I feel sorry for these scapegoats

'Because I was a feeble manager myself, way back, I have an innate sympathy with people who try to run things'
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The Independent Online

On Sunday night, having fallen out with the majority of an audience of 700 wonderfully disputatious Jews, I stayed up late watching television to allow my heightened adrenaline levels to settle. On Channel 4 they were showing the weekend's football matches from Italy. For some reason (and it could have been the dour nature of the Inter versus AC Milan local derby) I found myself watching, not the players, but the referee. He was the bald, baked, charismatic Pierluigi Collina, who even soccer-haters may recognise from international matches.

Collina, I soon realised, was super-fit, in the old-fashioned sense. With each turn of play 20 players would thunder up the pitch, passing, dribbling, moving into space, shooting, marking, tackling, shouting, falling, gobbing on the grass (different from dribbling) and doing – at high speed – what world-class athletes do. Collina would move among them, at ground-level, always trying to keep the ball in sight through the forest of bodies. His would be the judgement on the tackle that was unfair, the hand-ball that was deliberate, the body-check that was obstructive, the backing-in, the advantage to be played, whether or not there was a goal-scoring chance (critical in deciding whether the commission of a foul merits a sending-off) and, of course, the penalty. And all done immediately, at that second, with only the judgements of his two line-bound assistant referees to help.

Coincidentally, next morning's sports pages were led by a story concerning a British referee, Steve Dunn. With moments to go in Sunday's match between relegation-threatened Derby County and title favourites Manchester United (see how that phraseology comes tripping off the pen!), Dunn disallowed a "goal" from a Derby striker that would have won the game for his side. Never mind the reasons – too boring. Anyway, afterwards Dunn found himself under assault.

The Derby manager, John Gregory, a serial attacker of referees, claimed that Dunn had "bottled it" (i.e. been too cowardly to give the right decision), and that he had also ignored an earlier "blatant" penalty. Even the BBC's website seemed to question the ref's judgement, saying: "If Manchester United go on to claim a record fourth successive Premiership this season, referee Steve Dunn is one of the first people they should thank."

Dunn had done his job. He'd made the best shout he could, and he was being roundly abused for doing it. No-one was interested in the complexity of his decision. And he wasn't alone. In several other Premiership matches at the weekend the referee's actions were contested by managers. "I thought the referee had a poor game today," is now an almost inevitable accompaniment to the post-match press conference. Well, in times when sacking accompanies short-term failure, managers have the most to lose. But unless they believe that there is a particular mad refereeing animus against them, a rational boss has to concede that what he loses on the roundabouts he gains on the swings.

Where managers go, there go also the players, the commentators and the fans. Radio 5 Live's Alan Green and Sky's Andy Gray have now perfected the art of second-guessing the ref from the comfort of the commentator's box (usually set, like Olympus, high above the contending mortals). Their contempt can be suitably ineffable. Supporters too – many of whom, from my own experience in the stands, have difficulty distinguishing between any two black players, whatever their heights and builds – "see" things that refs do not, and complain ceaselessly and inexpertly when things go badly.

In short, no one seems to respect referees any more. I trawled the website of the Referees Association, which has 17,507 members. There, amongst the ads for refs' accessories (a set of red and yellow cards, including indelible marker, just £1.60) and training courses, was an interesting message board. Yesterday one referee had written in supporting Steve Dunn and urging that more moaning managers be charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

Another, however, told a story which seemed to indicate where all this complaining was heading. "I was," he wrote, "helping out my mate who is a referee in a local under-13's league. In the last minute he decided to book a player for dissent after having previously warned him on more than one occasion. The game finished, we shook hands with everyone, and as we were making our way to the changing-room, one of the parents came up to my mate and SPAT in his face ... it was the parent of the player who had been booked." Then he added, "The referee is 17 years old, and this is only his second season."

As it happens, two policemen were passing the pitch when this happened and nabbed the uncouth father. Charges will follow. Meanwhile, in a more senior amateur match, "the assistant manager of one team chose to attempt to bully and intimidate me into making decisions", wrote another official, "and spent his time belittling me and belittling the referee to me. At the end of the game he came into the changing room with a big grin on his face and expected me to shake his hand." The ref refused.

Of course I am not silly enough to think that ref-bashing began with the millennium. But it is much more widespread now. The technology of replay has allowed everyone to have an "informed" opinion, without necessarily understanding the circumstances in which the original decision has been taken. We are all "as good" as the man or woman in black. But we don't carry the responsibility.

Should we then feel sorry for them? Any more sorry than for the NHS managers, ministers or Police Commissioners who also carry out incredibly complex tasks, and who are also – in these undeferential days – slaughtered for getting it wrong?

Because I was a rather feeble manager myself, way back when, I have an innate, inconvenient sympathy with people who try to run things, and I experience discomfort when they are made easy scapegoats for systemic problems. It is the fashion to slag off politicians as well as referees, and I worry about that too. Most referees are not whistle-crazed jobsworths, and most politicians are not latter-day Borgias, yet we talk as though they were.

Perhaps I ought not to worry. No one is forced to become an MP or a referee. Presumably they enjoy the exercise of power. The Ref's website itself says, "Men and women take up refereeing for a number of reasons. Many are frustrated footballers ... Some have come to the end of their playing careers and have decided to put something back into the game." It is, in many ways, healthy not to defer to people who set themselves up as decision-makers, and vital to subject them to scrutiny.

But if the lack of deference turns to ritual contempt, and the scrutiny to instant condemnation, then I think we'll get worse refs and worse politicians. Worse matches and worse democracy. So the final word goes to another referee on the message-board. He was recommending making referees much more available to the press and media. "In my opinion," he wrote, "it is in the isolation of referees that we heighten, not lessen, the tensions."

Open government. Everything discussed, everything on display. That's the ticket.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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