David Flatman: Referee has an impossible job so let's repair the rapport

From the Front Row: The good old days of a teacher-pupil relationship seem to have gone and now is the time to work with – not against – the man with the whistle

There is little I find more ungraceful in sport than professionals moaning about referees. One of my favourite things to watch on television is Match of the Day but I think I might look forward to it even more were the managers' comments left out of the programme. Alan Shearer isn't the most eloquent of pundits but I would take him over Arsène Wenger every day of the week (and I am a Gooner).

I actually wonder why they do it. Perhaps the feeling of impotence, being all that way away on the touchline, with only a laptop and some chewing gum as weapons, is too much to bear. Perhaps they think it will bring solidarity to their squad, and the players will feel supported and bulletproof. In reality, I suspect it is far simpler than this; I think they just feel important enough that their opinions need to be heard and may alter the game all on their own.

Please note, I am not suggesting that any confusion or anger felt at a referee's decision ought to be disregarded, just not blurted out during the post-match interviews.

These comments are unlikely to alter the result of the match and serve only to make the speaker look like a bad loser, grappling for excuses. I remember Prince Naseem Hamed getting completely outboxed by Marco Antonio Barrera and, instead of heaping praise on his opponent, deciding to tell the crowd he had a cold as soon as the microphone was put under his bleeding nose. In that instant he crumbled in my mind, and I took his poster off my wall.

Nobody in sport is immune to the vexation brought about by the referee. In fact, only last season I had to knock on referee Dave Pearson's door after a match and apologise for expressing my disbelief at one or two decisions all too clearly. Fittingly, he laughed, shook my hand and told me to clear off. I did just that. And when I watched the game back on video it turned out he'd had a point too.

The odd bit of umpire heckling is a part of rugby I really enjoy. I remember very clearly the day the now-retired Tony Spreadbury called me a "cheeky bugger" for suggesting he looked a bit out of breath after only five minutes of play. I also remember, back in the late 1990s, receiving the best piece of advice ever offered by any referee as I and a rather grizzly opponent were taken aside: "You, stop putting your fingers in his mouth and you, stop biting them. Now bloody get on with it." Those were the days, but where is that rapport now?

Rugby used to be a game where the man with the whistle was almost a man-manager. We players were referred to by name – often nicknames, in fact – and were talked to throughout the match. Yes, we were talked to like children most of the time but this served to maintain that teacher-pupil boundary, and with it the respect of the class.

These days, the referees seem to have a million more things on their plates. Rightly, they are regularly assessed by their superiors and critiqued by experts in super-slow-motion on our television screens, but their job now seems almost impossible. The breakdown and scrummage are the two areas seeming to cause the most problems over the last 18 months or so.

Rule changes must of course make matters instantly more difficult for the referees but, more than that, I wonder if referees are in fact having their own styles diluted. "Do not allow continued re-sets at scrum time," seems to be a very current theme to which these men are directed to adhere. Well, here's some news, not every collapse is down to one man or team actively seeking to cheat.

With all that force colliding so quickly, these things happen, so to see free-kick after free-kick and penalty after penalty does, at times, boggle the mind. Still, though, I believe these guys are doing as they are told.

The answer is to work with them, not against them. The old ABC club at Leicester were the first ones to teach me this lesson; whenever the ref came to our side of the scrum, Darren Garforth used to say: "Come on now, Flats, keep it up son, we just want to play." Then, of course, he would hit the deck and win the decision (he might view this a bit differently, of course!).

But this work must begin before game day. Coaches and managers need to research a referee's habits and get on the phone to him. This needn't be manipulative, more rugby's version of due diligence. Then, surely, this failing relationship could begin to repair itself.

The dream of match-day officials actually being welcomed into the bar afterwards might be a bit far-fetched, though. This is still sport, after all.


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