Jack the Lad: In defence of officials

4th April

Loyal Swans fan and website columnist Jack the Lad wonders if it's time for us all to cut referees some slack.

This may not be the most popular of opinions in South Wales at the moment, but I am going to stick up for referees.

Hang on while I don my flack jacket and helmet before continuing, and please hear me out before sending my details to Neil Warnock.

Even though the Swans have also suffered from some shocking decisions in recent weeks, I still think our referees and their assistants deserve to be cut a little slack by the football world in general.

They are human, and humans make mistakes.

It always puzzles me why top players are generally forgiven for errors, but referees aren’t.

We accept that players may drift in and out of form at times, but expect referees to be at the top of their game permanently. We demand them to be perfect every single game.

There’s a fan who sits near me at the Liberty who my friend and I have affectionately dubbed 'The Referee's Assessor'.

I have rarely heard him utter a word of criticism towards a player, either home or visiting.

Players may misplace a pass, shoot wide from a couple of yards, fumble a cross and rarely will he raise his voice.

But the officials . . . that is an entirely different matter. At the slightest hint of a contentious decision, even a wrongly awarded throw-in, he bellows criticism, even when they are clearly right and he is wrong.

Why is it players are allowed to make genuine errors on the field, but referees aren’t?

When Millwall’s goalkeeper made that dreadful error in the dying minutes of their FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Brighton, the general emotion towards him was sympathy.

If a referee had dropped a similarly calamitous clanger, would the general public have been quite so understanding?

Before you start jumping to the conclusion that I am indeed a referee, related to a referee or have ambitions to become a referee, I can assure you none of the above is true.

There is absolutely no way on earth you would ever get me to officiate at any kind of football match, from under-eights up to the Premier League, or anywhere else in between.

I played for more than 20 years in the notoriously 'physical' Neath and District Football League. I wouldn’t swap being kicked, elbowed, hacked, punched, or any of the other 'physical' challenges I faced in all those 20-plus years for just one half of football as a referee at any level.

On the occasions when I was surplus to requirements in the starting XI for my village team, I would always make sure I loitered around the changing rooms clearing spare kit from the floor, or filling water bottles for an extra 10 minutes before taking my place on the touchline for fear of being employed as a stand-in ref or linesman.

I’d have cleaned the changing room toilets with a toothbrush if I thought it meant avoiding being press-ganged into taking either the whistle or the flag.

I have the utmost respect for officials, but I would never be one – especially in the professional game.

I wouldn’t fancy trying to keep up with the likes of Daniel James and making a split-second judgement about whether he was onside when a 60-yard through ball from the other end of the pitch was actually kicked.

Anyway, I’d be rubbish at it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been 100 per cent convinced I was right about a decision only to be proved completely wrong a few hours later by the TV highlights.

It’s simply not possible for a referee and his linesmen to see every single incident throughout the course of 90 minutes and interpret them in exactly the same way as the majority of those watching the match – especially those with the advantage of several multi-angled action replays in HD.

Apparently the top officials get something in the region of 98 per cent of decisions right. How many players can boast a 98 per cent pass completion rate?

And what about managers? How many incidents did Arsene Wenger miss during the course of his long career at Arsenal. They might as well have put “I did not see” on a loop during his post-match interviews.

Talking of post-match interviews; I don’t think the general air of mystery surrounding referees’ decisions helps.

I’m not saying they should be routinely wheeled before the cameras immediately after a game to be interrogated and explain themselves with bright lights shining into their eyes.

But I feel they should be given the opportunity, if they wish, to explain decisions, or even apologise, when they know they have made a genuine mistake.

It would take away the air of mystery around decisions which fans sometimes interpret as some kind of cover up or conspiracy against their team.

The best officials I was ever refereed by were the ones who communicated openly and easily with the players – sharing a joke and explaining decisions.

Let’s bring the barriers down and let them communicate with the rest of us.

To err is human. We all do it. Players have the opportunity to explain why they missed an open goal from three yards or dropped a cross at a centre-forward’s feet if they wish to, why shouldn’t referees do the same?

Hearing the reason why they did or didn’t give a decision, might make them a little more human in the eyes of fans and help us understand why they came to the conclusion they did.

One point I will agree with Neil Warnock on is that refs need help in the shape of VAR, and the sooner the better.

The new technology shouldn’t be used to beat the referees with when they get things wrong, but be there to help them out when a clear and obvious mistake has been made. Let’s help refs be the best they can possibly be.

The thing that angered me about the decisions during our FA Cup game against Manchester City wasn’t that the referee and his assistants got them wrong – as frustrating and annoying as that undoubtedly was - it was that VAR wasn’t available when it should have been.

So, the next time a referee makes an apparently bad call during a game, let’s think twice about dusting off that old song questioning their parentage, and remember they are human beings after all, and we all make mistakes.

C’mon you Swans!