Tide of abuse give refs hard time for doing tough job - ensuring fair play
Good and bad decisions in games balance themselves out in the end, but officials deserve respect both on and off the pitch
It is touch and go whether the Nuneaton and District Sunday League teams will kick off this weekend.
The schedule might again be cancelled because of a lack of referees. The militant umpires went on strike last weekend because one of their comrades needed hospital treatment after being repeatedly punched in the face by a player he sent off.
The player has been banned for five years and police are investigating, but the refs are demanding more respect and safety assurances, and who can blame them.
Tens of thousands of amateur leagues across the world rely just as much on officials to function as the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, et al. These district men and women volunteer to ensure football is played in the spirit intended by the game's founding fathers 150 years ago - with fairness, competitive fun and by the rules.
Yet there are myriad forces working against refs. Overreaction from hostile players, managers and fans towards bookings, penalties, disallowed goals and other horrors have long been par for the course.
This month has been an unusually bad time for the men in black, culminating in the sending off of Sunderland's Wes Brown last week during the Black Cats' defeat at Stoke. The endless replays prove ref Kevin Friend was in some way deceived by a trick of the light or by a rebellious blade of grass.
Revelations of a Singaporean arrested for offering £20,000 (HK$253,000) to refs also cast the dark shadow of China's notorious "Black Whistles" across the English game, though there is no evidence to suggest EPL officials are involved.
Whatever Friend's excuse, Brown's tackle on Charlie Adam was cleaner than a freshly scrubbed bar of soap.
For the second time this season, Friend has been dropped from officiating this weekend; he made controversial decisions during Southampton's game against West Brom and Aston Villa's match against Chelsea.
Friend is perhaps an unfortunate name for a ref. They are solitary figures working a lonely occupation. Their nearest colleagues - linesmen and the fourth official - are a universe away on the other side of a thin, but significant white line.
Nine times out of 10 when the ref looks to them for support they see only a rigid figure with a limp flag at their side wearing an expression that clearly states: "Don't ask me! I haven't a clue!"
A trawl of the media and court lists reveals a weekly catalogue of incidents detailing how the hapless arbiters of the game are assaulted, insulted, abused, outcast and generally unloved - even by their own tribe. Take gay amateur football referee Joe Richardson from Dundee in Scotland.
He told a court this week how he was abused and his partner threatened during and after games. Yet when he turned to his local referees' association for support, they snubbed him.
"This has caused depression and left me feeling isolated as at no point did the association ask me how I was coping," Richardson said.
Old terrace myths oft repeated by fans around the half-time meat-pie dispensers include refs being hounded to the city limits, of being shot at, kidnapped and even killed.
Thank goodness such extremism is rare. We mostly treat refs as pantomime baddie figures to jeer and poke fun at, though we quietly respect and give thanks for their contributions.
But given what can happen, why would anyone become a referee?
Many crack under the strain - just like EPL referee chief Mike Riley. He apologised to West Brom manager Steve Clarke for the controversial penalty awarded against his side by Andre Marriner in the 2-2 draw at Chelsea this month. Eden Hazard duly converted the stoppage time spot kick.
If ever there was a myopic ref, then Riley is surely him. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho went into a strop and asked why he never received a phone apology about a bad challenge on one of his players.
Riley has set a damaging precedent and came across as weak if not ridiculous, while West Brom appear bad losers. It was revealed the club had written to Riley and the EPL, complaining of four penalty decisions that have gone against them this season. They believe they would have been seven points better off if it were not for refs. So Riley said, "sorry."
Agreed, this month there has been an exceptional number of inexplicable decisions. But the overreaction to Brown's red and West Brom's whinging have created an unnecessary witch hunt.
Countless voices have waded in on various media platforms to create a tide of extreme anger, juvenile sentimentality and fanatical desire to punish refs.
Who is to doubt that within a decade we could witness end-of-season court cases where EPL refs are in the dock, accused of costing a team a crucial point that led to relegation and the loss of millions in finance to shareholders and the board? The game is already in danger of becoming a sterile environment where risk, fate and luck are eradicated by technology, and deluded desire for perfection is perpetrated by the unnecessary and relentless scrutiny of this soul-destroying age of Twitter.
We have to resist the call for game-time video replays of every goal, free kick, booking, throw-in, et al. This would kill the pace of matches and turn the atmosphere at stadiums to a monastery's library.
Instead, we have to continue to believe that good and bad decisions by refs balance themselves out if not by the end of this season, then by the end of the next.
While refs have a duty to be fit, up on the rules, fair and unbiased in their moral obligation to get everything right for 90 minutes, human frailties will make an appearance. And we fans must demand such failings continue to play their crucial part of the theatre.
The Nuneaton pitches might well remain empty this weekend. Let's hope it's not a portent.