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We need to stop talking about referees

Every time you complain about a decision, a fairy dies.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

We need to talk about referees. Actually, that's not right. We need to do exactly the opposite: we need to ignore them. We need to cast them from our minds and our discourse. We need to most emphatically not talk about Kevin Friend.

On Saturday, top of the table Chelsea hosted middle of the relegation zone Burnley. Ashley Barnes, as you may have heard, did something unspeakable to Nemanja Matic's leg, and so Matic, by way of a response, pushed him in the chest. Out came the red card, off went Matic, on stayed Barnes, and along came Burnley's equaliser. And, then, off on one went Mourinho.

It's now Tuesday, and the only positive to have emerged from the whole business is that "Barnesgate" hasn't really caught on. The odd contradiction at the heart of the FA's policy — it will reverse wrong decisions in one direction, by revoking red cards, but it won't issue red cards when the referee has seen the incident — has been exposed, again; there have been calls for wider powers of review; there has been chuntering about a refereeing crisis. The referee, Martin Atkinson, will not take charge of a Premier League game this weekend, which sounds like a reward but is presumably meant as some kind of punishment.

Anyway, all this must end. A refereeing mistake — if it was even that — cannot and must not dominate the news cycle three days later. Not because it's hopeless, though it is, since the twin forces of subjectivity and partisanship conspire to render most important decisions irreconcilably controversial. Nor because it's unfair, though it is that too, since almost all refereeing criticism is made with the benefit of slow-motion multi-angle replay, which is rather like having a go at somebody for not understanding a book they haven't read.

Not even because it's near impossible to actually reach any conclusion on whether refereeing standards have declined, though it is. On the one hand, it certainly seems as though each week brings a new head-shaker of a decision, and logic might suggest that the ever-increasing pace and professionalism of elite football might end up leaving the referees a touch behind. But then the Professional Game Match Officials Board regularly churn out statistics showing — or purporting to show, at any rate — that refereeing standards are improving overall, and it's tempting to wonder if the problem is not with our officials, but with ourselves, and our media, and the saturated, hysterical state of modern footballing existence. Are there really more poor decisions? Or is each one simply louder?

The reason we need to stop talking about referees is because it is boring.

No. The reason we need to stop talking about referees is because it is boring. Really, really, really, really, really boring. Take José Mourinho's unscheduled Sunday morning appearance on Sky Sports. It was fine television — mostly thanks to the unusual sight of somebody on Sky saying something critical of Sky — but strip away the novelty and the amusing jabs at Arsène Wenger, and you're left with ... what? The world is full of nasty people who do not like the Chelsea. That's pretty tedious, even for a man of Mourinho's considerable charisma.

Mourinho has his reasons, of course, and none of those are to do with the overall standard of refereeing in the country. (He won't be turning down any dodgy penalties.) But he illustrates the point that in general, refereeing chat is absolutely terrible to listen to, to read, to write, to encounter, to experience, to co-exist alongside. None of this is particularly the fault of the people involved, fans and journalists and pundits alike, who are only trying to get through their jobs and lives, but nevertheless it adds up to a smothering cloud of tedium, a discourse composed of nothing but tutting, pedantry, oneupmanship and self-righteousness. It makes interesting people dull and it makes dull people unbearable. There is perhaps no greater crime.

(And yes, this entire piece has been about referees, and yes, there is an irony there, but then that rather proves the point. Imagine if this had been 800 words about something engaging, something amusing, something transcendent, something diverting. Alvaro Recoba's free kicks, perhaps, or Naranjito's twinkling smile. Imagine how much happier we would all be.)

Is there a solution? It would be nice to think that we could all be grown-ups about this, that we could learn to treat bad refereeing decisions as random acts of unkindness from an uncaring universe, that we could be content to let the perpetrators go on their way, one flawed human being recognised as such by millions more. But apparently we can't; apparently football is just Too Damn Important for a contentious penalty decision to be allowed to slide from memory as an inconvenience.

The key, perhaps, lies in the very dullness. If we could somehow attach to refereeing chatter the same social stigma we attach to other profoundly dull topics of conversation — other people's holiday photos, for example — then we could, perhaps, start to minimise its intrusion into our lives. Something that should be avoided as far as possible, debated only when necessary, and then in apologetic terms. Sorry for wasting your time with all this, but ...

Would we lose anything? It might be suggested that a certain dialing down of scrutiny could, in turn, lead to the (further, if you like) decline of refereeing standards. This seems a strangely contemptuous position, born perhaps out of a more general disdain for officials. After all, being a referee isn't like many other jobs, where a bit of judicious slacking might help the day slip past. It's a difficult job with stringent entry requirements and enormous pressure, and the suggestion that officials can only be spurred into performance by the fear of castigation assumes that they are not dedicated human beings who like football and who are in possession of a modicum of self-respect and a sense of professional pride, but are instead cats  — only able to learn from a mistake if we rub their face in it.

(And who knows. Perhaps referees who aren't living in fear of being dragged through the press after every game might feel more able to give marginal decisions in unpopular directions. Easy to swallow a whistle when gulping nervously.)

Of course, the FA might interpret a general quietening of the noise as acceptance, even approval, of the oddities left in their system. Maybe we could arrange some sort of trade-off: we'll agree to stop banging on about, entirely on the condition that they agree to make slightly more rational use of the technology available to them, and to make slightly more rational decisions on the appropriate lengths of suspensions.

So, anyway, a proposal. We all allow ourselves a couple of hours after any game to bitch, whine, moan and carp — we're only human, after all — and then we just stop. At least in mixed company; groups of enthusiasts can get up to whatever they like in the privacy of their own forums. If it comes up after that, we change the subject, tactfully or otherwise. Journalists asking other questions and writing other thinkpieces, bloggers writing about something else, readers ignoring them when they don't. Imagine the bliss that would come from this being the last article on refereeing you ever read.

We do so for ourselves, and for each other. We do so because we can choose to; football, being what it is, can be whatever we want it to be, but if it is a thing that is not fun, then we're doing it wrong. Let's do it right. After all, the alternative is to spend the rest of our three score and 10 watching endless replays from countless angles, attempting to discern intent in the angle of a stud, then shouting at and about people who don't have that luxury. Wasting our own time, and ruining everybody else's. It's no way to live.