THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD by Don McMahon
Here’s a question: what happens when you say that you want to become a referee?
It’s actually not quite what you might think. For what actually happens is that you find you need a certain amount of strength to overcome the first hurdle. Which is the amazement and amusement one gets when announcing the news to your mates or team-mates as the case may be.
¨WTF lad, are you daft?¨ is the most likely and predictable response to such news. The second is, ¨ couldn’t hack it as a player eh?¨ and the third is ¨Our condolences lad!!!¨. These are actual statements my colleagues received when they told their mates about their decision to don the black. Encouraging isn’t it!
The second hurdle one must face is to register for the course and stick it out to the bitter end, hoping that the instructor will prove to be entertaining and interesting, if not at least enlightening.
In my case I had a retired former Scottish Professional League referee whose dower nature and unsympathetic impatience with his neophyte flock was surpassed only by his overwhelming disdain for any ¨kids¨ actually pretending they could match his vast and irrefutable expertise and experience. That said he did know the game and the Laws and was coherent and lucid in explaining them.
The third hurdle was (and still is) understanding the complexity of the letter of the Laws and an even greater challenge to grasp the spirit in which the Laws were written. There are 18 Laws but at least five of them (Fouls and misconduct, offside, penalties, the throw-in and the assistant referee) required some serious thought,careful and concise understanding and practice to apply them fairly on my part and I imagine among my colleagues as well.
The biggest hurdle for most of us is applying the Laws based on using common sense, fairness but firmness, visual confirmation, excellent positioning and communication among officials, coolness and calmness and most importantly a genuine concern for the Game and the players involved. These are skills that are learnt by hard work, countless errors, tolerating excess stress and a willingness to remain outside the temperature of the game and its nefarious influences (less than efficient assistants,irate managers, threatening crowds, aggressive players, mounting fatigue, fear, confusion, uncertainty etc.) and still do one’s job.
Once we have overcome these hurdles, we have one of the most massively dangerous and clandestine hurdles EVERY official must face at least once in his or her career. It is known as ¨the moment of truth¨ and maybe by other names as well, but I am too polite to repeat them on UA!
What it means is the moment when an official (referee or assistants) have to make a call or signal an event that can easily get them into serious trouble. For example; Serbian White Eagles are playing Croatia United in the local league and with the score 1-0 for SWE, one of their players handles the ball in their own penalty area. Simple decision right? Not so fast….there are 200 Serbs on one side of the pitch and another 100 Croatians on the other side. Make the ¨wrong¨call and you are literally in deep s**t!!!
BUT, and here is the rub, what is the RIGHT call? If you award a penalty and the Croats tie the game, you risk a very adverse reaction from the Serbs. If you ignore that obvious foul and ¨pretend¨ you didn’t see it, you enrage the Croats. Don’t even think that the Serbs will protect you if the Croats decide to lynch you, they’ll happily provide the rope. By the way it could be any 2 teams at any time…..
I am speaking from experience and anyone on UA who has officiated on a regular basis will recognize this dilemma immediately. I have seen the entire gamut of decisions from fearlessly awarding a penalty, to cheerfully ignoring the foul and in between (awarding a direct free kick outside the penalty area, awarding an indirect free kick inside the penalty area, awarding a free kick against the team expecting a penalty and so on).
The moment of truth actually means doing your duty and calling it as it is…..once a referee does that, he or she has earned his or her stripes. Once they fail that test, they can NEVER be trusted to do the job fairly and honestly again no matter how good they were previously…..once doubt creeps in, it rarely disappears.
There are numerous other hurdles around such as; getting and staying fit, the use of alcohol before or during the game (believe it or not), bias for one team/player or another, injuries, poor or indifferent communication with your assistants, lack of organization in your preparations (forgetting a second whistle, watch etc.) sexism or racism, staying updated on the Laws, game reporting and discipline procedures, the temptation to argue with players,coaches or fans,etc.
Hopefully you can get a preliminary idea of what a referee must do to become a ¨good¨ official and maintain his or her ranking as one over a 25-40 year career. In refereeing we say that the ref is only as good as his/her next game and how true that is.
One thing I must mention is the idea that a good player/coach/manager (or any player for that matter) will inevitably make a good referee. This is simply and patently untrue. There are some excellent officials who were also excellent players but the mental, attitudinal and physical preparation of a great official is far more demanding than that of a player, for numerous reasons, but specifically because a player is competitive, biased, replaceable and usually asked to do one limited task…..the officials are rarely if ever required to be or do the above and in actual fact are asked to be the opposite most of the time.
That said, I will never regret my 40 years as a referee and would do it all over again if I could.
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