Stuck in the middle: Who'd be a referee?

Are they power-crazed petty bureaucrats or much maligned ambassadors for the beautiful game? As Scottish referees prepare to strike this weekend, Stan Hey examines the truth about the card-wielding men in black
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O 'referee'! To regulate the game,
To earn expenses and a guinea fee!
Yes! There is great attraction in the name of Referee.
Yet troublous times might be in store for me,
Did I allow the visitors a claim!
A brickbat in the eye or damaged knee,
Enough to make me permanently lame.
On second thoughts then I decline to be –
(Although, of course, I thank you all the same).

This anonymous ditty from the 1890s, about a chap turning down the chance to become a football referee, will, for all its quaintness, strike a deep chord with those football referees in Scotland. They are planning to strike this weekend as a protest against the pressure and intimidation they claim to have endured from many of the Scottish football clubs and their fans this season, all stemming from a penalty awarded to, then withdrawn from, Celtic by a referee who used his assistant referee as cover for his original mistake. Every marginal error since has been elevated to the status of controversy.

Verbal attacks from players and managers; death threats from fans; and demands for an enquiry and reform of their trade from the former Labour Home Secretary, now Celtic chairman, John Reid, have followed. These are just some of the modern "brickbats" that have come the way of Scottish referees – and you may as well delete the word "Scottish", as much the same happens to football referees around the world.

Virtually every weekend, the football highlights programmes will contain an interview with a manager or player complaining about a referee's decision that has "cost us the game"; "allowed one of their players to stay on when he should have been sent off"; "disallowed a perfectly good goal"; "spoilt the whole game as a spectacle"; or as former England manager Graham Taylor once said to a linesman, "Tell your mate, he's cost me my job".

Panellists will then use "slow-mo" replays and fancy camera angles to prove that a referee has made a blunder, putting the official in question into the equivalent of the public stocks – the red-top tabloids – for a couple of days. This court of opinion will also add content to the various insults that are individually shouted or collectively chanted at referees in their next matches.

In light of the current appetite for "theatre of cruelty" – from The X Factor to I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! – the tormenting of football referees is perhaps the most virulent. Can you imagine being the person at the heart of a 30,000-strong chorus calling you a "wanker" or a "bastard in black"? Would stage actors take this from their audiences, or politicians from the public? It follows that referees deserve much sympathy – I wonder if one will have the nerve to change his name by deed poll to "A Wanker", thereby rendering the offensive chant superfluous. But first, referees also need to answer the question posed to other bizarre, masochistic professions, such as police frogmen: "Why the hell do you do it?"

The popular conceit is that most referees are somehow defective: they are either frustrated players seeking compensation; or they have a lust for power that no other role in their dull lives satisfies; or they get a perverse kick out of being the equivalent of a pantomime villain; or they just like putting one over on richer people, in the way that a traffic warden loves sticking a parking fine on an expensive car. All, some or none of this may be true.

But their most likely reason is that they like football, and enjoy being involved in a game that would descend into anarchy if they weren't around to police it, and would like that fact to be acknowledged. Pat Partridge, one of the first British referees to enjoy some minor celebrity – along with Jack Taylor, Gordon Hill and Clive Thomas – as football became a televised spectacle in the 1970s, wrote in his autobiography, Oh, Ref!, that:

"I hate Saturdays off. I'd rather take a village game than stay at home. It's that sort of feeling that distinguishes the referee from all the other breeds. Money doesn't come into it. If it did, I would never have blown a whistle in my life."

Taylor, a butcher from Wolverhampton, got to referee the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, between West Germany and the Netherlands. With his brooding looks and jet-black hair, Taylor soon let the world know who was in charge that day. He marched on to the pitch clutching the ball from above in one hand, perhaps to emphasise the grip he would take on the game. He then delayed the start by pointing out that the corner flags were missing, an enjoyable critique of German efficiency in light of England's absence from the tournament. And he then awarded a penalty against the host nation in the first minute. Talk about stealing the show.

Before Taylor, two English referees distinguished themselves on the football stage, but both are best remembered for having to deal with really violent World Cup matches. Former Halifax textile worker Arthur Ellis climbed the refereeing ladder in the post-war boom years of football, with massive crowds for domestic league games, and increasing interest in international football.

Ellis officiated in the infamous "Battle of Berne" in the 1954 World Cup when Hungary and Brazil took the struggle for power too literally, with players fighting on the field and in the tunnel to the dressing rooms. Ellis sent off three offenders, and his diligence brought him the reward of the first European Cup final in 1956. In "retirement" he became the trusted referee on the BBC's inter-town games show It's a Knockout.

Meanwhile, Ken Aston found the poisonous Chile vs Italy World Cup tie on his agenda in Chile in 1962, and barely kept control of the punching, fouling, hair-pulling and general malice in which the two sides indulged. Like Ellis, he became a television panellist for the 1966 World Cup in England.

Returning to the 1970s, Clive Thomas earned notoriety in the 1978 World Cup, in a match in which he blew the whistle for full-time as a Brazilian corner was headed into the net, denying the South Americans a victory over Sweden, a decision which later positioned Brazil in a group with arch-rivals Argentina, leading to elimination. Thomas waved away Brazilian protests as he left the field, pointing to his watch as the final arbiter of fate. Thomas continued to enjoy making flamboyant decisions throughout his career.

In all this, you can see something of what footballer-turned-pundit Jimmy Hill once called "the natural authority that Englishmen tend to assume over others which has a lot to do with their success in this field [refereeing]". Except that Thomas was emphatically Welsh. The fact that Jack Taylor and Thomas's exploits are still remembered gives some credence to the notion that this is fair reward for doing a tough job for not much money, something they could dine out on on the sporting banquet circuit.

