x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A good football referee should go unnoticed

The relationship between players and referees is an unusual one. Kids aspire to be footballers, but only odd ones aspire to be refs.

Mark Halsey is the type of referee Andrew Cole appreciated during his playing days - civil and willing to banter, one who would 'talk to you like a fellow human being'. Richard Lee / Sportimage
Mark Halsey is the type of referee Andrew Cole appreciated during his playing days - civil and willing to banter, one who would 'talk to you like a fellow human being'. Richard Lee / Sportimage

Interesting extracts from Mark Halsey’s autobiography this week.

If you don’t know Mark – and I think there’s a strong argument for referees not having a high public profile, for not signing autographs for fans – then I’ll tell you about him.

Mark was a good referee who overcame cancer. He thought he had a throat infection; he had a big black tumour at the back of his throat from an aggressive grade of lymphoma. Then his wife was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Halsey has got a story to tell. He’s produced a book in which he also claims that Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel threatened to break the legs of the referee Mark Clattenburg.

If true, Clattenburg really shouldn’t have worried. Mikel rarely makes a tackle on the pitch, so the likelihood of him making contact and breaking someone’s legs was rare. It’s not like Roy Keane was making the threat.

Of course, referees shouldn’t be subjected to threats by players. And they shouldn’t get death threats from fans, but they need putting into context.

A lot of things are said in the heat of the moment in football. There’s a lot of hot air and abuse. Players get it, managers get it and referees get it. It goes with the territory and much of it should be ignored.

The relationship between players and referees is an unusual one, though. Kids aspire to be footballers, but only odd ones aspire to be refs.

There’s a class issue, too.

A lot of referees are nice middle-class boys who said “Yes, sir” to teachers at their posh schools.

Footballers tend to be working-class lads who sometimes forget the niceties. There’s a mutual distrust that isn’t helped by the manner in which the two communicate.

I’ve come across many a ref who resembles a headmaster. If you question a decision, they talk down to you by giving you a full lecture on the history of the rules of the game

They tell you that they’ll give the orders and if you don’t listen to them then you’ll get booked. They go on about the letter of the law when common sense is a better tool. They insist that you don’t come within five metres of them. They will move a ball back 15 centimetres for a free kick. It’s as if they have made the mistake of thinking that the fans have come to watch them.

I despised referees like this. It became personal and I became convinced that they had a vendetta against me. I now appreciate that they just don’t get the football environment – and why should they when they drop in and out of it for 90 minutes a week? It might be an idea for referees to spend more time at training grounds and plug into football banter. Then you’ll get the civil referees, like Halsey, who talk to you like a fellow human being and ask you how you are. They may say they’ve not seen you for a while and ask how the family is.

When you speak to them and question their decisions, they possess the social skills to deal with you. Graham Poll was also a great referee. I once told him that he was having a terrible game. He replied quickly that such a comment was rich coming from me given how I was playing, then added: “And how much did you cost again?” He ran off shaking his head, as if he was embarrassed for the club who’d paid millions for me.

I liked that. Banter breeds respect and trust. Poll and Halsey liked the game to flow, too.

Referees were invariably terrible footballers; that’s why they chose to be referees. That breeds mistrust, too. They watch the ball and don’t understand the nuances, the sly off-the-ball incidents. They get so many good challenges wrong and miss bad ones. Referees are going to make mistakes. And it’s not easy when every decision is being analysed in slow-motion replays, but I always think there’s room for improvement.

Referees have become professional and fitness levels have risen.

I saw some comedy sights when I was younger, referees who weren’t fit enough to be doing their job.

That has changed, but the quality of decision making hasn’t. And there are now millions of armchair experts who can see exactly how big a mistake has been made. Technology won’t sort it all; a better understanding between players and refs can only help. As could some ex-players becoming referees.

Andrew Cole’s column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

sports@thenational.ae