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Sensibility & Passion - Why Football Needs To Find A Balance If Referees Are To Succeed

The performances of officials in the Premier League has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, but is it fair that referees and their assistants are assessed so harshly when their job relies upon basic human judgement?

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Football today is a far cry from the game that existed yesteryear - the eighties and nineties would see brawls erupt at the drop of a hat and the grating of studs. Stranded amidst an island of angry, testosterone-fuelled men with a grudge to bear, officials were more likely to end up with bruises rather than plaudits as they made all efforts to establish some modicum of order in the orgy of abuse and punches. Hooliganism became a recognised symptom of society rather than a cause for anarchy.

We get it - while the vast majority of football fans don't admit to taking any kind of pleasure from the violence that can be induced by the pressure and momentum of the most potent and unforgiving of leagues, the Premier League, we all have days where we sit and think "F**k off ref! Ya useless bas***d", allowing ourselves a brief fantasy of a world in which the referee ends up on his arse with a bloody nose for being so needlessly wrong about whatever they've sent Cattermole off for this time.

Of course, we all appreciate the need for a degree of professionalism and for our heroes on the pitch to comport themselves as just that. So it would come as no surprise when rules and laws were created to stem the flow of violence and other behaviour deemed "unsporting." These are rule changes we can all accept, a necessary evil to combat the rising tide that maintains the fluidity and enjoyment of the game whilst still being fair to all parties.

Yet as we know, there are regular rule changes in Football - and a fair few of them annoy me personally.

Since 2010 it has been illegal to feint during a penalty. So, at the end of a run up to the penalty kick, the player cannot feint a shot to confuse the keeper. Until recently this resulted in the retaking of the penalty but now the player will be booked and the penalty cancelled.

What's wrong with this? Well, from my perspective, one of the great lures of a penalty is the psychological battle between the 'keeper and the shooter. If you take away the "psych-out" factor it's like watching a 'keeper warm up before a game. It becomes more about functional points in the game than surprise or melodrama.

Shoulder charging. By the laws of the game a player can engage in this tackle provided they are within three feet of the ball, a legitimate attempt is made to gain the ball and not simply knock the opponent down and it is shoulder to shoulder, not arm, chest, back, etc - this past weekend alone I watched at least three such legal challenges pulled back for a free kick. The ball was won, one player went down but did so as the result of a lack of equal strength to their opponent or they went down specifically to get the free kick and make the legal challenge seem illegal. Now this is where the real issue caused for officials comes in to the argument - cheating. The big C.

It's commonly accepted by managers and players that there should be such a thing as a "professional foul". We accept this quiet, unwritten fact of the sport we love because, for example, when our striker is breaking away in a counter attack and both centre halves are too slow to come back from the set piece, a player - often a defensive midfielder - will happily make a challenge like a shirt-pull or a cheeky trip and accept the yellow card as taking one for the team and such things will be adjudged "professional fouls". In order to make this sort of offence more serious one cannot simply increase the penalty from a yellow to a red because that would be considered far too harsh and there would be a guaranteed sending off in almost every single game of football played in a single day.

On top of this, officials are having to take in to account the actions of modern footballers who will also dive, hold their heads in phantom pain, roll on the floor going "ayaaaaa, ayaaaaa, nat, nat, nat" until the advantage comes back to their team at which point a miracle occurs and they unaccountably no longer have a broken leg/arm/back.

How, as an official, do you deal with all of these liars and cheaters and chancers?

Evidently, you have to make other offenses more serious, thereby forcing players to think with their heads rather than their hearts.

Regardless of the ultimate concern behind the constant manipulation of rules of the game - player safety, enjoyment of the game, fair laws to keep the playing field level - it remains a fact that players and managers themselves force the institution to constantly review everything.

This has all inexorably led to a kind of "nanny state" on the pitch. Now, to combat the manipulation of rules by players, the referee cannot be forced in to a position where he's being shouted down by twenty adrenaline-fuelled athletes. As a result, any issues with any decisions made are to be approached within due course, calmly, by the captain of either team providing it does not break play and they comport themselves with sportsmanlike behaviour.

Let's make this relatable though, shall we? At some point in most of our lives we have come across or been directly involved in a tense situation with the authorities. Perhaps it's a night out and someone is assaulted, they retaliate but in spite of their legitimate right to defend themselves they are treat by the authorities as if they were the aggressor. Like any football official all police officers are human individuals and subject to the same fluctuations in emotions as a chemical response to fight or flight situations. It is true that as officials they are trained and conditioned to be better able to handle such situations than your average pub punter but nevertheless this conditioning means nothing once the human is pushed to their breaking point. And of course every human is capable of human error.

When this person in authority is found to be wrong or becomes anxious of their position becoming untenable for whatever reason, they will react in unpredictable ways. Referees seventy minutes through a heated game might book a player for looking at them the wrong way, cursing at them or acting in any way aggressively. The sad fact of this ignorance of human nature within high-pressure sport has as equally contributed to the most recent changes of rules of the game as the incessant cheating and jostling for whatever minor advantage by the managers and players. Now, if you look at the referee in a manner that displeases him or use an expletive like pretty much every human on earth when frustrated by the decisions of another, it is a bookable offence. If you so much as "move towards the official in an aggressive manner" (i.e. running whilst frowning and raising ones voice) that is a bookable offence.

This in turn has led to widespread outrage from the terraces and armchairs of the nation. Where once a referee would be hated for his inability to see, the crowd now turn against him within ten minutes of kick off. Imagine being the reason that 40,000 people are spewing vitriol from the stands and keeping your composure. I am amazed that so far no officials have been the victims of coins and other such nasty little weapons and I fear it won't be long before we start hearing threats of closed matches and team fines throughout the divisions as a result.

My ultimate argument here is that a balance needs to be struck between sensibility and passion. Human emotions need to be allowed for rather than forced and squeezed in to constraints. The sport itself has thrived for hundreds of years in spite of the very real threat of injury and all that entails. As the years change and we as a society are forced to become more restrained and careful for fear of ostracism and hurt feelings, we cannot forget that our human qualities are what make sport worthy of our affections.

All that said - the ref in the Watford game was abysmal. Blind as a bat with an axe to grind, he wants to be queuing at the Jobcentre with a performance like that and it's only going to get worse as the season drags on.

And don't get me started on the infuriating decision to stay away from visual replays for the use of officials, because that's another ramble altogether.