By Tony Attwood
Consider Mark Clattenburg. He is 35, and one of 16 select group officials that run EPL games.
He is the guy who failed to punish Wayne Rooney for the elbow against Wigan Athletic’s James McCarthy. Then he gave Fulham a penalty against Blackburn Rovers that not everyone was convinced by.
If this was a one off incident we might shrug and let it pass. But it is not. We have endless revelations of bad judgement by refs week after week not just on this site, but by radio commentators too.
So what’s going on? In answering that question there are several possible routes you might take. Each has implications, but each can be misused to represent an argument that is incomplete or can easily be set aside.
The first explanation is that yes, the refs are fairly incompetent. If you listen to commentaries on Radio 5 Live from the BBC you will hear endless statements to this effect. They never seek to explain why refs are incompetent, but they just say they are. As such it is incomplete – if you believe the refs make mistakes more than they should you need to say why.
The second approach might be that refs do get a lot of things wrong, but by and large that is the nature of the beast. Football is fast, judgements need to be made instantly, there are no replays, and so it is never surprising that mistakes are made. In such a scenario mistakes should even out – a bad decision for Man U one week, a good one the next. Such an explanation doesn’t explain why there is not more technological help for refs, it just accepts that this is how it is. Such an explanation doesn’t explain why we have so few refs in the elite group, or why those who seem to make a particularly large number of errors don’t get removed for re-training. Nor do the approach ever release proper stats to show that the errors do even up, and that they are evenly spread among refs.
The third view is that actually there is nothing wrong. The standard of refereeing is high and all is ok with the organisation behind it. This view doesn’t explain any of Walter’s comments on this site, where the detailed event by event analysis shows that things are not being well run. Nor does it explain the figures that Dogface comes up with week after week and through which we are able to predict what the ref will do to Arsenal. What’s more they don’t explain the inadequacies that Walter has pointed out that exist within the organisation running top class refereeing in England (the lack of referees, the failure to deal with refs who consistently refuse to implement Fifa rulings, the lack of transparency about marking of refs, the failure to deal with refs who regularly fall below a reasonable standard etc etc).
The fourth view suggests there is something seriously wrong, and that in effect the refs are being bought through a system similar to that being used in Italy a few years back. In my view this is the only one of the four explanations that covers all the issues and observations that we know about, and which doesn’t have the gaps in which the first three views have.
The fourth explanation is not complete and can be challenged, I admit. There are a lot more stats to be presented. But simply pointing to gaps in our analysis so far does not make the fourth explanation wrong. Rather it points to the extra information needed. To my mind the first three explanations fail to answer the vast majority of points, and if we are going to question any explanations it should be these three. If we are going to work to complete the theory we need to do more on the fourth explanation.
I’ve decided to come back to this issue at this particular moment because of two things. First, because despite the fact that the first three explanations are always incomplete they are now being defended through an extraordinary selection of mis-directed arguments.
One of these has always been with us: Arsenal complain about the refs because they are losing games. They don’t complain about refs when they are winning. (A variation is, stop talking about the refs and let us focus on winning matches – the ref issue is a distraction. Some Arsenal web sites are really getting into this argument now).
But now consider this approach.
Alan Leighton, head of the referees’ union, Prospect, recently said that match officials feel beleaguered. “These are people who are used to pressure day in and day out – it’s not like they’re some kind of weaklings who can’t take it. But at this time of the season, we’re getting to a stage where it becomes very difficult for anybody to sensibly do a job. I think more and more referees will get to a stage of thinking: “Do I really want to put up with this?'”
He then went on to explore the argument that a bad decision one week often means a good decision the next week – without in any way exploring if this is a valid argument. To excuse bad judgements by saying it all balances out in the end seems ludicrous. We don’t say this about marketing students’ exams – sorry I know you did poorly in your maths exam and got less than you should, but you got more than you should in physics so it is ok. Even in the barbaric days of the death penalty in the UK we didn’t say, yes sorry, we hanged the wrong guy this time, but we let a guilty man get away last week so it is all right. You can’t excuse one error by making a second error.
Yet such an argument seems ok – and as such the whole Prospect piece is a clever ploy, since it not only fails to deal with the key issues, but it suggests the key issues do not exist. It takes it as a starting point that all is well with the referees and that it is the managers and fans and players who are out of order. If they would only shut up and let the refs get on with their work, and their mistakes, we would be ok.
And just in case you are not convinced, here’s Leighton’s actual words: “It would be nice if some managers recognise when they slag off a referee for having missed something, that they actually benefited from things that weren’t seen in a previous game.”
So refereeing as a mish mash of errors – hardly the way such a huge industry is run. Can you imagine what industry would say if HM Revenue and Customs (the UK tax collector) used this approach. “Yes Mr Attwood I know we demanded £250,000 too much tax from your company last year, but the year before you paid a bit less than you should, so its all right really.” I think not.
To try and unravel this, and get behind the smoke screen that the referees themselves are now putting out, we need to decide where the evidence takes us.
Part two will appear here shortly…
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