John McCormick writes: I was supposed to be enjoying the onset of Spring in the Yorkshire Dales. It wasn’t quite like that, and the internet connection I had was also short on promise. Never mind, I’ve negotiated the weather and the M6 and am once again able to bring you my thoughts.
In this latest instalment of our new How Dare We? series, rather than bombard you with dodgy statistics and contentious argument, I’m making a case for referees and rules. How dare we? you might ask, given the going rate for fines when half a Premiership team abuses a ref is less than the income from 1,000 spectators at a single match. It’s just part part of the service, ladies and gentlemen, which we spare no expense in bringing to you without fear or favour.
I’m able to pick up transmissions from S4C, the Welsh TV station. I don’t watch it much but it does show local football and rugby, as well as Pobol y Cwm (and Myffin y mul for any oldies whose memory of a North-East side winning the FA cup isn’t enough). Some of the football isn’t particularly enthralling but the rugby is usually worthwhile so I do drop in occasionally, which is how I came to be watching a game of college rugby a few weeks ago. Two under 18 teams, playing open, attacking rugby made a pleasant alternative to some of the material which fills the airways further east of the border.
And it was this which gives rise to today’s “How dare we?”. The referee (when I played rugby we had an umpire) for the college game was of the same age and aspect as the other players. Perhaps the description “fresh-face and chubby cheeks” is going a bit too far but it will give you the idea. What struck me was his composure. He was totally in control of the game, giving instructions clearly and authoritatively. This being rugby, his directions and instructions were followed swiftly and none of his decisions were questioned. The result was, as my Mrs. observed, he had a great presence on the field and umpired with the utmost confidence.
The WRU has three levels of licensing for referees. Level one referees complete a 7 hour, one day course which costs 20 quid and can then officiate at junior, schools and under 16 games. A system of mentoring and support allows referees to move to level two and take care of more senior games. The youth I watched must have been at level two and, even if he doesn’t move on to level three, which I think is by invitation only, I’d be surprised if he didn’t remain an official for a long time. I’ve no doubt the atmosphere in which he is developing derives from the ethos of rugby but I’m equally sure that rugby officialdom gives referees a lot of support and will not allow them to be abused.
What I read also leads me to believe no-one can referee an official Welsh rugby match without being qualified and licensed at the appropriate level. I don’t know how strictly this rule is observed and how much of a contrast there really is with English football, where in 2009 an estimated 20% (the Guardian) to 33% (the FA) of matches took place without a qualified official, but I do think rugby’s ethos and support means level 1 referees will not feel inclined to quit the game. To put it simply, rugby’s referees are treated with respect. This is not the case in English football, where 98% of grassroots referees have reported being abused by crowds and some seven thousands of them quit the game every year.
What gives spectators the right to behave this way? Well, did you see the behaviour of the Southampton players who crowded and jostled the referee in the last minute of their game against Norwich, or how their manager behaved shortly afterwards? It took me back to the time when one of our former managers, a certain R. Keane, was one of a gang who chased a referee around the park during a Man Utd v ‘Boro match. In that game Sir Alex Ferguson reportedly said his players were out of order, which might surprise those who saw the knighted one’s behaviour in the recent Real Madrid game, not to mention his behaviour in many of the games in the intervening dozen years. Actions belie words and the rhetoric arising from professional clubs often appears empty, with the systematic and unchecked abuse of officials by players and their managers legitimising abuse at all levels of the game. In my opinion, the more prominent the transgressor, the greater the influence, on both players (of all levels) and spectators.
What I would like to see when players behave in this way in professional games is referees standing their ground, with very serious consequences for players and their clubs if the officials end up being manhandled or knocked over. Southampton’s £20,000 fine for “failing to control players” just doesn’t cut the mustard. How about a one-match ban for every player “failing to control himself” as a starting point?
I know the FA has taken more severe action in respect of serious events in the past but I also believe the respect campaign was dead before it hit the ground. It looks to me, therefore, that the FA need some encouragement in ensuring fair treatment of officials. This brings me to the referee associations up and down the country. They could provide this encouragement while looking after their members. Here’s a suggestion for all of them, whatever the level they work at:
Let it be known that from the beginning of next season all referees will be diligent in applying rule 12, the one that says:
“A player is cautioned and shown the yellow card if he commits any of the following [seven] offences:
• unsporting behaviour
• dissent by word or action
• persistent infringement of the laws of the game
• delaying the start of the game…
For a start, associations should instruct refs to stand their ground if a player gets close and mouthy. They should tell refs to take a yellow card out and hold it in one hand, then hold the other hand up in the air, extend three fingers, say “go away” and begin to count down with the fingers. At the end of the countdown they award the yellow card, put it away, bring out the red one and repeat the procedure if necessary. How many sending offs do you think will be needed before players get the message? When it has got through, say by Christmas, the associations could let it be known any gestures, even from a distance, will result in a caution. When that’s sorted go on to dives and shirt pulling.
And refs shouldn’t worry about what agents, managers, players, TV pundits or even the FA say. They should just point them in the direction of the FA’s website and its guidance on
“interpretation of the laws of the game and guidelines for referees”:
“A player who is guilty of dissent by protesting (verbally or non-verbally) against a referee’s decision must be cautioned”
Note the word “must”. It’s an imperative and ignoring it weakens every ref in the country.
If there is concerted action including Premiership or professional levels at the instigation of referees’ associations then it’s just possible that referees further down might feel empowered to tackle poor behaviour on the pitch, rather than quitting it. It may be too much to hope that those giving vent from the touchline might feel more inclined to behave with more restraint but you never know.
My point is very simple. In rugby the laws are applied. In football the laws are there but they are ignored. Why not apply them? It’s time refs took action, for their own sakes and for the sake of the beautiful game.