I was at the National Football Museum in Manchester a few weeks ago, and before my lad and I queued up for the video penalty shootout challenge (for the record, I was roundly beaten by a jubilant 12-year-old), we played the “You Are The Referee” game, based on the long-running feature in the Guardian newspaper.
I was on much stronger ground with this non-physical activity. 30-odd years of watching as much footy as I can fit in added to a bookish childhood spent poring over the copy of the laws of the game found in an FA pocket diary, mean that I like to think that I’m pretty au fait with even the more obscure rules under which the world’s most popular team sport has been built.
One of the questions in this quiz related to a famous incident - the beach ball incident against Liverpool at the Stadium of Light. I duly demonstrated my superior knowledge - of course, the goal never should have stood, but oh how we laughed... Sunderland had really had got away with one there!
We sometimes forget the ref, Mike Jones, was demoted to the Championship as a punishment for the mistake. It was a genuine mistake, a human error, something that shouldn't have happened but something that has gone down in the folklore of Sunderland AFC and the Premier League more generally. Jones might never be able to live it down, but we wouldn't have changed it for the world.
Then, just before my lad’s Under 13s game against his side’s local rivals this Saturday on a frosty 4G surface in my village, I was summonsed by one of the coaches. My heart sank as he opened his mouth, for I knew what was coming... would I be able to ref the game?
Of course, I agreed. There were 20 boys and girls in their smart new kits, plus countless parents, brothers and sisters on the sidelines who’d dragged themselves out of bed on a cold November morning for this game.
There was no way that my reluctance to run up and down the pitch for 70 minutes, whistleless, cardless, making honest but sketchy calls on offsides, free kicks, and penalties (I gave two penalties - one to each side - both disputed) - decisions that would likely colour the rest of these youngsters’ weekends - was going to be enough to stop me from agreeing. I was absolutely knackered afterwards, you can’t stop and you really have to concentrate.
That there was no actually trained, qualified, and equipped official at the game was hardly a rarity - there will be people reading this who ref their kids’ games regularly and probably do a much better job than I did - but I can say that when there is a proper referee it makes a hell of a difference to the experience for everyone.
They’re able to talk players through the match, ensure everyone is clear about why decisions have been given, and take up the right positions on the field, so they can make decisions - or at the very least not find themselves in the line of a throw-in.
We also know that there’s a horrible tendency, thankfully one I didn’t have to endure this weekend, for those who do put themselves forward to officiate at youth football and the adult grassroots game to be verbally abused and even physically assaulted for having the temerity to facilitate the application of the rules of the game as they see it.
Indeed, I assume it is more likely for a “proper” neutral ref to face abuse and intimidation, a stand-in parent is less likely to face overly competitive coaches, know-it-all parents or hormonal, immature kids getting in their faces and threatening them than someone wearing a full black kit with the FA badge who brandished a red card to little Jimmy or Jenny for denying a goalscoring opportunity.
What has this got to do with the ever-present concern about the quality of decision-making in the professional game in general and some of the concerns of Sunderland supporters this season in particular?
Well, for a start, the abuse of referees from players and spectators is clearly “learned behaviour”.
It’s obviously cultural, it’s something that is copied and carried down through the tiers and the age groups from the professional ranks. What people see at the top levels - and this goes for adults as well as kids - is copied when they’re in the park or on the school 4G pitch.
This is something that happens throughout our game but doesn’t happen in other football codes - particularly in rugby. The question as to why this is the case has been asked many times with a variety of answers, but for me, all roads ultimately lead back to us, the paying fans of professional football clubs watching in the stands or at home on pay TV.
I am part of this culture, at Sunderland men’s and women’s matches or at England internationals I am as likely as anyone reading this to be amongst the thousands vocally disagreeing with the calls I see made by the ref.
But I was brought up with the belief that, over the course of a season, the individual incidents will even themselves out for any given club and that, ultimately, trusting in the impartiality and honesty of referees is really important. It means that the players, coaches, and owners of the club we love have to take ownership of results and that at the end of the season, the table doesn’t lie.
And I rarely leave a game thinking that the reason the Lads or the Lasses haven’t got the result we wanted was because of poor refereeing, even if that obvious penalty for handball that wasn’t given to the women’s side the other week at Blackburn still narks, as does the penalty Jack Clarke didn’t get at Ewood too.
The old maxim that, if you’re relying on an offside call or a spot kick for three points, then you’ve really not done enough to deserve them, still applies for the most part. That’s not to say that there are no major issues with refereeing in English football today.
We’re all very aware of those times when the impartiality of referees has been questioned. It’s not just at the extremes like the Serie A corruption scandals to accusations and suspicions of impropriety at the 2002 World Cup, although it is certainly is still a potential issue when the rewards of taking a bribe are a lot higher than the money on offer.
