Graham Poll was refereeing an evening game at Everton. When he arrived at Goodison, long before kick-off, he headed straight out onto the pitch; part of his pre-match ritual was always to take an early look at the playing surface and re-familiarise himself with the layout of the stands, the tunnel, the dug-outs and so-on.
Some youngish lads were hanging about in seats near the mouth of the tunnel. They had autograph books and asked for his signature. Bemused, he signed each proffered book, making a joke about it being rare that anyone wanted a ref’s autograph.
The Guardian’s Dominic Fifield either saw the scene or was told about it and, in his following morning’s report, wrote:
“Poll’s apparent desire to be the centre of attention – he was signing autographs prior to kick-off – is unhelpful when he attempts to officiate.”
On talkSPORT radio, Alan Brazil told listeners that the autographs incident showed that Poll loved himself. Callers to Brazil’s show agreed. One said: “He’s Mr Big Time Charlie, Mr Superstar who loves the attention”.
A few days later, Patrick Collins said: “Poll loves being in the media”. Collins said that on a TV show, yet without any apparent irony or self-awareness.
Now imagine a different scenario. Suppose Poll had declined to sign the lads’ autograph books.
In those circumstances, I would have expected Fifield, Brazil, the phone-in caller and Collins to condemn Poll for being arrogant, Mr Billy Big Boots, too self-important to spare a minute for young football reporters.
Despite what you probably believe, the last thing Poll ever wanted was controversy or media attention. He armed himself with a brusqueness of manner as a way of pretending not to be affected by spending his entire working life being abused. But actually, he was and is thoroughly kind, generous and decent person.
I collaborated with him on his autobiography. It was launched at a bookshop in Tring and, during the evening, I saw his smashing mum surreptitiously wiping away a tear. I asked her what was wrong. She said: “I’ve never been with Graham in a crowd when people have been nice to him”.
I doubt you care about that.
Like Fifield, Collins and Brazil, most journalists, broadcasters and fans have made up their minds about referees – and so look at their actions through the distorting prism of unfair preconceptions. Managers have the same jaundiced attitude. So do players, chairmen, armchair fans — hell, it’s everyone who isn’t actually a ref.
Comments which start: “I know it’s a hard job but …” are like those that begin: “I’m not a racist but …”. A perniciously prejudiced remark always follows. The most common critique is the cliché: “He was the worst ref I’ve seen this season/ever”.
The truth, though, is that our top refs are extraordinarily good.
They should be, mind you, because the Premier League have thrown a fortune at refereeing.
A team of sports scientists, psychologists, physiotherapists, sprint coaches and dieticians works with the refs. Each official has an individually-tailored fitness regime — and there’s no skiving off because they train wearing monitors recording their daily work-outs.
They need that fitness. On average, a ref runs 12 miles every game — alternating jogs with stamina-sapping sprints. And a ref makes a decision every 30 seconds: do I run there or there?, do I respond to that shout by that player?, can I see my assistant from this position? They are not all critical decisions, by any means, but it all makes refereeing mentally exhausting as well as physically demanding.
Then there are the big calls: when the referee blows his whistle (or decides not to) for what might or might not be an offence. Every single one of those decisions in every single match is reviewed in the following days using Pro-Zone — a software package that allows the ref (and his appraiser) to look at incidents from many angles and which generates detailed statistics about how the ref went about his job.
Imagine a similar analysis of you in your job.
So if all this time, effort and money is being lavished on making refs better, why are so many of you convinced they’re nearly all rubbish?
There are two aspects of psychology at play. One is that, as fans, we are so frustrated when a decision doesn’t go our team’s way that we become increasingly infuriated with the official responsible. The other is that we instinctively accept a decision that goes our way as being just the correct thing to do. There is no mental tick in the credit column.
So when, for instance, Norwich fans thought about Robert Jones’s handling of the game in that town in Suffolk, there was a heap of criticism and scant praise — yet the single biggest call of the game was to book Jordan Graham for diving rather than award a penalty.
“Yeah, but what about the studs in the face for Grant Hanley? What about all the fouls he missed?”
But, of course, Ipswich fans believe he missed terrible fouls by our players. “How did Jordan Rhodes apparently hurt his face when he had his back to a defender and was striking that player with his elbow?”
That’s how football works. Fans of every club in the land believe they’ve had a rough deal from refs. It’s because passion is involved, and passion swamps reason.
If you go to games in which you have no passion for either team, you’ll hear both sets of fans complaining that they are hard-done-by and you will probably think — entirely dispassionately for once — that the ref did OK, on the whole.
It’s worth considering how referees came to exist. In the earliest days of Association Football, the captains decided whether there had been a foul, etc. That idea didn’t work (quel surprise!) and so each club was asked to provide a non-playing arbiter to stand together on the sideline and share the decisions. Again, it won’t be much of a surprise to learn that they couldn’t always agree. So a third person, a complete neutral, was added. The chaps on the side-line referred to him when disputes occurred.
The non-partisan third party to whom they referred became known, in time, as the referee.
Fast forward to 2018. The players are all cheating — routinely claiming they’ve been fouled when they haven’t, brazenly protesting their innocence when they know they’ve sinned, lying about every other throw-in, slyly grabbing shirts or shorts, deliberately pressurising officials with a chorus of complaints.
Most of the spectators, pundits and participants don’t really know the laws of football. And some managers — the Warnocks and Mourinhos — denigrate referees with such predictable regularity that people laugh at them. Yet most of the folk scoffing at those managers have their own hair-trigger cynicism towards officials.
There’s an arrogance involved in all this carping at refs. It is an attitude that says: “All the experts, all over the world, who have worked so long to improve refereeing, and all the people involved in refereeing now, they’re all incompetent because the refs I see are rubbish”.
It couldn’t be something that’s going on in your head instead, could it?
Meanwhile, the referees themselves are still what they were all those years ago — neutral third parties: arbiters, with no axe to grind, striving to the best of their ability, to make fair judgements.
They make mistakes. Of course. But generally, they make fewer than anyone else on the pitch.
So when I mentor teenaged girls and boys who are just starting out as referees, I tell them that they only need to be able to do one thing. They must be able to say to themselves: “Despite all that was shouted by parents, despite the incredible difficulty of judging some of the incidents — despite everything — I did my utmost to respond honestly to what I believed I had seen at the time.”
It’s such a crying shame so many people have already made up their minds about them.