One of the pacts that I've made writing this blog is not to criticise referees. I cannot always control myself on Twitter - fans are as fans do - but here I do my best not to vent.
My issue is that I find the focus on refereeing which accompanies most football matches these days unhelpful at best and noxious at worse. All too often the talking points are not the sumptuous attacking moves, the strategic errors of the manager or the defensive brilliance or lack thereof. Instead, we focus on one moment where the referee called something one way which, apparently, was more important than all the other things in a match - and in the build-up.
We could do with listening to Jock Stein. 'If you're good enough, the referee doesn't matter'. Of course, most of those complaining aren't good enough. So today, yes, Liverpool probably should have had a second penalty versus Arsenal but a penalty doesn't always equal a goal. Never mind Sturridge missing three chances he would be expected to score. Never mind Agger's missed header. If Liverpool - my team - had done their job the referee would have been irrelevant.
That isn't to give Webb a free pass. I can think of no other major referee who goes missing in big games, who so consistently seems to make bad decisions (usually in favour of the home team), and who is so obviously over-rated. Clearly, he should have an answer to why Liverpool didn't get that 2nd penalty (and other controversial matters like Gerrard's foul when on a booking and Podolski's fairly heinous foul). But he will never have to answer. He has power. He has responsibility. He has no accountability. I don't think that helps the game or, for that matter, the referees themselves.
The focus on one-off calls happens far too often. Most managers will discuss the referees performance post game as the default option. Most players will talk about an incident that, in their view, changed the game. This, no doubt, makes sense when viewed in isolation - rather than talk about their failings or errors they can put the pressure elsewhere.
The cumulative effect of managers, players and pundits endlessly focusing on refereeing decisions I think undermines referees.
So how do we fix it?
I'm not a fan of video technology in football. I think that introducing it would lead to an even more toxic atmosphere. Imagine, for instance, if Howard Webb today had chosen not to review a penalty decision today? That would clearly lead to more criticism rather than less.
Firstly, making referees wear microphones. I think that would lead to better decision-making in the game as it is likely referees would have to justify their decision on the pitch. It would reinforce that they only get to see an incident once and they could explain in real time what they saw. The other positive effect would be that it would lead, inevitably, to better behaviour because players swearing and name-calling would be stamped out. That is a good thing. Today, when Webb didn't give the second penalty it is likely that Gerrard, as captain, or Suarez, as the fouled player, could ask ''why wasn't that given referee?'. The referee would, knowing that this would be being listened to, could explain this.
Secondly, referees are in a tough job but it is a professional role. I think it is reasonable that individuals who are so integral to the game should be interviewed after the game. It helps ensure accountability, allow referees to explain decisions (including allowing them to explain why they applied the law in a certain way) and would end the secrecy around them. Accountability is a good thing for most jobs. Why wouldn't it be for referees? Moreover, at present, managers and players can mouth off knowing they'll never be countered or contradicted by the referee. They know the referee will never explain why a decision was called a certain way so they can act with impunity. Making referees face the media will lead to better decision-making and, in due course, a less toxic atmosphere around the game.
I'd imagine that the first few weeks of these systems being introduced would be pretty brutal for the referees. It would be like watching the Spanish inquisition at first. I think, however, in due course it would lead to a better footballing culture.
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