The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 40

August 21, 2010


The first professional football match which I ever attended was at Ibrox in the days when it was a Park rather than a Stadium. In my youthful ignorance I was totally besotted with Rangers and desperately wanted them to win. I was naive enough to think that Rangers were playing according to the same rules as the other team, and that the spectators knew what these rules were. It took only a few minutes for me to be rudely disabused of both quaint notions. Every time a Rangers player lost the ball in a tackle the crowd roared for a free kick. Every time a ‘Gers player committed a blatant foul there was a furious row when the opposition were awarded a free kick.

By the time I’d seen half a dozen Rangers games, all juvenile objectivity had fled from my assessment of the play, and I became part of the baying mob howling for every decision to go in favour of the light blues.

Since then I’ve attended at nearly a thousand matches (losing my allegiance to the ‘Gers along the way) and I have seen that all football supporters share the common characteristic of being completely unable to reach an even remotely objective view of official decisions adversely affecting their team. Every Saturday, thousands of us leave football grounds harbouring a genuine desire to do serious damage to the match officials.

Since most of us retain some vestiges of sanity, our grievances are usually forgotten by the time we’ve swallowed our third post-match pint. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that for a minority of psychotic individuals who regard a dodgy offside decision as proof of a conspiracy to “get” their team. Modern technology has been called in to assist these sad people jump from simple maladjustment to full-blown neurosis. They can be treated to endless slow-motion, freeze-frame, reverse-angle re-runs of a particular incident to prove conclusively that the referee made a terrible gaffe.

And what’s more, he probably did it deliberately, the bastard.

Whistling In The Wind?

In recent years, the spotlighting of refereeing blunders has become a major preoccupation of the media. It’s not difficult to see why. Newspapers thrive on controversy. The press has a vested interest in stirring up trouble. There are thousands of dimwits who like to have their Saturday afternoon anger rekindled on a Monday morning by some tosspot journalist writing about “blatantly offside” goals and “mysterious” penalties. Fuelled by media agitation, there has been a fierce “debate” ongoing for a year or two about “the state of refereeing in this country”. During this “debate” there has been an inordinate amount of guff talked. Most of it has proceeded on the basis that the modern referees are not as good as their predecessors.

We’re told of the great referees of the past like Tiny Wharton and er,…Tiny Wharton. What can you remember about Wharton? That he was called “Tiny” because he was seven foot four, and that was just his waist measurement. That he never made a mistake? Don’t make me laugh. Tiny and his contemporaries were fortunate to be on the go at a time before television had got fully into its stride as the Nemesis of football. Television’s role in the denigration of referees is pivotal. All the really controversial incidents, you know the ones which you and your mates argue about for months, just happen to have been televised.

Coincidence? Nah, it’s just that television offers visual “proof’ that it was offside, it wasn’t a penalty, etc. Since the televised matches are likely to be the ones involving the “big” clubs, a really marvellous situation develops whereby the errors by the referee are likely to incense the largest number of viewers.

Into this happy situation steps the tabloid press and radio phone-ins, and hey presto, you’ve got a campaign to “do something about referees”.

Let’s examine the various proposals which have been circulating recently.

The Unspoken Rule

Firstly, there have been continuing demands for referees to be allowed “free speech”, as though the SFA were operating like a Stalinist Ministry of Information. This is usually lumped in with demands for similar free speech for managers and players, who are portrayed as being “gagged”. Just think about this for a moment. Let’s say that Graeme Souness was still manager of Rangers. Let’s say that in the wake of a defeat by Celtic his “uncensored” opinion was that “Peter Grant is a cheating bastard and I’d like to kick his ugly face in”. Would this be helpful to our understanding of the game?

“Free speech” in this context would merely be a licence to whine and backbite. The media know this perfectly well, which is why they are in favour of it. Nothing would increase sales as much as a rabid rant by a manager in which he libelled everyone in sight.

While “freedom of speech” for managers would simply let the crazies out of the box, what would it do for referees? Nothing. If a referee was to attend a press conference he’d invariably be confronted by a pack of journalistic wolves hungry for blood. What would be the point of it? It’s not as though the result of the match would be altered by anything the ref said after the game.

It is said that the referee should have the opportunity to explain his decisions.

Crap. Everybody knows quite well why every decision has been taken. You might not agree that it was a penalty but you know why it’s been given. Take, for example, David Syme’s decision to award a penalty against Airdrie in the league cup semi-final. No-one was in any doubt why he’d given the penalty, though most folk (excluding Dunfermline fans, natch) thought he was wrong. The purpose of the press conference would not be to ask him why he gave the penalty, but would be to show him the video tape and ask him to explain his blunder. What does he say? That he was wrong? Where does that leave us? Does that make the Airdrie fans feel any better? Is the match to be replayed?

If that’s the case then we’ll still be playing this season till the end of the century. In the wake of that particular game it seemed to be forgotten that Airdrie were only in the semi-final as a result of some truly grotesque refereeing decisions in their favour which enabled them to beat a Dumbarton team which was reduced to eight men. Of course that match wasn’t televised and no-one gives a toss about Dumbarton.

