The Rational Ref

No quarter given to match officials in the line of fire

Unlike the unyielding support keepers get if they fail to do their job, those with the whistle are maligned for every mistake on the pitch

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 9:31pm

Goalkeepers have it tough being in the line of fire. In addition to fending off goal-bound shots within the field of play, they have to fend off pot shots from outside, too. Joe Hart, the England and Manchester City number one, is facing plenty because of his poor form and high-profile mistakes.

These criticisms surface at a crucial time, with England's two World Cup qualifiers against Montenegro tonight and Poland next Tuesday. Any blunder during these next two matches will almost certainly mean England will not top their qualifying group, and could face elimination from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

According to former England great Peter Shilton, a goalkeeper is permitted to make one mistake every 18 months. "Being a keeper is a bit like being prime minister. You need a thick skin, must take criticism, come out fighting and prove people wrong," said Shilton. "I used to tell Gary Lineker he could miss five chances and still be a hero if he scored. We make one mistake and we're idiots."

For match officials, there is no leeway. They are vilified for making any mistake and even crucified for making correct decisions

Last weekend, Hart's teammate, Sergio Aguero, embarrassed himself when he fluffed a chance to score by tripping over his own feet. Despite this and a number of other misses, Aguero eventually scored the second goal in City's 3-1 win over Everton, and his earlier mistake was forgotten. Unlike strikers, when goalkeepers make mistakes it is hard to kick away criticism.

Hart, 26, has made more than one mistake in 18 months. This season he has made blunders at club competitions and international level; most notably in the English Premier League against Cardiff City and Everton, in the Champions League against Bayern Munich, and in the international friendly against Scotland.

However, City manager Manuel Pellegrini stuck by Hart last weekend against Everton and has urged England manager Roy Hodgson to do likewise in the World Cup qualifiers.

Hart should have done better with Everton's opening goal from Romelu Lukaku, but Pellegrini refused to blame his keeper. "The responsibility for the goal is always for the whole team. It's not fair, always analysing what Joe Hart did, although it's your job," said Pellegrini.

England captain Steven Gerrard has also backed Hart by saying: "He is going through a bit of a tough time, but he has got the character and ability to play his way through it."

Having the right character, personality and mental toughness to cope at the highest levels is imperative. Unwavering loyalty from teammates and coaches, especially in the face of contrary evidence, is equally vital for anyone involved in the game.

This trust and loyalty is generally given to all players and coaches who make mistakes; even in Hong Kong. In the HKFA Second Division two weeks ago, HKFC's new keeper made a crucial blunder that led to his side's 1-0 loss to Wong Tai Sin. Nevertheless, he was picked the following week and subsequently kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win against Wan Chai.

The wonderful thing about soccer is that there is always support, trust and loyalty from teammates and club. It is this vote of confidence that provides the crucial psychological boost to help someone perform to their optimal level. It is what makes soccer a true team sport, but at the same time it encourages bias, favouritism and even blind loyalty.

Players are allowed to make plenty of mistakes. Although they receive criticism, ultimately they are entrusted to get back on the pitch and become heroes and role models again.

For match officials, there is no leeway. They are vilified for making any mistake and even crucified for making correct decisions that are unpopular to one team. The criticism Hart has faced is trifling compared with what match officials encounter.

Furthermore, match officials deserve support from the authorities. Yet the appeals process, like the FA's disciplinary procedures for EPL matches, gives the impression there is little support for match officials and is present merely as a grievance route for clubs, coaches and players.

Considering the fact that match officials survive the constant barrage of criticism and abuse, and return to the pitch to start afresh without any bias, prejudice or bitterness, we can only applaud their strength of character, commitment and resolve.


  • A final note: The good news is the HKFA has decided to expand the FA Cup competition to include 16 teams this season, instead of using just the 12 First Division teams. The extra four teams will come from the semi-finalists of the Junior Shield competition, the traditional knockout contest for HKFA clubs in the lower divisions. Looking further ahead, how much expansion can be afforded to the FA Cup to make it even more "romantic"? There are plenty of good amateur teams who play in non-HKFA leagues and who do not use HKFA-registered players. Will the HKFA consider further expansion?


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