This was also a time when some referees breached the long-lasting code, as defined by the Football League's Dickensian-named secretary Alan Hardaker, who said that "referees should arrive by the back door and leave by the back door". It was usually put more prosaically along the lines of: "If you don't notice the referee, then he's had a good game."

But the vast wealth of the modern game, accumulated through sponsorship, gate money, merchandising and broadcast revenue, and the intensive coverage it receives from television, newspapers and the internet, conspire to make the referee all too noticeable, whatever his demeanour. He can make decisions that have serious implications for a club's success, for a manager's job, or for a player's status. Even if these decisions are correct, they can be misinterpreted by a losing team or their fans as being responsible for a change of fate.

In this week's Champions League ties, the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, a sane and easygoing man most of the time, was trying to lay a trail of blame and consequences on the referee for his team's loss to Braga, rather than the inability of his own players to score. Meanwhile, the referee for the Ajax-Real Madrid match allowed himself to be hopelessly gulled by two Madrid players, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, who shamelessly invited second yellow cards, and dismissals on themselves, so that they could clear their disciplinary "slate" for the knockout rounds in the spring. The referee technically made the right decision, but will be hounded for doing so. Refs, they just can't win.

So where do we go from here? In most major sports – rugby, cricket, tennis and American football – the authority of the referee now goes largely unquestioned. If a cricketer looks at his bat after being given out leg before wicket, he's indicating that the ball touched it and he shouldn't be out. But this is taken as a slight against the umpire's integrity and an act of churlishness, so a fine usually follows from the match referee watching in the stands. The advent of the limited "referral" system for Test matches, in which a batsman or bowler can ask for a decision to be reviewed, is not a wholehearted success, mostly making umpires seem vulnerable.

In rugby union, no player dares to dispute a referee's call because it can bring an instant penalty of lost ground, or a yellow card and temporary suspension from the game. Offences missed by the match referee can often be judged after the game has finished, while a "video ref" simply helps to decide the validity of tries. Several on-field officials police an American football game, and any verbal abuse or threats result in instant penalisation or dismissal. Tennis umpires now allow players' appeals to Hawk-Eye for dubious line calls, but misconduct can lead to loss of points, or even a loss by default.

What is common in all these sports is that there are now multiple officials and assorted technology to help the referee or umpire to reach the right decision. What they also have in common are the natural pauses built into the pattern of the game, so that the recourse to video, diagram technology or another official becomes just another break. And most of the time, they are judging issues of fact, not opinion.

Football, though, was always envisaged as an uninterrupted sport, drawing its essential appeal by way of a constant stream of action and incident. A first element of the game is the battle of opinions between players, managers and fans, with the referee as the intermediary. From the basic appeals of "Our ball!" to "Offside!", shouted as much by the crowd as by the players, referees must deal with claims for handball, free kicks, penalties and fouls.

Here we are in the rich area where fact and opinion merge. One manager's view of a tackle may be that it was fair, while his opposite number might think it a foul. In the intensity of the game, even players can't tell the difference sometimes, whether ball hit hand or hand went to ball; whether an opponent dived or was tripped. On the weekly Match of the Day panel, Messrs Hansen, Lawrenson, Shearer and Dixon usually offer a split verdict to Judge Lineker.

So the much called-for use of technology is resisted by football authorities because most of the decisions a referee has to make are based on opinion rather than fact. Yes, a camera in the net would have prevented Frank Lampard's "goal" against Germany in this summer's World Cup from being missed by officials, but how often do these incidents actually occur? Uefa, the European authority, now deploys an extra linesman behind each goal to help on these matters, but if you watch the poor buggers, they have little more to do than wander around the edge of the pitch, forming the front line against whatever obscenities fans shout, or detritus they may throw. Some job.

So far, then, the response to football's increased intensity has been to professionalise referees, to prepare physically, tactically and temperamentally to deal with flashpoints in a high-profile game. In the past 20 years, a group of "super-refs" were created, wired up to their linesmen and upgraded to "assistant referees", while a fourth official managed substitutions and policed raging managers.

The Italian referee Pierluigi Collina became both the most famous face – his "Nosferatu" looks terrified players – and the most respected official because he read games beautifully. The Swede Anders Frisk, with flowing blond hair, became the pin-up boy, and also had a good feel for a game. But he was harried out of football, by accusations of bias from Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho, and then by a cigarette lighter thrown by a Roma fan which sliced his forehead open.

English, and Scottish, referees have signed up to this professional pact, and have, by and large, done well. Backed by campaigns to urge respect for all levels of refereeing – numbers in the Sunday leagues had previously dropped alarmingly due to abuse and violence – referees are encouraged to see themselves as conductors of an orchestra, and guardians of integrity. The English referee Howard Webb, a former policeman, patrolled both this year's Champions League final and the World Cup final.

Once upon a time, a referee dined with Benito Mussolini the night before he took charge of the 1934 World Cup final, which Italy won. Others took bribes – gifts, girls or holidays – to "fix" matches in the 1960s and 1970s. Some enjoyed hobnobbing with players and managers in nightclubs.

But the modern referee has been rightly placed on a higher pedestal. Without him, as Scotland may find out this weekend, there is only chaos and darkness; the game becomes a road without traffic lights. The football authorities must continue to build elite groups, make refereeing an attractive career, and support their men in the middle when hostile forces move against them.

So, a final old ditty is fun, but no longer applies:

There was a chap who couldn't run
Whose playing days were long since done;
And consequently he was free
To rule the game as referee.
A referee can't be too old,
While he has strength to take the gold;
Perhaps he cannot run or see
But all the same he'll referee.

(With thanks to The Independent's Phil Shaw and the late Peter Ball, for use of their Book of Football Quotations.)