Friday 15 December 2017

Stop pretending we hate talking about referees - we love it

Referee Jonathan Moss. Photo: PA
Referee Jonathan Moss. Photo: PA

Jonathan Liew

Yes, I know. And I am sorry. As we keep hearing, nobody likes talking about referees. Fewer still like reading about them. It feels dirty, self-demeaning, a waste of good eyesight. You probably even groaned when you saw a picture of a referee on the page.

Like politicians, referees come in two varieties: contemptible ones, and the ones you have not heard of yet. This, I reckon, is the real reason they traditionally wear black. Black is the colour of bondage and subjugation, sadism and humiliation. Referee kits are the gimp suits of football, and the men inside them are our stupid little punch bags.

Football fans are notorious for being argumentative, but on this subject they speak as one: referees are overpaid, error-prone, attention-seeking and unfailingly biased in favour of the opposition, whoever it may be.

This bloodletting has even spread to former referees, the most famous of whom now assail their colleagues in the media. After Mark Clattenburg awarded Tottenham a dubious penalty against Manchester City in February, for example, Graham Poll was scathing.

"I'm afraid he broke the golden rule of officiating," Poll fumed in his newspaper column, and we can only guess at the appropriate precious metal applied to the rule of not awarding more than two yellow cards to the same player in a single match.

And so we come to poor Jonathan Moss (right), whose performance at Leicester versus West Ham on Sunday was both assertive and weak, attention-seeking and responsibility shirking, depending on who you ask.

For days Moss' decisions were dissected in gastroenterological detail by a media that retains an unnatural fixation with "incidents" over actual football.

"Of course, we have to discuss that penalty appeal," Gary Lineker will say apologetically on Match of the Day, before launching into the first of 32 slow-motion replays .

If people want better officiating there is a simple solution, and again the political parallel is apt. In a poll after the 2009 expenses scandal, 60pc said British MPs were overpaid. Just 5pc thought they were underpaid. Spot a disconnect there? Low pay was one of the factors that motivated the MPs to diddle their expenses. We want incorruptible politicians, it seems, but we want them to earn a pittance.

Refereeing is equally precarious Abuse, even violence are common, salaries drop off alarmingly outside a very small elite, and you are generally done before you turn 50. So, why not pay accordingly and promote them vigorously, mic them up, turn the best into millionaire household names?

Yet something in the football psyche kicks against this. We want referees to be infallible and yet implacable, robotic with a human touch and, ideally, working for nothing. It is why people react with such ridicule when Clattenburg gets an agent or goes to an Ed Sheeran concert. The idea that referees are humans with emotions is too complex .

At any rate, it is probably time to dispose of the myth that we hate talking about referees. We love it. We watch football not for its empathy or its nuance, but for its simple, brutal fictions.

As long as the stupid referees carry on waving their stupid arms, there will always be someone to blame for our team's defeat. There will always be someone less fortunate, less capable than us. This is our little reverie, and these are our useful idiots in black.

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