Richard Brook shares his unease with ‘starstruck’ officials but sees a major flaw in the proposed solution.

The recent revelations that, former Premier League referee, Mark Halsey had enough of a friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson, to send the retired Manchester United manager text messages, while both were still active in the game, has been met with widespread disapproval. While this would seem an obvious breach of the protocol of Professional Game and Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), there is arguably an air of hypocrisy about such a stance.

The revelations have come from Halsey’s book Added Time. In the book Halsey states that a phone conversation occurred, at the time of the allegations of racism against fellow referee Mark Clattenberg, of which the official was cleared. Halsey rang Ferguson and asked that he speak out in Clattenberg’s defence: “He agreed and used his Friday press conference to say he could not conceive of Mark [Clattenberg] saying such things. It helped the situation a great deal”.

Of course a case can be made for the fact that the greater good was being served, and that clearing an innocent man’s name, not to mention saving his career is justification enough for Halsey’s actions. Yet upon first learning of the story every bone of one’s body wants to know why he had Ferguson’s telephone number to make the call.

Halsey adds fuel to the fire in the book; “It took time to gain Sir Alex’s respect but in the end we had a very good relationship”. Is this Halsey saying that by consistent refereeing performances, over time, he took less criticism from Ferguson than some officials? It could be read as a more concerning indication that, unwittingly, Halsey was seeking the approval of the godfather of the Premier League. If this were true, the implications as to how this manifested could be enormous.

Halsey goes as far as to defend the point: “I may have spoken to him a lot and shared texts but he knew that when I crossed that white line there were no favours”. There is no reason to seek to question Halsey’s, or any other referee’s, integrity but it is pertinent to consider whether one can ever truly eradicate all traces of nepotism from the subconscious mind.

As a pre-emptive measure all officials have been warned against this sort of behaviour, ahead of the new season, by PGMOL, who had already been made aware of the books content.

The idea of taking time to ‘gain respect’ from someone, reads like a wilful attempt to impress. Coupled with at least one instance, of actively seeking a favour – however good the cause – a worrying picture begins to emerge, that maybe officials are, or were, deliberately putting themselves at a disadvantage, in relationships with managers, that according to PGMOL should not even exist. Effectively, rightly or wrongly, a perception could start to form that a referee was indebted to a manager.

While the open revelations are news, the broader picture is not. Journalists and others have spoken for years about the cult of the ‘starstruck’ referee, who sometimes appears more interested in making celebrity friends than making correct decisions. All too often have we heard terms such as ‘Fergie time’, and the percentage of penalty decisions that go for a big club, discussed both in the stands and in the media.

Even some players have spoken out. In 2006 James Harper, then of Reading, chose to speak of a level of familiarity between referees and certain players that he found to be distasteful. Harper complained most bitterly about referees using big players nicknames, and a perceived imbalance as to how such players were dealt with. The inference being that while any other player might get a booking, a referee might share a joke with the likes of ‘Stevie G’ and send him on his way.

It is very easy to share the perpetuated outrage in Halsey’s revelations, especially when you fill in the blanks as has been done to some extent above. Even if every assumption written above is true, the image of the referee you are left with is really not that bad. Referees are only human, we all build friendships with the people we see regularly at work and no person ever has a genuine need to be in awe of another person yet we are all guilty of it. If a referee is ‘starstruck’ it is because of the media profile of the personality. To cut it short, what we have here is just another way that the ridiculous levels of money in the Premier League, are ruining football.

If, as a sport, we are concerned that a close relationship between a referee and a player, or manager, is genuinely affecting the fairness – or the perception of fairness – of the referees’ decisions, then why does every man and his dog think that every wrong in football will be righted if we get ex-players in as referees? It does not matter if he can spot the authenticity, or otherwise, of a tumble in the penalty area. No-one should want to see Jamie Carragher in charge of the next Merseyside derby, or Paul Scholes refereeing a Manchester United match. Whatever pundits such as Chris Kamara and managers such as Sam Allardyce advocate, if the sport cannot tolerate Mark Halsey sending text messages to Sir Alex Ferguson, it certainly cannot handle former players as referees.

These are extreme examples and they are supposed to be, but it does not detract from the point. The cry for the ex-professional to turn match official is frequent. Of course no-one would put a player in charge of the team they used to play for, but it gets much more complicated than that. You presumably would not put them in charge of local rivals and possibly other teams that rivalled them in the league. All this is fine if the referee was a one club player, but what if he is Steve Claridge? Add into the mix twenty-odd other former players in the same boat and just appointing referees becomes a logistical nightmare. Even after this it would be impossible to be sure you were not appointing a referee to a match featuring a friend with whom he shares a relationship that far outweighs those of current stars and officials.

In fact there have already been a handful of British referees, who were previously footballers. The first being Sam Black, one of the first recorded Newton Heath captains – Manchester United if we are going with the fashion since 1902 – in the 1880’s. Black once disallowed an Arsenal goal because the ball burst on its way in. The controversy that would be caused if that happened today hardly bares thinking about. There have been others since but very few and only, former defender, Steve Baines warrants a mention for his eight-year Football League career.

It is only natural that, upon discovering Mark Halsey’s revelations, one immediately reacts with a suspicion of unfairness. However, if the sport continues to promote the idea that ex-players would make good referees, it cannot sustain an argument that a close friendship between officials and either players or managers is automatically a cause for concern. Such relationships will exist between ex-professionals, their clubs and current players, that is beyond question. If a friendship affects the perception of a referee’s fairness, as has been so widely suggested, then the appointment of ex-professionals as officials is simply unthinkable.