Sunday 19 January 2020

It's madness to believe players will follow official line

Richard Sadlier

Conversations around football are awash with bullshit at the best of times. Listen long enough, and you'll hear the same myths repeated again and again. One which particularly baffles me is the notion that former professional players would make the best referees at the top level. Ignoring for a moment that it will probably never happen, I just don't believe for a minute that it's true.

I read an article last week which called for former pros to be fast-tracked up the rankings in order to referee in the Premier League as soon as possible. It was deemed to be the silver bullet that would address concerns about refereeing standards in the game today. It's not the worst argument I've come across, but it's certainly not far off it.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to notice this, but I haven't heard of many players with ambitions of becoming a match official after they retire. Former Huddersfield, Bradford City and Chesterfield defender Steve Baines progressed as far as the Football League Referees' List in 1995 after he finished playing in 1987, but he remains the only ex-League player with a career of any note. Not one ex-player has ever officiated in the Premier League. So with no evidence anywhere to support the idea, you'd be right to wonder where it's all coming from.

There have been countless claims from players and pundits (former players) and managers (mostly former players) that only those who have played the game can fully understand it. I agree there are certain aspects which can only be appreciated by those directly involved, but I'm unconvinced as to how this relates to refereeing and the ability to make the correct call on a more consistent basis than the current lot.

Physical fitness levels are not an issue with the existing officials, so no gain would arise there. I've no idea what qualities people believe exist in a player which referees lack that would make a blind bit of difference to their decision-making abilities. Also, all ex-players have allegiances to clubs as well as relationships with many players and managers still working. Has nobody considered how this may influence their performance?

In any case, I'm not sure many players' egos would be able to cope with such a demotion in the ranks. Officials are jeered by everyone, supported by nobody and respected by very few. That's quite a dramatic shift in status for anyone with experience of playing at professional level. Obviously, most players have been mocked and slagged by spectators many times, but it's offset by adulation from their own. There are no such trade-offs for referees, as relentless bollocking is often all they get. When referees do interviews they are generally accompanied by snide remarks that they should be seen and not heard. Demand for their views only arises when they are deemed to have gotten things wrong. Such conditions don't appeal to everyone, but they wouldn't encourage many ex-pros to get involved either.

Of all the players I've ever come into contact with, not one had the slightest consideration to become a match official after retiring. On numerous occasions I was given advice (unsolicited in the majority of cases) on directions to take when I finished playing, but nobody once suggested being a referee. If you've seen up close what the role entails, it never comes into your thinking.

Players play their part in attempts to manipulate and con match officials. This can range from falsely claiming a throw-in to deliberately faking injury. Managers have been banned from discussing match officials prior to games for fear their comments can influence their performance, and are regularly sanctioned for criticising them afterwards. As for supporters, nothing quite unites them as a sense of injustice from the officials. They're not shy about giving their feedback either. Players know all this, which accounts for their lack of interest in ever giving it a go.

The poorest suggestion I've heard is the idea that managers should be entitled to challenge decisions during a game with the aid of a television monitor. Those who ascribe to this are often the same people who believe players are better equipped to referee than those who have never played. If both come into being, we will eventually have a scenario where managers and former players are making all the calls. Whatever your views are on the current standard, it's surely a damn sight more preferable than that.

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