We hear every week in the Premier League claims that the full-time professional referees - the elite - are more likely to side with one of the “Big 6” European Super League scab clubs over their less illustrious challengers. In the EFL Championship, we’ve been on the receiving end of a few well-below-par refereeing decisions this season that, if they had gone the other (the correct) way, would probably have seen us stilling very close to if not inside the playoff places right now.
In the Women’s Championship, we have amateur referees overseeing an increasingly fast-paced, physically demanding, and professional game. These are people - sometimes young women themselves - who have other jobs and commitments and are often travelling long distances to take games for not that much money, and so the mistakes they make need to be set in that context.
However, unless there are more referees coming through in grassroots football, which is the lifeblood of our whole game, then the pool of talent from which the elite level officials are drawn will be anaemic. Refs at the top will be left with little competition, with the inability of those who are performing poorly to be replaced with the sharp eyes and minds of the up-and-coming.
But this begs the question: who would be a ref these days, and how on earth do we bring through future generations of high-ranked officials into the game?
I’ve heard suggestions that the problem is that refereeing attracts officious pernickety characters, those with authoritarian mindsets, the power-hungry or even those with sadomasochistic tendencies. It’s claimed by some that they deserve the dog’s abuse they receive and more, that they’re all “Little Hitlers” who get a kick from ruining matches. My view of the world is not so dark and cynical.
99 percent of those who take the field to adjudicate games are doing so simply because they love football, they want to be involved in football, and they know that, without their commitment, football would not exist.
The sixth-former who turns up on a weekend or after school to take an under 10s game is unlikely to be a megalomanic, they’re simply the kind of community-minded young person that we’d all want our brothers, sisters, children or grandchildren to be. But it's these kids who are being chased away - sometimes literally - by the arseholes shouting from the sidelines up and down this country.
Yes, at the very top level the refereeing teams are paid and they can concentrate on improving and refining all aspects of their performance so that they can keep up with the unbelievable pace and power of the contemporary game, but this time and these resources are only available to a small minority. All those who do make it as pro-referees have come through the ranks while pursuing other careers - jobs that they’ve chosen to leave in order to reach the peak of football officialdom.
Yet we all still see the issues, week in week out. Inconsistency in decision-making is the most consistent concern that we hear from fellow fans, closely followed by a worry that the man or woman in the middle are only interested in their own ego or being the centre of attention, or are on the other hand overawed by the big occasion.
Accusations of actual conscious bias are rare, although the suspicion that some clubs get an easier ride than others has and always will be there.
I don’t have many solutions to the problem of quality in the upper ranks. Some sensibly suggest that we need to find ways to get more former footballers to make the move across the divide and take charge of games, they know how the game needs to be controlled and can communicate from a position of empathy and knowledge with their peers.
But on a practical level this becomes difficult - even in the professional game the money on offer is unlikely to be attractive to all but the most altruistic of former footballers - their own misdemeans and rivalries from their playing careers will haunt them wherever they go.
I am ambivalent when it comes to VAR. Personally, I think it has the potential to work, and when applied correctly can lead to the right decisions being made. But it needs to be refined and improved to get more consistency and with speed, because getting the right decision in a sport where the rewards are counted in the hundreds of millions of pounds is very important.
It’s important because, if people don’t believe in the system, if they think its rigged, if they think it’s unfair, then they will become angrier and angrier, and the vicious circle that leads to 16-year-old referees being attacked in park football will continue to whirl out of control.
There has been a very welcome decline of blind deference in our society over the past few decades. Questioning officialdom, critical thinking, and demanding fairness and evidence rather than tipping your cap to those who’ve been placed in authority is part of the modern democratic world. Unaccountable and entrenched authority, based on nothing more than tradition and seniority, is almost always a bad thing.
But fairness for all, particularly those without so much money and power, also requires clear and consistently applied rules and impartial arbiters. And we should always be open to learning from others and applying these lessons to our own situations.
So maybe we need to mic up with referees in the Premier League, the WSL and the men’s and women’s Championship, so that those watching on the TV and even in the stands know why a decision has been made.
It’s what happens in rugby, where someone of the diminutive stature of Nigel Owens is able to give a thorough dressing down to two 17 stone props and explain the often perplexing laws of that version of football to the thousands in the grounds and millions watching on the telly at the same time.
Perhaps if we’re able to hear the discussions between the referee and the players, and the on-field ref and the VAR or Fourth Official, then we will all learn a lot more about why a particular rule has been applied (or not applied) to a particular scenario, and some of the more egregious abuse that stems from the top and filters to the bottom will be halted.
Almost all controversy has been removed from cricket by the video referral system, and I think football should become open to allowing coaches or captains to request VAR look at a limited number of incidents during a game once the ball is out of play (the awarding of a corner, for example, or a second yellow card, which currently cannot be examined but which could change the course of a game). A reformed VAR, with more input and explanation, could be transformative to modern football’s often toxic culture.
Sunlight may well be the most effective disinfectant.