Watching the documentary on Graham Poll made me think. Not about how self-promoting it was, not about how actually he makes the odd good point only to contradict himself while doing the job, but about how a referee can ever call things straight down the line.
Let’s start at the beginning. What makes a referee choose to do such a job? The answer is simple – a love of football. They live for football, without playing it, the curse of the fanatic without talent. Their passion for the game has to be undiminished by the abuse they get from all quarters – managers, players, fans, general public. To me, these are all people who would play the game if they could.
Are they a bit mad? Quite probably. Not in many jobs do you get abused no matter which way you turn, while you ‘manage’ people earning far more than you do. Not often do you get chased and harangued by those same individuals, who are supposed to respect your every word.
But remember, they are fans, like you and me. They love the game, like you and me. And when was the last time you met a football fanatic who didn’t have some kind of allegiance?
When I was younger, I once held the ambition of being a football referee. It must’ve been a bad day. But now I wonder – how could I have taken charge of an Arsenal match and remained impartial?
You could argue that perhaps they should list their favourite teams early in their career and never referee them, but that’s not true of the top brass. And in any case, it goes much further than that.
I don’t consider myself to be anything out of the ordinary as a football fan. But just using myself as an example, I am an Arsenal fan, I have a respect for teams like Reading and Charlton (pre-Pardew). I want Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Spurs to lose every time they run out on the field, and if Bolton and Blackburn could have a shocker of the season I’d be even happier.
That’s half the Premiership. The story continues outside the top flight. But pick an average day in the Premiership and you’d struggle to find a match in which I didn’t care one jot about the outcome. Looking at the final day fixtures, Boro-Fulham sticks out, but with Lawrie Sanchez probably making Fulham Boltonesque long ball merchants next season, even that’ll change.
So back to the referees. They must glance at some scores and hope for a certain outcome, there must be clubs they don’t like, managers they don’t get on with, players they can’t respect. And for them it’s even more present as they personally know the characters. How can you possibly fairly referee Robbie Savage when you know, from two feet away, how repugnant he is?
You can take this as far as you like. Take a average cup game between a Premiership team and a lower league one. If the lesser team are manfully battling away and impressing you, who do you find yourself wanting to win? Now imagine how hard it is for a referee when a player from the top flight team appears to be clipped in the box with two minutes to go, and you look around to see those same players you admired out on their feet, exhausted and desperately hoping you don’t give it.
In recent times Germany and Italy have been hit with match fixing scandals. We may at times find our referees to be incompetent (as I regularly do), but at least they don’t appear to show much sign of bias. You get the odd thing that makes you raise your eyebrows, but when we criticise referees, we don’t tend to question their impartiality, only their ability.
When you take everything into account, that’s quite some achievement.