Goalkeepers and Referees: Overprotection

For many years now, in my opinion and that of the many others with whom I have discussed it, top level goalkeepers have been afforded far too much protection by referees. While a certain amount of protection is of course required, it seems these days that one cannot challenge a goalkeeper aerially at all without the referee unleashing a harsh blast on his whistle. And now it seems that referees are reaping what they have sown, but in a way that is entirely derogatory to the standards of the modern game.

Referees, like goalkeepers, make mistakes. All footballers make mistakes often. But goalkeepers stand out because when they make a mistake, it tends to have a huge impact on the game, i.e. it gives away a goal. Other players have the ‘keeper as a safety net for their mistakes, or if it is the strikers or midfielders, there’s a good chance another player will rectify their mistake. And so goalkeeping is very much the occupation that will one minute see you a hero, and the next, a villain.

Refereeing mistakes are the same. While they do not always result in goals, there are often big decisions in matches, regarding penalties, bookings, sendings off, free kicks (throw ins in Stoke games) where the outcome of the game is majorly influenced, and so the referee too, like the goalkeeper, is under all sorts of pressure.

That is where the similarities end though. If a goalkeeper makes a howler, he will often be heavily criticises and usually dropped, or at least given a very firm kick up the backside by his boss (see Massimo Taibi for Man Utd a few years back, post-Schmeichel). Spurs’ hapless keeper Gomes will, almost undoubtedly, be replaced by Harry Redknapp in the coming transfer window. I’m amazed he’s even stuck with him this long as the man is a walking calamity, and it is further testament to Bent and Pavlyuchenko that Tottenham are winning games at the moment, as it’s very much a case of ‘scoring more often than Gomes fucks up’.

But while goalkeepers face swift and often harsh (let’s face it, every now and then, we all mess up big time) retribution for their mistakes, referees are almost entirely immune from such punishment. While there is always a refereeing assessor in the stands watching each official’s performance, all to rarely do the referees get any actual punishment for their mistakes.

Without pointing to any particular circumstances, I think most people would agree that so far this season, the standard of refereeing has been abysmally low. And yet referees are rarely dropped from service. And if they are it is not long until they’re back working again, and I’m sure they still get paid for their time off. So what motivation do they have to improve? To work at their job and try and improve their standard of officiation?

A player gets dropped, he has to work hard every day the next week in training to try and force his way back in. And there are always more players n the squad, so there is huge competition for places. But referees have not such motivation. They know that there aren’t many decent referees, and so they know that no matter how poor a game they have, they will soon be back in charge.

The most grating thing is that many of them clearly delight in the controversy they cause though. Watching them out in the middle, they revel in the power they have not just over the players, but over the thousands of fans watching. They marvel at the power they have to inspire a reaction in the crowd and they push it more often than is necessary. They think that they are what we are there to see, whereas ideally, they should be invisible.

It is frustrating that the referees, who seem to believe that they are as special and important as they players, aren’t controlled in the same way. A manager must get the best out of his players, he must punish their mistakes for the good of the team, and the fans play a part in that too, providing immediate feedback on a players every action. But referees, they don’t have that pressure. Yes, they get abused by the crowd but it just seems to drive them on. And yes they have a boss, but it seems he is far more forgiving and their ‘squad’ is far less competitive.

I’m not asking for referees to be perfect here either. I know that it can be very difficult making correct calls at the pace of the game – when I’ve been watching I’ve sworn blind that something was a foul only to get home and see replays prove me wrong. But I am in the stand and paying to watch the game, while they are in the middle, in the thick of it, and being paid to do it. But the main thing that rattles me, is their refusal to admit their mistakes.

After a game earlier in the season when Everton were denied a blatant penalty and Moyes when a little bit mental at the referee (earning himself a dismissal to the stands), he said after the game that all it would take for him to feel better and to forgive the referee is an apology. He said that he accepts that people make mistakes, but that they should not hide behind their almost totalitarian power and refuse to admit when they get a decision wrong. In that referees credit, he did apparently call Moyes and admit his mistake after the game.

But why shouldn’t he acknowledge it publicly. I think that it might be a good idea to have a post match review of the referees performance. You can bet that players have it done with their performance, the manager sitting down and taking them through where they went wrong, and anyway, we do it, sitting at home watching Match of the Day, we analyse every error a player makes. Well the referees, who believe that they are just as important as the players, should be subjected to it too. A weekly trial, where their mistakes are pointed out and they have to explain, justify or concede each decision. It would be something of a gauntlet.

And yes it would be cruel (especially if we let the TV cameras in), and yes this is probably motivated by my subconscious desire to torment referees after they have tormented me and my team for years, but also, it would work. Imagine a referee who knew that after a game he would have to sit there and admit to every mistake, humiliated in public. What more motivation would they need to improve their game? To work hard, as the players do, in between games? To strive to have a perfect match so they could sit there all smug and say that they were the best?

We could even introduce it almost like the drug testing. It doesn’t have to be every referee after every game. How about one referee, at random, every week. No one knows who it will be, but all will dread it and all will strive to do their best to minimise the humiliation. It could even form a great little segment of Match of the Day, as we watch the ref try and wriggle his way out of his errors. I for one would find it genuinely entertaining and hugely satisfying.

Maybe though, it’s a little sadistic. But i do think that there needs to be something done, to shake up the referees. To show them that they cannot make mistakes and go unpunished. We have to motivate them to be as good a referee as they can be. This season has seen the respect campaign introduced, but it has also seen appallingly low standards of refereeing. Perhaps before, when players could scream and shout at the referees, that’s what kept them in line.

Either way, their performances so far this season don’t deserve the respect that has been demanded for them. Respect has to be earned, but while they continue to be overprotected and under-performing they will have nothing but resentment. When they are forced to play at the top of their game under the ultimate scrutiny like top level goalkeepers are, and when they can stand up to that and come through with a good performance, then they will have my respect, but to me, that day still looks to be some way off.

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