It is not an easy time to be a Premier League referee. After a number of high-profile errors, they have been criticised and ridiculed by a succession of managers and pundits. Last week, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was given a four-game touchline ban for allegedly calling referee Jon Moss a “cheat” and shoving fourth official Anthony Taylor.
Referees are far from blameless in all of this. As any parent, teacher or God can confirm, if you knock about telling people what to do, people will surely knock about telling you where to go. And that is before they consider aggravating factors such as an ostentatiously flourished card, haughtily shooing hand or patronisingly disappointed phizog.
Sport is, by its nature, a rebellious, subversive activity: competitors cheat body and mind to deliver unfathomable feats of endurance, skill and invention. More specifically, football is a fast, passionate, unpredictable game, played on the edge: that’s why it is the world’s most popular sport.
So to expect players – in front of a crowd, surrounded by their team-mates, and on a ridiculous buzz – to act with equanimity is not only ludicrous, but hypocritical. Of course, putting hands on an official is beyond the pale, but general swearing, shouting and surrounding? Inevitable, unavoidable and, for the officials, a small price to pay for watching professional football from the best seat in the house. For the rest of us, it is simply part of the show.
That is during the game. After the game, though, is something else. Sometime in the late Eighties, the football fanzine When Saturday Comes surveyed its readers, asking, among other things, at whom they shouted most when at the game. Naturally, the leading answer was “your own players”, because why wouldn’t it be?
Since then, though, things have changed. Thanks to social media, supporters can obsess about stats, transfers and tactics round the clock, and because anyone can now feel part of anything, they need not be matchgoers to consider themselves involved in the matchgoing experience – watching it unfold in real-time on Twitter.
With the game more immersive than ever before, then, the line between club and individual is more blurred then ever before. Consider, for example, how many people have a Twitter handle referencing a football team. Football has always been about identity, but traditionally it painted in broad brushstrokes relating to grand, eternal themes such as city, family and mentality.
In recent times, though, there has developed a strong attachment to the right-fucking-now, meaning that trivial events irrelevant to the bigger picture are treated with needy solemnity: perceived injustices are taken personally and acted upon as such, while success and failure are no longer reflected but owned.
Consequently, contemporary bile is largely reserved for those deemed to be in the way: principally the opposition, but also the officials. And inside the ground, that’s fair enough, but outside the ground it reveals an ignorant, indignant entitlement that is ruining a lot more than football.
To put things as simply as possible, referees get things wrong – partly because everyone gets things wrong and partly because refereeing is eminently get-wrongable. The human eye and brain are limited, so sometimes people miss things and sometimes they frazzle under pressure. Absolute objectivity is impossible when a judge is acquainted with his defendants. And the laws of the game allow for individual interpretation of events which sometimes yield no consensus even after the watching of 66,587 replays from 86,021 angles.
So the adult response to any error would be to say fine, it happens, so what, whatever. In nearly 150 years of football history, it is unlikely that even one person fell in love with the game thanks to the thrill of reliable officiating, and given most teams don’t win, very few can possibly have been seduced by good results. This renders the prevalent shrillness not only tedious, but irrelevant.
Nonsense of this ilk is also stoked by a media often more interested in “controversy” and what might happen, rather than the result and what did happen, in order to “move the story on”. This legitimises and is legitimised by managers looking to apportion rather than accept blame, when the reality is that the referee is almost never the reason for a result.
Even if a crucial mistake is made, teams have plenty of time to find a way around it. Which is to say that they must be good enough to win regardless of what the ref does – and after that, the rest of us must be good enough not to care.