejudices. For instance, I could never bring myself to trust the public school teacher Elleray, largely through personal experience over many years of the kind of weird mentality encouraged in that kind of institution. In Elleray's case, I recall a match at Birmingham some years ago when Wayne Rooney went into a tackle, made a baddy worthy of a yellow card, but no worse than anything else by others, and as Elleray came over I knew - just knew - the working class Scouse kid wasn't going to get a fair crack of the whip. Elleray sent him off. It wasn't the only time I saw Elleray behave thus. To claim referees don't have their own prejudices is as silly as a fatuous search for the unicorn of absolute objectivity. A few years ago Phil Neville said he could now see clearly that Manchester United were treated more liberally by officials; it is fair to say Phil is in a better position to make that kind of observation than most of us. And who can forget the disgraceful display of Pierluigi Colina at Villarreal? Evertonians from an earlier era still splutter with anger when they hear the name Clive Thomas. So, hard as their job is, let's not lose sight of their weaknesses either. Perspective is in order. Nobody is perfect on or off the pitch.
Trust, of course, is essential. And by and large we do trust referees. The game couldn't continue if we didn't, which seemingly is why the Scotch game has faltered so badly. For some reason (and I don't follow Scotch football so don't know the details) trust has flown the coop in Caledonia. This cannot be down to just the Doug McDonald saga, however unprecedented. We have had a lot of bad experiences in England too but so far have not spilled into anything more public than managerial grumbles. Still, we fans have a small core at each club who earnestly believe some referees have it in for their heroes, that a dark conspiracy lurks behind every decision, that Graham "prick" Poll and Mark "cunt" Clattenburg are closet redshites who could do with a visit from Inspector Knacker. It's not true, but it provides a sort of dubious comfort when we're sulking over the latest adverse result.
Trust in turn depends on a clear demonstration of good judgment by referees. When that fails all the dominos go down. A classic example was the foul on Leighton Baines in last Saturday's match. Now, I was in the same line of sight as the referee but he was within a few metres of it. Everyone around me could see it was a quite deliberate infringement. Incredibly, he waved play on, and that led directly to a scuffle further up the pitch in which he sent off Mikel Arteta. Small wonder the fans lost their collective temper. The only explanation I can think of is that he froze for the first one and then tried to impose himself on the game for the second one, always a sign of bad management. Whatever the reason, it was absolutely the worst piece of refereeing I have seen in the last few years. He was inconsistent for the rest of the game too. For Evertonians it was the last straw, coming as it did on the backs of appallingly bad control in the Wolves and Arsenal home games. There are many other examples.
So, in my view fans have a legitimate complaint at the inconsistency of refereeing we now see. It is that more than anything that drives us to distraction. The odd mistake is understandable, as is the fact that it isn't referees who commit fouls, dive or feign injury. Paradoxically, recent standards aren't as bad as a few seasons ago when there were audible groans at the prospect of Mike Riley, Andy D'Urso, Uriah Rennie, Mike Elleray, Graham Poll and a few others. Probably this is why the line has held for the time being in England. Whether this stays is another matter. As always, to put it mildly there is room for improvement, though I'm not at all sure that additional assistants on the goal line have helped any. I have seen infringements committed directly in front of them too and nothing happened. So how do we improve judgment calls?
Well, we could start with referees attendance at post match interviews to provide their version of events. Managers and players already do so. There is no reason why refs shouldn't after allowing reasonable time for tempers to cool and minds to clear. There is no reason either why anybody should try to retain "mystique" in the referee - that disappeared long ago on the backs of demonstrable errors. There might be some discomfort at first but so long as lessons are learned and applied I don't see what there is to object to. This means a re-examination of the term "bringing the game into disrepute" and whether it infringes free speech. (Out of sheer mischief I would love to see this challenged at the level of human rights.) Ian Holloway's recent managerial outburst was a case in point; he expressed a free opinion, but there's no law against him expressing a stupid opinion or acting like an empty headed prat, as he often does. So somebody says something that upsets somebody else, so what? Since when has football been the home of fey, sensitive souls who faint at the first sign of dispute or aggression? After the novelty wears off it would find its own level. It would demonstrate to referees and everyone else in football that respect has to be earned, and that it works both ways. Silence helps nobody. In any case if somebody says something that is provably untrue there is always legal recourse by the offended one.
Continuing on a parallel theme, why not rationalise the referee marking system and publish it openly? This could be taken to its logical conclusion and have three markers........an independent referee, the two clubs and an independent fans representative. The first two already exist, though to my knowledge their marking is not made public. The third one is admittedly more difficult but I refuse to believe there are not enough sensible fans for consensual training, and who love the game for its own sake. Publishing the marks openly would enable everyone to see who is performing up to the mark and who isn't. There appear to be tables for every other performance in the game....why not referees?
Then there's the matter of technical help, which surely is now unavoidable, particularly for goal line judgments. The main problem with this issue is a potential interruption of the flow of the game. This is not an easy one to solve because of the speed football is played at; it is quite different to relative set staccato movements of, say, cricket and rugby. Nevertheless, it would do no harm for a referee call for a TV replay when he is unsure what happened. If even that is indecisive the game could be restarted with a dropped ball. And the final decision must surely always rest with the referee. There are many difficulties but nothing that cannot be resolved by sensible discussion and agreement between all parties, referees, administrators, players, owners and fans - the worst thing that could happen is a unilateral imposition by the Football Association or the International Board. To put it mildly there is far too much administrative secrecy and hidden decision-making in football.
One useful by-product might be a small reduction in media hype of the financial cost of a bad referee call, yet another symptom of a terminally sick football economic system and bought-and-paid-for mainstream media intent on little more than infotainment. But this is a thin hope.
Meanwhile, we'll have to tolerate the system and try to remember referees don't often give a deliberately wrong decision. For instance I had a lot of sympathy for Howard Webb as he tried to keep a lid on the last World Cup final; had he stuck to the letter of the law there could have been as many as four or five sendings-off. Of course this led inevitably to an attempt to re-impose himself on the game when he sent off John Heitinga for a relatively innocuous foul. It was the clearest demonstration that two wrongs don't make a right.
Me, I promise to try and sit on my hands and zip my mouth next time we suffer a lousy refereeing decision. I will fail of course. We all do, and so do referees.