Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Criticism of Referees: Form an orderly queue...

We seem to be stuck in a perpetual loop where British football's concerned. Every single week we hear from any number of club managers moaning about the quality of refereeing in this country, yet nothing ever seems to get done about it.

Just the other day we had Mark Hughes, manager of Blackburn Rovers, criticising referee Phil Dowd for not giving two penalties that he felt his side deserved against Tottenham. Before that, Watford boss Andy Bothroyd took exception to referee Chris Foy who awarded Portsmouth a last-minute penalty that lead to Harry Redknapp's side taking all three points, and before that Jose Mourinho was questioning Graham Poll's impartiality in matches that involved his Chelsea side. These are just the most recent examples. There are plenty more if you look for them.

The newspaper back pages are regularly littered with stories of coaches and managers outraged at how their team has been wronged by the actions of the referee, but where is all this leading to and what's really going on?

Well for a start, many of the penalty flashpoints are coming about because of players diving in the area - getting an unfair advantage by deception, as it were. One has to ask whether managers are asking their teams to play fairly by not diving? If they were, perhaps we'd see fewer problems of this kind occurring. Football is, after all, a game of skill and has no place for cheating, despite what Diego Maradona would have us believe.

A lot of the time, referees are accused of misjudging offside decisions and handball incidents. These are the sort of things that happen in a game which referees and linesmen can only judge correctly so often. Sometimes they get it wrong and it's always been that way, so why are there now calls for technology to be used to ratify their decisions? It seems that the term 'referees are only human' doesn't cut the mustard these days, but then the media are partially to blame for attitudes changing so dramatically.

Many years ago, a controversial refereeing decision would have brought about, at most, a grumble by the manager affected and possibly a square inch of comment in the sports pages of the Sunday newspapers. Nowadays, managers have a microphone thrust in their face the minute they step off the field at the end of a game and are asked to tell the world what they felt about the preceding ninety minutes at the one time when their emotions are running at their highest. It's therefore hardly surprising that they sometimes come across as being a tad upset.

The tabloid press are also keen to fan the flames of outrage, citing the latest tirades from the merry band of Premiership bosses. Sensationalism, it seems, is what people want to see when they pick up their daily paper. Balanced, well-written journalism that gives an account of events in their true proportions apparently isn't.

The only aspect of the game remaining where technology could be put to good use is where the ball may or may not have crossed the goal line, and that only ever happens once in a blue moon. Even so, it's at least an instance critical enough to warrant an exact scientific judgement, rather than a flawed human one.

The good news is that things might be about to change. Keith Hackett, head of the Premier Game Match Officials Board, is about to put forward a document detailing how the game could benefit from the use of technology to the Premier League. The bad news is that it will only focus on the 'ball crossing the goal-line' scenario, although it's hoped that the report will provide the necessary impetus to look at other aspects of the game in future.

But do we really want the intrusion caused by all this hi-tech proficiency? Former referee David Elleray has voiced his own concerns: "One of the greatest attractions of football over almost any other sport is that it's almost non-stop action. I went to Twickenham the other day to watch quite an exciting rugby game, but it was constantly stopping, not least for video referee decisions."

He may have a point, but will it stop the constant stream of furious criticism from managers week in, week out? For now, perhaps not as changes to the game are unlikely to be applied in the near future, but in the meantime it's the managers themselves that need to address the way they and their team behave and to acknowledge the fact that errors of judgement by match officials are a part of the game. It's always been thus and they know this to be the case before every match their team plays, so a change in attitude could go a long way to ensuring we don't get to read the same vitriolic outpourings for any longer than we have to.

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