Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The curse of neutrality - referees as fans

Lincoln City v Coventry City, Nov 18, 2017

Almost 36 years to the day before this game I was watching the same home team, Lincoln City, in the same stadium, Sincil Bank. I was on my own, and standing on a long since demolished section of terrace close to the player’s tunnel. I’d never stood there before and I never stood there again, but when the final whistle went I moved close to the tunnel to take a closer look at my heroes as they left the field following a 2-1 victory.

A game I was at just
36 years ago.
You’d think the fans would have been happy at the result, and I believe that most of them were. One man was genuinely furious, though. As the three referees approached the tunnel, I could see him jumping up and down in anticipation. As they walked down the tunnel he yelled, “Bloody disgraceful, referee, you’re an absolute bloody disgrace.”

The referee’s performance had been entirely unremarkable.

Fast forward three dozen years and I’m standing at almost exactly the same spot, except on the other side of the tunnel - it’s the first time I’ve been this close since that game in 1981. This time Lincoln have deservedly lost 2-1, but myself and several fans are applauding them off the field for their effort, and because they played their part in a fast and entertaining game of football.

Then the three referees approach the exit. In my view they have done well to keep a furious party under control, even as they followed the modern trend for ignoring several clear cases of pushing, shoving and holding. One man among us, however, is livid. As soon as the officials are within earshot,
he spews out a stream of invective about their performance, then turns around and marches off in the same fit of righteous fury as his counterpart from 36 years ago.

I’d watched the game next to a very bright Lincoln fan called Gary Hutchinson, who writes the exemplary Stacey West blog, my first stop for independent analysis and information about the club and the current team. During the game, though, he admitted that he watches through glasses that are deeply tinted with the club’s red and white stripes. His outrage at some of the calls was only curbed by my murmured asides that the referee had in fact made exactly the right decision.

Anti-neutrality specs for Lincoln City fans.
Gary’s way too nice a bloke to tell me to shut the hell up and decide whose side I’m on, but at one point I apologised for being annoyingly objective. I even annoy myself at times, so God knows what it’s like for other people. Imagine you’re in the middle of slandering the ref, enjoying a perfectly cathartic moment of spitting, bilious blasphemy, and some detached twat next to you intones, “Actually, there was an elbow to the face. If anything he was lucky not to see red.”

That’s not to say that I don’t get mad at referees now and then, but it’s a rarity for me to be really sure that a professional standing much closer to the action than myself has made the wrong decision. And while it’s good for my heart and the readings on my inner barometer of Corinthian values, becoming a referee has made watching football a bit less fun. I might have gained more insight into the game, and I could be coming across as a more tolerable human being, but that’s been at the expense of a certain level of loyalty.

I’m willing to bet that at most Lincoln City home games between Chesterfield in November 1981 and Coventry City in November 2017, one or more very angry individuals have been standing by the tunnel, all venting their monstrous tempers at men trying to do a difficult job under the scrutiny of several thousand people with a vested interest in a particular outcome. Neutrality here is of no relevance to anyone besides a few external analysts.

Or to other referees, who naively continue to be flummoxed by what the tendentious human eye wishes that it had seen, rather than what it actually has. No matter how well the ref has performed, there will always be someone who thinks he was a disgrace. An absolute bloody disgrace.

Ian Plenderleith's next book, 'The Quiet Fan', will be published by Unbound in 2018. Click here to pre-order an e-book or paperback copy.

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