Ben Rushworth shows a yellow for dissent of an impossible job.

When attending games I’ve always tried to remind myself to remain relatively tolerant and understanding of the difficulties faced by those taking part. It’s easy for me to moan when the left-back shanks another attempted long ball into the stands. It’s easy for me to shout angrily when the ref doesn’t give what, to me and a few thousand others, seems like a very obvious handball. But then, I say inside my head, I couldn’t do the job of either a Championship left-back or a Football League official myself so I should show some patience. Not that it works. But the thought occurs: why do I give the players a pass for a poor game if I can see they’ve slogged their hearts out, but not the officials? Why are they subject to universal opprobrium from fans, players and staff of all stripes, from all clubs, from all countries? It hardly seems fair.

First; I have a confession, in the interests of full disclosure. I trained as a referee as a teenager, and up until I was in my early twenties I officiated at local and regional level. The highest I reached was running the line at North West Counties level, before university (and drinking, and girls) started to take priority for me at weekends. But while I think it gave me an insight into the challenges faced by officials, I trust it will become obvious that I’m not defending them solely as part of the “union”.

Criticism of officials by pundits, journalists and managers is usually prefaced with “It’s a thankless/impossible task, but…”. Whether this nod to the impossibility of officiating a modern, professional football match justifies the subsequent vitriol is a matter of opinion, but is it really a thankless task? The modern Premier League official is well paid, to the tune of £60,000pa with match fees, travel and expenses on top of that. This is a pittance compared to the men they’re in charge of, but a lot more than most of us are earning. In return for this the officials are full-time professionals, dedicated to fitness, match training and exercises. This regime presumably should lead to measurable improvements, but I very much doubt that the average football fan – or even the average football journalist – could tell you any detail about how referees are assessed, graded and then appraised. That lack of transparency can only harm the image of (relatively) well-paid officials to the football fans subject to their decisions.

Even if the process were public, perhaps with a promotion/relegation system for officials from Premier League to Football League and so on down the pyramid, would we believe that “performance” had improved? How is performance measured anyway? So many of the Laws of the Game (there are eighteen, if you’re interested) include the words “in the referee’s opinion” that a quantitative assessment of the right/wrong of that decision is difficult. Take law 11 for example; the offside rule. Every person on the terrace knows that it’s not enough to simply be in an offside position to be penalised. Most can follow that up with something about “being active” or “interfering with play”. Ten or so years ago I was taught using the acronym PIG: to be penalised the player in an offside position also has to be either Playing or attempting to play the ball; Interfering with play or with an opponent; or Gaining an advantage by being in that position. Easy enough? Perhaps – but all three of those begin with “in the opinion of the referee…”. If a player is given offside because he was standing close to the eyeline of the goalkeeper and the resulting goal is chalked off, how can an assessor determine for sure whether the decision was correct? If the referee or assistant’s opinion is that the striker was in the keeper’s way, based (needless to say) on one real-time viewing of a high-speed incident, then necessarily it must be correct even if managers, players and fans either don’t agree or, more likely, don’t know the Law.

For what it’s worth, and the reason I chose offside as my example, is that I actually think that linesmen have a far more thankless job than referees. I personally found running the line far more difficult for a number of reasons, and assistants’ most contentious decisions are exactly the kind of subjective incident that defies any sort of concrete analysis. You know the sort; Sky have shown fifteen super-slow-motion replays from twelve different angles and their pundits still disagree among themselves about what the right decision was. Even human anatomy is against the linesman; somehow he has to be watching the line of the last defender (let’s not forget; a line which is constantly moving even if that defender is Gary Caldwell) and determine whether so much as an attacking foot or forehead is beyond that line, while also watching to see the exact moment that the ball is played forward – which can be anything up to seventy yards away in a totally different direction. I’ve never met anyone capable of keeping their eyes on two such distant points at the same time, let alone with 100% accuracy. This is before you get to other factors such as the proximity of the poor old “lino” to the crowd, the manager, the substitutes and anyone else who didn’t like that last decision. At least, you might say, the referee is on somewhat safer ground in the middle of the pitch.

Another common cry is for “consistency”. On the face of it this might seem reasonable; if Smith was booked for X in this game, then Jones should be booked for the same in that game. But this loses sight of two crucial factors; first, very few if any decisions are identical and nearly always require match context; and second, different referees are different people. Law 12 says that a player should be cautioned if (in the opinion of the referee) he commits an infringement punishable by a direct free-kick and is “reckless” while doing so. What Mark Clattenburg thinks is reckless is necessarily and rightly going to be different to what Anthony Taylor thinks; these two men aren’t androids. And at risk of getting repetitive, they make this distinction after one viewing in real-time. Why isn’t this factor considered simply as an acceptable margin between decisions in different games?

I’m loath to start on about “other sports” and their officials; it’s a tiresome argument that we’ve all heard before. But I will draw one comparison. In ice hockey’s NHL, the referees wear numbers on their shirts just like the players. Fans check to see which referees (two per game) are officiating their team’s fixtures, and then this forms part of the pre-game tactical discussion. “Oh we’ve got 39, he’s really strict on hooking so the defencemen will have to keep their sticks down.” What’s wrong with that? Ice hockey referees aren’t immune from post-game criticism by coaches, far from it, but at the very least it recognises that different people will view the same incident differently and embraces the lack of total consistency as part of the game.

When it comes to supporting football officials, I think technology is a start. The Goal Decision System is long overdue and removes probably the most critical of decisions from eyesight alone. I don’t think that the introduction of technology will or should stop there. I think eventually reviews will be introduced, along the cricket lines of one per half (say) with successful challenges being kept and unsuccessful ones lost. I also think that such a system should work like cricket’s in that it’s used to support the on-field officials where possible, where decisions based on opinion are left to them and hard evidence is needed to overturn. Example: handball was given, but it hit his chest (overturned). Handball was not given, and the referee saw it but didn’t give it because he didn’t think it was avoidable (not overturned). Handball was not given because on first viewing the referee thought it was unavoidable but the replay persuades him otherwise: referee can overturn himself but not be overruled by a “TMO”. Such a system can only lead to more correct decisions and that can only be a good thing.

For all these reasons I think a total cultural change is needed. I don’t for a moment think it will happen, but I think as a sport football needs to stop demanding unrealistic – and in a lot of cases, physically impossible – feats from its officials and start examining alternatives. Regardless of the system in place of selecting, training, supporting and evaluating officials, every game in every professional league in every country has decisions one coach or another will have a problem with, and certainly fans of one team or the other will be saying to each other afterwards “well, the ref was…today, eh?” Surely that is sufficient evidence that the standard we demand of officials is unrealistic? Surely that screams to anyone willing to listen that a professional football match simply cannot be officiated by three people relying on eyesight and instinct? Those games where the referee is acknowledged to have had “a good game” are largely as a result of luck, and I don’t buy in to this idea that the best referees are unseen either. As Pierluigi Collina once said, “If I give five penalties everyone will know I was there, but if they were right then I have still had a good game”.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think there is a right solution, and I think a wide variation and combination of things would need to change for any meaningful progress to be made. I do however think that those with thick enough skin to pick up a whistle every week, from the Premier League down to the local kids, deserve more slack than they currently get. I for one will do my best to remember that the next time a marginal call goes against my team.