Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Part One.

A two part investigation to analyse the difficulties that football faces in maintaining and improving its standard of refereeing.

Alan Wiley: a referee that enjoys the limelight.
Alan Wiley: a referee that enjoys the limelight.

For a few days now I have been intending to write a piece about the difficulties of introducing goal-line technology and suggesting that ultimately, it would probably produce more problems than it proposes to solve, with regard to the integrity of refereeing decisions in football. However, after watching Everton’s match against Blackburn this morning and witnessing the propaganda like effect that Sam Allardyce’s ridiculous allegations had on the officiating of the match, I have come to truly realise just what a sticky situation refereeing is in.

As such, I will present two articles, one that criticises the impartiality of refereeing and acknowledges the need in football for an improved standard of officiation through eliminating the bias that is so predominant through so many high profile matches; and another that argues against the effectiveness of a proposed system for the eradication of human error with regard to goal-line decisions in these high profile matches. The truly bizarre thing, is that I believe strongly in both arguments, even though they appear to argue against one another. I will present both conclusions and simply invite you, the reader, to decided whether they are at odds, or whether there may be a solution to appease both, and save football from ever-lower standards of refereeing.

Sam Allardyce approached today’s match between Blackburn and Everton with a very clear game plan, and it was a game plan which not only revealed him as an enormously hypocritical character who will stoop to dishonorable levels to gain any advantage, but also relied entirely on the fallibility of the referee entrusted with the officiation of the match.

What is really despicable about this tactic is that Sam Allardyce’s sides are famous for the brutality, and have been for years. During his long tenure at Bolton, fans would dread the visit of his side because they knew that not only would they see their side bullied constantly, they knew that no football would likely be played. The same tactics were employed at Newcastle, but the fans wouldn’t stand for it and he was hugely unpopular, and rightly so. Now though, he has reintroduced his regime at Blackburn, and the results speak for themselves. Few wins and few losses, but many draws are illustrative of the fact that Blackburn have resorted to simply strangling the life out of football matches.

To accuse Tim Cahill of such a crime then, is base hypocrisy. The little Australian is no doubt a strong and committed player but he jumps fairly and with every focus on the ball. If you want a player to jump without using his arms at all then heading will become an extinct practice in football – every player does it. Excessive use should be frowned upon indeed, but watch Tim Cahill’s goals this season, and you will see that the word ‘excessive’ cannot be applied. Here is not the time to discuss the many flaws in “Big Sam’s” character though, what we are instead looking at is the unfortunate result of his scheme.

Despite the hypocritical and downright fictional nature of Allardyce’s claims, the match referee Alan Wiley seemed determined throughout today’s game to take them at face value. Constantly Tim Cahill, and apparently by guilt of association the entire Everton team, were pulled up for simply challenging for a header. Indeed once, Samba climbed all over a stationary Cahill, kneeing him in the back in the process, and Wiley saw fit to award against the Australian. To say I was bemused is to understate terribly.

Unfortunately though, this was a demonstration of the very thing that is rotting away at the core of refereeing in this country. Throughout far too many matches in the Premier League and even below, clear bias is becoming startlingly obvious on the part of referees. For years we have known that you simply will not win a penalty at Old Trafford unless you’re playing in red, and we have seen incredible leniency given to players who are deemed to be ‘superstars’.

Today was just another example of a referee being influenced all too easily by factors unrelated to the match itself. Allardyce made his statement with exactly that fact in mind. He knew that as soon as the seeds of doubt are layed in the mind of the referee, they will flourish. In essence, Allardyce ruined today’s game of football. Not only did he set up his Blackburn side to restrict Everton from actually playing football, but he also made sure that the integrity of the match officiation was severely impaired – and it is all too easily done.

The problem his that human nature is in many ways, easy to manipulate. It takes only the slightest nudge to push someone over the edge and referees are no exception. That they are constantly under the pressure of the press and indeed of the referee review panel can only make the situation worse. Though they seem to delight in the universal hatred that their position commands, deep down all people crave the respect and admiration of their fellows, and so they will attempt to play up to certain people in any way they can.

At Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson is an ogre like presence on the sidelines and no doubt in the stadium’s underbelly too. He is in essence a bully in the school yard, and the referees clearly do anything they can to get on his good side, to suck up to him and receive his approval and admiration. It is certainly an effective strategy and Ferguson has it mastered. It is that as much as his side’s undeniable quality that makes Old Trafford such an imposing destination.

