Much has been written about this season’s Respect Campaign but I fear that it is doomed to failure. Respect, as they say, is earned but for today’s referees what we all demand of them in return for our respect is an impossible ask and all of us who sit in judgment contribute in one way or another to this lottery. Worst of all in this whole equation is the lack of honesty from players.
To explore what I mean by honesty I refer back to two great players of former decades. Tommy Smith (The Anfield Iron) and, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris had two key things in common. They were both known as hard men, uncompromising and committed. They were also completely honest in their approach to the game. Both played at the highest level and won top honours, while attracting the attention of the boo boys.
When Smith or Harris tackled someone they stayed tackled. Nobody showboated around these guys unless they had a death wish. Faced with a prancing series of step over’s from Ronaldo, Smith or Harris would most likely have kicked him into row six of the stand, tied his legs together and given him some serious advice on future conduct.
If Smith and Harris came together in a full blooded tackle the resulting crunch could stop traffic, while the main stand moved 3 or 4 inches on its foundations. The two would get-up with a snarl of appreciation, a begrudging pat on the back for each other and get on with it. It was important to these guys not to let their opponent think he had hurt them and feigning injury or diving to con the referee would have been about as foreign as… well an Arsenal first choice eleven.
They gave no quarter and expected none in return. Both of course incurred the wrath of referees on a regular basis but Smith was only ever sent off once. Nowadays, I suspect they’d seldom see out 90 minutes. Even with the hardest of the hard, referees had the scope to make judgments. Hard but fair was acceptable and these two were nearly always fair. They knew where they stood with the referees and vice versa. Verbal exchanges were frequent and many referees welcomed them, but above all there was RESPECT.
FIFA’s Rule Tinkering
The boundaries back then were more black and white. All FIFA has achieved by tinkering constantly with the rules is to blur the boundaries and undermine the referees judgment. It’s ironic that those demanding more respect are the ones who have undermined the referees in the first place.
It used to be that football was accepted as a physical game and referees judged challenges on their merits as opposed to having preordained judgments handed to them. The tackle from behind didn’t merit an automatic booking, indeed it was an art form. It was accepted that to jump for a header a player needs some leverage from his arms and this may occasionally mean contact with an opponent. Again, each case was taken on its merits without the instruction to send the player off.
Goalkeepers could make an honest challenge to win the ball when one on one with an opponent, with the knowledge that even if they conceded a penalty they wouldn’t also be making the long walk to the dressing room. Today’s referees are caught between trying to apply the rules to the letter of the law or applying common sense and judgment where it is appropriate (at the risk of being disciplined by their associations).They are constantly treading a fine line and the players know it. More and more the players nowadays ‘assist’ the referee with his decision making by diving and feigning injury and dishonesty has become widespread.
Technology and Expectations
It is because of the multiple cameras on every incident that decisions come under such scrutiny these days. The referee can be tried on the spot by pundits, journalists, managers and fans alike. Despite the views from every angle it’s remarkable how often there still isn’t agreement. People see what they want to see.
We all talk about consistency from referees but what exactly are the expectations? As long as it’s one guy against 10 TV cameras there’s only ever going to be one winner. It’s madness to expect that a single human being running at speed while trying to control 22 players will spot everything and get his decisions consistent, never mind correct, all the time. If you demand that then you’d better start lobbying for multiple officials on the pitch and widespread use of video replay.
How often do top managers berate the referee when a key decision goes against them but say little when something goes in their favour? Arsene Wenger is notorious for ‘not seeing the incident’ when it goes in his teams favour but misses nothing when it goes against them. And he has plenty of company in this respect. When an ‘injustice’ has been done the manager always seems to have viewed it several times on replay before giving his post match interview, normally including a spanking for the ref. However, in the reverse situation its remarkable how many managers ‘haven’t had a chance to see the replay yet.’
Alex Ferguson’s response to the recent non-penalty against Bolton was to remind the nation that the referee ‘owed’ his team a few decisions like that!
How do you like your Wolf?
If things are to improve a start needs to be made somewhere, which brings us back to players and honesty.
Tommy Smith and Ron Harris played their roles with no side to them whatsoever. They were the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ and took everything that came with that. They didn’t pussy foot around. Dressing-up as Grandma to disguise themselves or pretend that they were something they were not was not on the agenda. These guys headed Little Red Riding Hood off at the first pass and made a quick meal of her. The only role for the woodcutter was collecting the remains on his way past.
Unfortunately, today there are far too many players who want to disguise themselves as Grandma and concentrate on conning people (referees, linesmen, the fans….ultimately themselves!) As a result, we lose sight of who the villain is in all of this. The players forever want the referee to be the villain, the easy fall guy when the decision isn’t to their liking. Poor rules, too little autonomy and lack of honesty make it impossible for him not to be. A ‘respect’ campaign can’t even begin to work as long as this situation prevails.
There are plenty of honest pros around today and it’s time for them AND the Manager’s Association to demand better standards of behaviour. A return to honesty is needed before the Respect Campaign can succeed.
I prefer my wolf to be up front just as Smith and Harris were. Then you know what you’re dealing with and good, bad or just plain ugly, at least there is no deception involved.
Now I can respect that.
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).