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Who Wants To Be A Match Official? Beuller? Beuller? Beuller?

Wednesday 22nd March 2017
While examining Gareth Southgate's unique selection headache as England manager, I came across an interesting statistic. According to Economics of Sport, England is among the easiest places to get a game, having more football clubs per capita and registered player than almost every other nation, but is nowhere to be found among countries well-stocked with match officials. That's a critical contradiction. Pundits often bemoan poor quality among top flight referees. You Are the Ref focused on the FA's casual attitude towards cultivating match officials in a 2015 diatribe. Its rant singled out Howard Webb, then newly assigned to lead the Premier League's referee development program. Webb, of course, has since left that post, moving back into broadcasting full time. Meanwhile, Mark Clattenburg recently resigned from his Premier League job, a Middle East post more favorable to his trained eye. Two factors not taken seriously when assessing the referee shortage are the mounting abuse a match official endures at all levels and the near complete absence of support they receive from league officials.
Yes, managers like José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger are handed match bans for arguing, bumping or merely criticizing referees. The FA does make minimal noise regarding its Respect campaign, designed to foster a more empathetic view towards referees and coaches at all levels. Yet, it refuses to comment negatively or positively on individual performances.

Take the recent Manchester United/AFC Bournemouth match refereed by Kevin Friend. Yes, the one in which Tyrone Mings was not red-carded for stamping on Zlatan Ibrahimović's head, Zlatan was not sent off for retaliating with a bit of free rhinoplasty, and Andrew Surman was when given a second yellow for shoving Dr Ibra to the ground. On its face--pardon the pun there, Tyrone--defending Friend after acknowledging all that seems impossible. It isn't. The fact is, Friend couldn't see either of the first two offenses. A fallen Wayne Rooney and a Bournemouth player standing in his line of sight obstructed Friend's respective views. He cannot act on what he hasn't seen and, if another set of sanctioned eyes do not inform him something has gone on, his cards must remain pocketed. End of.

Had Friend seen the first offense, the other two would not have occurred. Mings, also a Bournemouth player, would have been sent packing, rather than Surman. Thus, for all the bellicosity which followed in print and on social media, everything worked out in the end, with one pharmaceutical stocks benefiting from an unexpected surge in headache pills and Friend's analyst collecting a few bob for an emergency session.

The FA could have issued a statement noting Friend's sight lines were obscured, that he followed protocol, and his actions had no adverse affect on the outcome. It remained silent.
Worse, Keith Hackett, formerly in charge of Premier League officials, a retired referee, and You Are The Ref's in-house authority pilloried Friend in the Telegraph. He trotted out the tired trope:

Ultimately, the referees are paid to get these big decisions right and to control the proceedings but he was almost sleeping, allowing things to go. When that happens, the authority and respect goes and the players decide to start looking after themselves.

He then catalogued the fouls which led up to Surman's red card, adding:

Friend then forgot that he'd already booked Andrew Surman and he's really lucky that his assistant got him out of jail. It was a desperately poor performance, coming on the same day as Anthony Taylor's bewildering penalty decision in the game between Swansea and Burnley. Taylor is one of our top referees but he was in a good position and got it 100% wrong. Sam Vokes was clearly the player who handled the ball and it was so clear. Why didn't Taylor talk to the assistant referees and say 'have I got this wrong'?

There is so much wrong with a former referee turning on one of his own to see his name in print. Nevertheless, Hackett decided to go for a twofer. First though, Friend is not "really lucky" his assistant reminded him Surman was already on a yellow. It is their job to communicate and why they are miked to one another. Yet, amazingly in the same breath, Hackett suggested Anthony Taylor should have asked his assistant whether he'd botched the controversial decision in his match. His hypocrisy unbounded, Hackett also claimed Taylor was in good position to get his call correct whereas he conveniently ignored the fact Friend's view was twice blocked.

Hackett last took charge of a match in 1994. The Premier League was still in diapers. Digital technology did not exist. We could not watch high definition, super slow motion replays depicting a lone referee failing to track twenty-two players and a ball's movement simultaneously. Hackett's an old coot but he's been on television and internet enough to realize this generation's match officials are hung out to dry. He may think he was a better official than the freshfaced kids coming up the pike these days but the truth is there weren't enough cameras back in the day to capture his mistakes.
For its part, the FA must be populated by the townsfolk from High Noon who sent Gary Cooper out into the street to face four outlaws alone. It does know what technology can do yet appears unwilling to place it at the contemporary referee's disposal. Completely isolated, armed with only a tin whistle, it's no wonder so many referees get shot down.

And press and supporters? They are children who treat match officials worse than babysitters and substitute teachers. The FA's message regarding Respect is falling on deaf ears. Its webpage offering a view through a referee's eyes doesn't interact until you register. How many visitors do you think simply move on rather than go through the effort? Aren't apathetic souls the ones whose minds most need changing?

The Telegraph, to its credit, has been reporting on growing abuse at lower levels in English football for some time. Coincidentally, lower levels are where referees moonlight to learn their trade, working for a pittance evenings and weekends to "get the big decisions right." If they are regularly targeted for physical assault, as well as verbal, what incentive have they to continue? Recently, the FA announced it would be revitalizing and relaunching its Respect campaign to combat this trend. Hopefully, it will make interactive portions more easily accessible to help change minds.

Altering public mindset regarding match officials is arguably a higher priority than implementing video review technology or adding a second referee. After all, how can you do the latter, if no one is interested in the job?
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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