The same can be applied to situations where high profile players are treated leniently. Fame and popularity is a hugely desirable thing for the human mind, and everyone knows that some people will do all they can to suck up to and feed off the fame of others. In this case, referees treat superstar players with a respect and almost blatant admiration. It is clear for all to see when Steven Gerrard strides about the Anfield turf laughing and joking with a fawning referee, and the likes of Terry and Lampard do the same in London.

Today at Blackburn, we witnessed another way in which this phenomenon displays itself. Allardyce’s public announcement that Cahill was treated too leniently resembled to me nothing more than a juicy bit of gossip. We all remember back in high school when rumours would abound about who had got up to what with who at the weekend and secretly we all knew that it wasn’t true. But it had a way of taking hold of people, they would believe it and spread it and ultimately become accepted. Allardyce’s words had the same effect on Wiley today. He was sucked in by this pronouncement and then when the time came, he did all he could to act on it, giving ridiculous decisions against Cahill and his team mates.

What this tells me is that the old fashioned picture that I have of a referee as a no nonsense, tough talking authority figure who won’t take no shit from nobody is sadly out of date. It is an ideal picture in an un-ideal world. Instead what we have, the picture that I have painted here is of some starstruck pushover desperate for the love and admiration of anyone and willing to sacrifice almost any principle to achieve it. It is not a pretty picture and some referees are certainly worse than others, but I think it poses huge questions about the integrity of those men in whom we trust the officiation of our greatest sport.

Surely they must sometimes look back on decisions and feel guilt and disgust at themselves? Surely they cannot be proud of the extent to which they pander up to people? Surely they cannot feel and pride in how readily they sacrifice the laws and rules of the game simply to try and gain a bit more on a  personal level. Sitting here, I hope Alan Wiley is looking back over his decisions in tonight’s game and feeling embarrassed to have been so influenced by such a pile of utter rubbish.

But they don’t seem to be, or if they are, they don’t let it show or change them. All to rare is it that we hear a referee concede that he made a mistake, and even rarer to see him apologise to the wronged player or club. And there is no improvement in refereeing either. The standards seem to be on a downward spiral, and one would assume that if they did feel ashamed of their actions they would surely attempt to put them right from then on. No, indeed, we must conclude that they simply do not care that they are ruining the sport and embarrassing themselves.

But how to rectify this worrying trend? It seems clear to me that something needs to be done, but unfortunately, I am unable to put my finger on any real solution to the problem. Ideally we would reduce the infamy of referees, it seems wrong that we know all their names and are constantly greeted by their preceding reputation and that will only encourage further attempts to occupy the lime light. But this is an unrealistic goal, because while football remains so in the spotlight, so will the referees, especially as decisions will always be made incorrectly sometimes.

Is it possible to reduce the influence that players and managers can have on the referees? We need them to be entirely unaffected by off the pitch issues, out of touch with press conferences and other goings on in the football world, but this too is perhaps an unrealistic ideal. We cannot ask referees to simply step out of society and emerge only on a weekly basis to officiate a match before being locked away again – it is inhumane (insert one of many “referee’s aren’t human” quips here). The fact is, that while we rely on human officiation, we must contend not only with human error – which we can accept – but also human fallibility and bias – which we cannot.

Some will argue that the answer to this is to initiate some sort of independent adjudicator to have the ability to overrule the referees decision, and thus add a second level of officiation, to correct the referees wrongs. This has been directly suggested in the debate over goal line technology, but is it feasible to have a sort of ‘referral’ system for all decisions within a match. Yes it may solve the problem of a referee’s flaws, but will it impact on the game more than an errant ref? I have to believe that it would.

The conclusion of this article then, is essentially that refereeing in this country is almost corrupt at it’s very centre. That human beings as a whole are so fallible means that referees suffer from an innate inability to remain as unbiased as they need to be to officiate fairly. However, while this conclusion is reached, no superior solution can be found. Should we turn to an artificial officiation system and risk further disrupting our game, or should we make the best of what we have? Let the discussion begin, for this is not simply a question for one man, but one that is being asked of football fans the world over.

Click here to read Part Two of this debate.

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One Response to Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Part One.

  1. […] article. If you read and enjoy this piece, then please check out the first part by clicking here. Also, if you do read the other one, you can find this article plus a bit more introduction and […]

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