The role of the officials is undoubtedly pivotal. It is a role that many fans feel that they could do, but in reality, many of them would have to be stretchered off after five minutes. It is frankly amazing that, despite the hailstorm of abuse that flies down from the stands week after week, they continue to turn out, and on the whole do a very good job. It must be pretty difficult to keep your cool when constantly addressed with the (presumably rhetorical) question, ‘are you blind?’
The referee and linesmen are, far too often, a convenient scapegoat and are used as a smokescreen for poor performance or lack of effort. I strongly suspect that they get a greater proportion of their decisions right than many of the players they are trying to control. It is common for managers to say things like, ‘if we had got that decision, we would have gone on to win’. This sort of argument was used by many England fans when we were knocked out by Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, after Frank Lampard’s shot was inexplicably not awarded as a goal. The decision was clearly incorrect, but the inept defending by England was immeasurably worse. Whether England would have gone on to win is a moot point, and we did not help our case thereafter.
It is also clear that managers almost always have rose-tinted spectacles when reviewing a game. Brendan Rodgers recently claimed that the officials made an ‘excellent decision’ when they wrongly allowed Christian Benteke’s goal to stand against Bournemouth. If the shoe had been on the other foot, the Liverpool manager is far more likely to have criticised them than grudgingly accepted that they were right. Of course, this is true for supporters, and it is certainly the case that the home crowd are far more likely to hold opposition players to account than one of their own.
It must also be said that, as well as managers and players being selective in their assessment of key decisions, they are also plainly dishonest. Possibly the most annoying sight in football is seeing a player claim for something, knowing that they were the guilty party. On realising that they have not been awarded the decision, they turn to the ref with the look of a child who has just been told that they will not be receiving their long-awaited ice cream. It is often said that a good referee should go virtually unnoticed, but that is almost impossible when faced with such childishness.
It has to be taken into account that many of these professionals are considerably older than the players. The referee also has to cover more ground than anyone else on the field. Then there is the psychologically damaging impact of making an early error. A player who has had a torrid first 45 minutes can be spared any more pain by being hauled off. The officials do not have that luxury.
Finally, it is important to consider the incredible vantage point that many fans get. We can see the whole expanse of the pitch from the relative comfort of our seats. It seems as though some pundits have forgotten that the officials do not have their bird’s-eye view. Incredibly, you do tend to come to the correct conclusion after viewing an incident from ten different angles in super slow-motion.
So spare a thought for the men in the middle. When the red mist descends and our club allegiances lead us to cast aside objective reasoning, it can seem that they are useless. However, given the demands and the vitriol that they face, it is hard to imagine that many could do better.