Sam Wallace: Flynn's mistake highlights English game's inequity


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The Independent Online

When John Flynn wakes up this morning, the memory of that moment he flagged referee Mike Jones over at Old Trafford on Saturday to tell him, erroneously, that he thought Rio Ferdinand had fouled Hatem Ben Arfa will be hard to shift. But he will not have the option of keeping the curtains shut and staying in bed: he has to go to work.

Assistant referees are the only part-timers in elite English football and as Sir Alex Ferguson tore into Flynn (right) and Jones on Saturday for giving Newcastle a penalty, even he mentioned it. "The problem is that referees are full-time and linesmen are not," Ferguson said. "Whether he ever gets a game again, the assistant referee, is not for me to decide but it was an absolutely shocking decision."

Here's another shocking decision: in 2011, in a league that generates more money than any other in the world, where some players are paid in excess of £200,000 a week, where some are paid that to train with the reserves, assistant referees are part-time.

In Spain, assistant referees earn a salary of €50,000-€65,000 (£43,000-£56,000) for 20 games a season. In the Premier League they earn £600 per game. And, as Flynn is probably about to find out, the group of assistant referees are not guaranteed to be assigned a game every week so they have no option but to continue with their day jobs.

These men and women are being asked to make decisions that have huge consequences. They face the kind of public scrutiny that many junior Cabinet ministers will never have to experience. Their decisions are pored over in HD and super slow-mo. Get it wrong and, as on Saturday, they face the kind of prime-time excoriation that few people in British public life ever have to experience.

Yes, it was a rotten decision by Flynn. Yes, it was made worse by the fact he talked Jones out of making the right decision, giving a corner. But that phrase beloved of modern coaches, "the no-excuses environment" in which nothing in terms of preparation is left to chance, does not exist for the under-paid, under-appreciated assistant referees of this country.

Flynn is an RAF flight sergeant. It sounds demanding but at least he has employers who, one imagines, can see the benefits that his second job has in terms of reflected glory for their organisation. Others will not be so lucky. They have to use up holiday allowances and beg for unpaid leave. Those that are good enough to be promoted to Uefa competition will find it a double-edged sword.

Earning around £600 for 90 minutes' work sounds like a lot of money. Given the demands of being an assistant referee upon a normal working career that hardly represents a commitment from the football authorities.

This is English football in 2011: multi-millionaire players and managers berating the man who earns £600 a week and has no public forum in which to defend himself.

As a trade union man himself, Ferguson will recognise the unfairness of the situation. In fact, it was telling that, even in the midst of his post-match recriminations, he still acknowledged it. It would not happen in his world. There is more chance of him accepting a Conservative peerage than a member of the United staff not being afforded the right conditions and wage to do their job. This is a debate about how seriously English football values a group of people who shoulder a huge amount of responsibility on match-day but are not given the same chance to prepare as the professionals.

The old argument is that the likes of Flynn are not forced to take the job, with the added sneer that these are people who are only in it for the thrill of bossing around famous footballers. Maybe the assistant referees should take the detractors at their word and down flags for a weekend. Then we would see how much the richest league in the world needs its poorest-paid participants.