Football referees are accorded the same respect as speed cameras. Not just by the fans, but by the authorities, too. The Professional Game Match Officials Board (or to use its snappy acronym, PGMOB) install them, check them on a weekly basis and, if they're not working, update them or dump them, or consign them to a country road in Northumberland or a League Two match in Rotherham. Like the speed camera, the referee lives and dies on his split-second verdict. The whistle is blown, the shutter slams, with three points being the usual cost. That's it, then. It's in the hands of the assessors.
There is a rumour going around that referees are human beings. Unlike a yellow box perched high on an aluminium pole, they could explain their decisions. They could do, but they're not allowed. Here we are in this free society, where grown men and women are told not to say anything in public, write anything, tweet even, probably not even give so much as a thumbs up or down to the next door neighbour. Instead, a report is sent to HQ which keeps its contents secret. Harry from Spooks would find the process unnecessarily guarded.
Why not let them explain their decisions to the public? Who would suffer? Take Saturday and Phil Dowd's plain weird dismissal of Chris Herd at Villa Park. Initially, the pundits couldn't work out the reason. Indeed, on Final Score, Martin Keown looked and sounded like one of the poor dolts on Beadle's About who had just discovered his Mondeo had been painted bright pink.
What we, and our cherished experts, required was some sort of guidance. But we knew we would have to wait until Match of the Day. And even then this would be a guessing game. "He was sent off for a stamp," said the West Bromwich manager, Roy Hogdson, with all the certainty of a manager who has just been gifted a 2-1 win. Thanks for that. But the replays showed no stamp. How did Hodgson know? Perhaps Dowd had informed him that Herd was smuggling a counterfeit Penny Black in his shorts.
Wouldn't it have been ever so slightly less farcical if Sky Sports, the BBC or whoever were granted access to Dowd to ask him a few questions? Dowd could have then explained himself. He wouldn't have needed to justify his call, or say sorry or admit any contrition whatsoever. Just to say, "I sent him off because I [or his assistants] saw him stamp on Jonas Olsson". Bang, we would know. We might disagree, might refer to him as a myopic whatsit, but we would have to respect that he acted on what he perceived to be a fact. He just got it wrong. Big deal. It happens. The other day I was sure I saw Madonna walking down my street in Cardiff. It wasn't her. She was in New York.
Instead, the bemusement continues, meaning Dowd becomes yet more derided – if that is in anyway possible – and the ever burgeoning anti-referee league signs up a few more converts. Nobody wins. It is a lose-lose situation.
But no, insist PGMOB, the men in black shall remain on mute. "It would only benefit the 24-hour news media and not the referee's decision-making process," said their spokesman. "It's important to remember that referees are not professional media operators."
We're not asking them to be Steve Rider – Alan Shearer would do. They merely have to stand there and say why they did this and didn't do that. Neither would they be required to attend a formal press conference; only to speak to a nice chap with a microphone in their very own dressing room. And yes, they would then be benefiting the 24-hour news media, but guess who watches 24-hour news? Yep, the fans, the reason why it is possible to earn a living blowing a whistle.
It is feasible for sport to be entertainment as well and to fulfil all the responsibilities to enrich the entertainment without endangering the sanctity of the sport. The fear is the refs would become central characters in the soap opera. Too late – they already are. Dowd would have been the word on the majority of the lips sipping after-match beverages in West Bromwich and Aston on Saturday evening. The rules against talking actually dehumanise him and his colleagues and so make it easier to substitute a noun for his surname and perhaps an adverb for his Christian name.
Why not copy Germany? As far as I'm aware the Bundesliga doesn't have the problem of their referees being out-of-control celebrity junkies. After each weekend over there, a panel reviews and, most pertinently, publishes each key decision, whether it was given or not, and grades them as right, wrong or uncertain. Furthermore, German officials may also talk to the media after games.
So if Dowd had, say, sent off Franck Ribéry in a Bavarian derby, the Teutonic equivalent of Geoff Shreeves could have said "Phil, what were you thinking?". Dowd could have replied, "Geoff, what can I say, I saw him stamp an opponent", and everybody could have gone down the Berkeley happy in the knowledge he had made a bit of an arschloch of himself. Sounds preferable to our charade.