Book of the week: Blowing the whistle on the middle men

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The Independent Online
The Man in Black: A History of the Football Referee

By Gordon Thomson Prion, pounds 9.99

IF THEY mark the millennium by striking medals in honour of genuine courage in football, any survivors from a recurring experiment in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s should be at the front of the queue. Argentina, experiencing a few local difficulties, sent for a dozen of Britain's finest referees on long-term loan.

Since those difficulties involved bribery, intimidation, and the occasional murder, that puts the odd shove at Sheffield Wednesday into its historical context.

The trailblazer was Ike Caswell from Blackburn, who came out of retirement to tackle this tricky mission. Refereeing Boca and Racing in 1938, Caswell sent off one of the country's most popular players for repeatedly arguing with him. He was stoned at the end of the game for his trouble, but was unrepentant.

"My firmness in this match, and the fact that I was out for discipline and was not to be deterred by the fame of the players or the clubs, made an impression and changed the situation," said Caswell after he made his escape.

Indeed, it is Gordon Thomson's thesis that football in South America would never have overcome its inherent chaos if not for the firm smack of imported discipline. If that sounds an unreconstructed, colonialist viewpoint, then that is the tone of much of this book.

British referees might have their quirks and eccentricities - he devotes a full chapter to the most extreme, Clive Thomas - but they are invariably more to be trusted with a whistle than Johnny Foreigner.

As a history, this is something of a hotch-potch, but it has some fascinating moments. How many know why they are called referees? The answer - obvious when you think about it - is that they were originally adjudicators when the two umpires provided by the clubs could not reach a decision.

Those umpires stood behind the goal lines, as officials still do in Australian Rules and have started to do in rugby league, and saw very little. As more and more was referred (aha!) to the referee, his role expanded and the umpires were reduced to the duties of linesmen and given flags as compensation.

This revelation comes early in the book. Not all of it lives up to the same, illuminating standard, and there are some annoying stylistic lunges that would attract a yellow card from some arbiters.

There is a brave attempt, however, to assess the future of the referee in an era of rapidly expanding technological possibilities. The one measure that could help the poor old ref more than any, though, is being tried out by unassisted mortals in, of all places, Jersey.

It is a 10-yard rule, like the one that operates in both codes of rugby, where failure to retreat at a free-kick is punished by marching you back towards your own goal.

That would "wipe out dissent in the game". It has only taken 135 years to work that one out.