Public Enemy

What about referees being hooked up via a microphone to the Public Address system, so that they can explain their decisions directly to the crowd at the time.

Again, for the reasons specified above, this isn’t necessary, and if anything, would prove to be even more provocative than the present situation.

It’s bad enough having a goal for your team “chalked off’ without having to suffer the referee explaining the reason why. The explanation is really going to mollify the crowd and I don’t fucking think. The real reason for this proposal being advanced is not to inform the crowd, but it’s to make it easier for the media ghouls to criticise the official in their post-mortem dissection of the game.

Occasionally a player is cautioned for “speaking out of turn”. Most people of average intelligence are able to work out the reason for the yellow card without being exponents of lip-reading. Do we really need to have the ref announcing, “I have cautioned this player for telling me to shove my whistle up my arse”?

If we start the game with the referee wired up to the PA system we will surely end it with him wired up to the mains. Mark my words.

Video Nasties

Another fabulous high-tech proposal is for the ref to be in contact with a fourth official in a video booth, who can view an instant replay of controversial incidents. Apart from the annoying fact that football is not at all suited to being repeatedly stopped for the review of decisions, there are a number of other practical difficulties. For example, just where is the video booth to be located at such hyper-modem venues like Cliftonhill or Ochilview? Who is paying for the installation of the equipment? What happens if the camera goes on the blink at a crucial moment? What happens if you get a “Geoff Hurst goal v Germany 1966″ situation where your view of whether it was a goal very much depends on your nationality? It would only be a matter of time before we’d hear chants of “Who’s the mason in the video-booth?”. Chick Young would be demanding freedom of speech for the ”booth-man”, and the press would be deploring the standards of “the modem video-operative” and calling for foreign tape arbiters to be imported for big games.

In any case, who would decide which decisions were to be reviewed? Surely not the myopic, biased bastard of a referee who caused all the trouble in the first place.

Could a throw-in given to the wrong team be reviewed? It may indirectly lead to a goal. Is the decision to review to be done by a democratic popular acclamation process? (ie – all decisions adverse to the Old Firm to be reviewed – Dumbarton, Forfar, Stranraer, etc get to fuck – as usual).

(Don’t) Call The Professionals

How about having professional referees? Frankly, I don’t see how this would help.

Perhaps the refs would be fitter, though as far as I am aware, very few of the complaints are directed at the physical unfitness of the officials. I can’t really see what difference it would have made to David Syme’s penalty award if he had been earning £50,000 a year, and had spent the week swotting up the rule book. The fact is that he thought that it was a hand-ball inside the penalty area. That’s a penalty whether he’s getting paid a salary or not.

In any event, what would happen to an incompetent professional referee? At the moment, if a ref doesn’t measure up he can simply be downgraded. If he was a pro he would have to be sacked, possibly losing his house, life-style and family into the bargain. He would have a right of appeal to an Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal. I think we should leave the lid on that particular can of worms.

Some say we should have ex-professional players as referees. Oh yeah! Roy Aitken taking charge of an Old Firm encounter. Aye, very good, very droll. The sad but true fact is that most professional footballers don’t know what the rules of the game are, are too stupid to learn, and are constitutionally dishonest. Let’s give this idea a decent burial.


OK, it’s all been destructive criticism so far. What about some constructive ideas? I exempt fans from the following suggestions, as they’re quite at liberty to call for referees to be ritually disembowelled. This is aimed at the clubs, players, managers and administrators.

Firstly, remember that to err is human and the ref is just as likely to make mistakes as the players. It wasn’t Syme’s fault that John Watson couldn’t score from the penalty spot. An amateur, doing it for the love of the game, made a serious error. A professional, doing it because it’s his job, made a no less serious error. Why heap all the blame on Syme? Secondly, the referee’s decision is final. The sight of players arguing with officials and the sound of clubs complaining about being hard done to are the most tiresome aspects of the modem game.

Free speech? Shut the bastards up is what I say.

Nothing which I have said will make any difference to those incurable paranoiacs who have convinced themselves that their team is being systematically victimised by referees. No names, no pack drill, but there is a team in one of our conurbations who feel that the dearth of penalties coming their way is due to more sinister forces than bad luck and a crap team. For them, no amount of microphone links, free speech, professional referees or video replays will make any difference. The referee is, always has been, and always will be, a bastard.

Call me an old reactionary (OK – Ed) but I don’t see any justification for tampering with the present arrangements simply to feed the media and appease the whining morons who will never be happy until, like the Rangers fans of my youth, every decision from the tossing of the coin to the final whistle goes their way.

Finally, a disclaimer. I have absolutely no connection with the SFA or the referees union.

I look forward with anticipation to the day when the Wee Red Book will record the result of the Cup Final as “Celtic 1 ­Rangers 0 (mistake by referee, Cup awarded to Rangers on a show of hands)”.

First published in TAG 26 – December 1991


One Response to “The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 40”

  1. Craig Campbell Says:

    Spot-on, as usual.

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