I was listening to TalkSport in the car yesterday. The ex-football referee, Graham Poll, was criticising a more recently retired ref, Mark Halsey, for betraying the ‘refereeing fraternity’ – which is presumably some kind of sacred brotherhood for middle-aged men who prance around like schoolteachers on a Saturday afternoon.
The meat of the controversy passed me by to be honest – I find club football nauseating these days – but one thing was clear: the majority of people believe the standard of refereeing in football has reached its nadir.
I’m not surprised this is the public perception. One of the many reasons I stopped caring about club football was the fact that referees decide a large proportion of tight games. Statistically, the most common scorelines in professional football are 2-1 and 1-0; therefore, a referee’s decision to award a penalty or not, basically decides the outcome.
Furthermore, there seems to be no consistency in the issuing of red and yellow cards. So much is open to interpretation. It’s not black and white like cricket’s supposed to be. If a ref sends a player off after half an hour, the game is basically ruined and for what – a borderline challenge at best?
However, it’s not just football that’s suffering from poor officiating. Since giving up on football, I’ve become an avid fan of club rugby union. They’ve got a salary cap, you see.
I also contribute daily to online forums discussing my team’s fortunes. A recurrent theme – you might be interested to know – is the pitiful standard of refereeing.
Last season, my team Worcester Warriors (yes, I know we’re bad) received two or three official apologies from the league after ridiculous and totally unacceptable refereeing decision directly cost us matches.
Maybe it’s always the teams at the bottom who suffer most. However, I personally think not. If you read forums for Leicester or Saracens fans the same disillusionment with officials exists.
The reason I’m talking about other sports, of course, is that cricket has its own problem with match officials. This summer’s Ashes was blighted by some of the worst umpiring witnessed at a cricket ground since the 1970-71 Ashes, when England’s bowlers didn’t get a single LBW decision in the entire series.
Despite the controversies involving DRS, I’ve heard many fans argue that technology is needed for one simple reason: the standard of international umpires is currently the worst it’s ever been. Instead of Dickie Bird, we now have officials with dicky eyesight.
Or have we? Isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that exactly the same debate is happening in the nation’s three major sports simultaneously? Have standards really plummeted to an all-time low in football, rugby and cricket, or is there something else at work here?
My gut feeling is that the standard of officiating is probably exactly the same as it’s always been. Would we remember Dickie Bird, David Shepherd and Co so fondly, and revere them as almost infallible, if their every decision had been scrutinised by hotspot, hawkeye, snicko and super-slow motion replays?
Television coverage has evolved to the point where every single decision is replayed ad nauseum, using technology nobody would’ve dreamed of thirty years ago. The same goes for other sports too.
When a penalty in given in a Premier League football match, Gary Neville fires up his computer and gives Sky viewers what amounts to virtual reality recreation of the incident. Slow motions replays no longer suffice: television viewers need a three-dimensional computer simulation of the incident to decide whether it was a penalty or not.
This is so unfair on the referees. In the old days, TV commentators would simply say “well, the referee was in the best position to see the incident”. Fans in the stands might have disagreed with the decision made, but their anger was tempered by the realisation they were a long way away from the incident (often high up in the stands). Meanwhile, TV viewers would get one grainy, indecisive replay.
As for rugby, most fans can’t tell whether it’s a penalty or not, because key parts of the action are going on at the bottom of a pile of bodies, or the other side of the scrum. What’s more, they keep changing the bloody rules. None of this stops the likes of Stuart Barnes, however, from giving the ref hell every time something controversial happens.
So what do you think? Perhaps we should return to the days of trusting officials. Maybe the overall experience isn’t enhanced by endless replays after all.
Before the days of big screens at grounds, cricket spectators accepted a batsman was either out, or not out, and looked forward to the rest of the match. Besides, human error was an accepted part of the game.
Would everyone have enjoyed the Ashes a lot more if Sky had binned hotspot, hawkeye etc, and just showed one replay of controversial incidents at full speed (or not shown any replays at all)? I suspect we would have done.
Dar, Erasmus, Hill and Dharmasena certainly would’ve enjoyed themselves a lot more. Can you imagine Dickie Bird tolerating a fielding captain publically challenging his decisions on the field? The whole concept of DRS would’ve been an anathema to him.
Umpiring was always a tough job. Now it’s almost impossible. Who’d be an umpire? It’s an extremely pertinent question. The public are demanding better officials, but where exactly are they going to come from?