Conor McNamara: Rugby is complemented by referees... football is obsessed with them
48 hours after the Rugby World Cup Final I commentated on Tottenham versus Aston Villa for The BBC. I was working alongside John Motson, resplendent in his trademark sheepskin coat.
While rugby has been wowed by the All Blacks, football is currently obsessed with other Men In Black: The referees.
Motson is part the fabric and history of English football. He has seen it all before. Even Motty though, is perplexed at the mechanics of how the game is officiated.
“I’m confused with some of the procedures” he said on-air on Monday.
It says much about the general health of the game when Motty - the great statto – is confused by how football is being run.
Time perhaps to reassess which aspects of rugby could improve football.
I’ve long been an advocate of allowing medical staff to enter the field while play continues to reduce timewasting.
Once in a blue moon the ball might strike a physio on the pitch, but so what?
Either play on, if it’s in a neutral position, or stop for a drop ball. At least the stoppages would be far less frequent than the current system. If it’s a serous head injury or directly in the goalmouth then common sense applies and play stops as before.
The backchat to referees in football is so juvenile. Contrast with the opening minutes of the Rugby World Cup Final when Australia captain Stephen Moore attempted to talk to Nigel Owens. “Go away Stephen” was the curt response. And that was that.
Of course so much of the difference between rugby and football is the culture. There were roughly twice as many spectators at Twickenham than at White Hart Lane yet I bet there were less than a quarter of the number of police on duty.
After the Final New Zealand and Australia fans mingled and most enjoyed a drink together. At football matches spectators are not allowed to drink at their seats.
At the end of a game the 'away' fans are segregated behind high caged walls. They are ushered to their transport by police with horses and riot gear. Often helicopters hover overhead.
Surely treating football spectators like caged animals actually encourages the bad behaviour and lack of camaraderie among opposing groups.
Where I do have sympathy for referees is the clamour for officials to come out and publically explain their decisions after games.
This is a bad idea.
People may want the satisfaction of hearing an apology from the men in charge, but if a referee makes a mistake he feels worse about it than anybody.
If referees regularly faced the TV cameras to explain their judgements inevitably some referees would be better at articulating the situation than others.
These 'smooth talkers' would become popular figures and public demand would ensure they are given higher profile games.
This is the trouble. We would end up with the best talkers and the best spin doctors. We would not end up with the best referees.
Take the example of an official who gets 99.9% of his decisions correct but when he does drop a clanger he is bad at explaining it. I would still prefer this good referee to be in charge of a game rather than a smooth talker who can wriggle himself out of a tricky situation.
Another myth with referees surrounds what managers can and can’t say about them in the media.
When I interview managers for Match Of The Day I often hear them say: “Well, I’d love to tell you what I really think about those refereeing decisions, but I’d only get in trouble…. I don’t want to get fined.”
This is a shrewd but inaccurate answer.
It conveys to fans that a bad result is not the fault of the manager or his team. Crucially, the manager doesn’t have to get into the specifics under a smokescreen of the fear of being fined.
The truth is that managers never get fined for saying a referee got a particular decision wrong.
Managers only get fined if they question the integrity of the referee. You cannot accuse a referee of being biased.
By all means say a referee got a judgement wrong, just don’t say he did it on purpose. Or because he doesn’t like your team. Or because he is afraid to give a decision against the opposition.
The measure of a good referee, same as a good TV commentator, is when things are going really well you’d hardly know he is there.