Players starting to see referees as paranoid policemen

Howard Wilkinson warns that managers, players and the men in the middle are moving apart and worries that good young officials may be lost to the game
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The Independent Online
When football supporters take their places to watch their heroes strut their stuff, not many of them appreciate that it is not only the players who are out there competing.

On the face of it, referees cannot win. If they don't please all of the people all of the time, they'll get stick. If they do, the best they can hope for are genuine well-meant handshakes from players as they head for the dressing-rooms.

However, most of the referees need to win - or to be more accurate, they need to get good grades from the assessor and the two clubs competing on the day. One or two will be completing their last year "on the list". If they follow trends established over the last couple of seasons, like Sinatra, they'll go out whistling rather than singing My Way.

A minority of the referees will be trying to maintain their status among the game's elite. The majority will be trying to prove themselves worthy of promotion into this elite. Mastering their trade is certainly a pursuit they all take very seriously, and some will harbour the desire to tip David Elleray, the current "headmaster", from his seat.

There was a time when referees succeeded without seeming to try. They moved through the ranks developing a refereeing personality and style which worked despite what might now be seen as technical deficiencies. I'm sure the likes of Jim Finney, Jack Taylor, Neil Midgley and many others would have found the current quest to standardise their behaviour, judgement and responses difficult to come to terms with.

Since Fifa, the governing body of world football, introduced through Uefa, the European governing body, its mandatory instructions relative to certain sections of Law 12, there has been an explosion in red and yellow cards. It has to be said, the product is better for this clean- up. Cynicism and violence cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.

But are the measures too Draconian? I think they are. I sense an almost religious fervour to clean things up, almost to sanitise the game. Are things really that bad? At the moment, I feel there's not enough discrimination between what is ill-judged, careless and downright cynical or violent. Not enough importance is placed on trying to understand the motives of the player.

In the recent Arsenal and Sunderland game, Martin Scott deserved to go in my view, but did Paul Stewart? I am pleased to say that the referee concerned, Paul Danson, now agrees. That's a step in the right direction. Can such judgements ever be so black and white? A technical offence is not always intentional. It's one thing to know the laws, but to apply the laws effectively, you have to know the game.

England's game against Poland last week threw up an interesting comparison in standards. The official in charge was Helmut Krug, one of Germany's top men. In a game where some Premiership referees might have been tempted to pop their cork, Herr Krug kept his bottle and was never too obvious - subtle rather than up front - and as a result the game flowed freely.

Knowing the game is largely a matter of experience and these days the trend is towards promoting even younger and therefore less experienced referees. In theory, the reasons are sound. The quicker you referee in the Premiership, the earlier you'll get on the Fifa list, which also means being longer on that list.

Mike Riley and Graham Barber, two very young and promising referees, were promoted to the Premiership after a couple of years apiece in the Football League. After four games each this season, they had respectively 21 and 25 yellow cards to their credit.

In addition, Riley has two reds.

Riley refereed the Nottingham Forest-Middlesbrough game when nine players were booked and one sent off. This week Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, was fined pounds 1,500, severely censured and warned to his future conduct following his outburst after this game.

John Kirkby from Sheffield, on the other hand, is a highly rated referee, but over 40 years old. His prospects for promotion to the Premiership could be significantly lower than younger candidates. With the best will in the world, experience can only come given the time to referee the number of games necessary to come to terms with and understand the intricacies of the modern game.

Seven managers charged with disrepute is not good for the game, wherever the fault lies. Policemen guarding a referee's dressing-room does not reflect well on "family entertainment". Matches needlessly reduced to fewer than 11-a-side are not what the customer pays to see - and the customer pays a lot these days.

There is a definite lack of communication, with players, managers and referees moving further apart rather than closer together. Managers and players need to be made fully aware of the huge pressure under which referees operate these days and the circumstances which create this pressure. At the moment, managers and players are starting to see the referees as some sort of bunch of paranoid policemen who assume every member of the public is a criminal bent on breaking the law.

All of this seems a far cry from the situation during the six years I had in non-League football where, mark my words, the fortitude, determination and commitment of referees was and is still tested to its limit. Even at that time, some referees had gone about as far as they could go. For others, it was a final step in a very long, arduous ladder to their zenith, the old Football League.

Now and again we'd get one or two of the big boys, who'd got a free weekend. Now, they could be interesting. Humour breaks down many barriers.

I can still hear the dulcet tones now. "Come here, son, I'm having you. Don't worry, you're in good company. I booked Bobby Moore last week!"

The stories became legends as you got to know them personally. "Are you bleeding blind, ref?" my big centre-half politely enquired. "See that yellow thing up there, number five, it's millions of miles away and called the sun. I can see it from here, so how far do you want me to see?"

It would be a shame and a loss if the standardisations currently sought removed that sort of banter from the game.

Having said all that, would I be a referee? Would I hell! I don't think that will worry the assembled ranks of the gentlemen in black. What should worry all of us, though, is the possibility that there are increasing numbers of young men out there who, because of the hassle, think exactly the same.