Constructive criticism of referees is never more important than when you see a video like the one which has been circulating online this week. It shows an amateur official in London being chased and beaten by players and spectators, marking out the fine line between pantomime villains and actual victims.
Jeremy Simpson took a long time to leave Elland Road on Saturday, implying a feeling of jeopardy after a loss of control which could qualify him to head up the government’s Brexit negotiations. It might be that some outside the ground wished him harm but you assume that most would have wanted to pose a few questions: why the penalty and why the absence of a red card for Moses Odubajo? And was Simpson any happier with his handling of Leeds United’s 1-1 draw with Brentford than anyone else around him?
It has never been possible to have more knowledge about the machinations of professional football than it is today. The game has opened itself to analysis which goes well beyond statistics. Broadcasters use up to 40 cameras at live games – every angle, every controversy covered – and for those who want more than the technical explanations of pundits or coaches, firms like Wyscout sell match reports assessing individual matches in infinitesimal detail. If none of that feels tangible enough, Manchester City’s Tunnel Club brings people as close as they can get to an in-game dressing room without actually being there (albeit at an exclusive cost. For everyone else there’s an Amazon documentary.)
And then there is refereeing; the last bastion of secrecy in a sport which has given in to public fascination and allowed us to gaze down almost every avenue. A tiny fraction of football supporters have officiated themselves and when an assault on an amateur in England’s capital city is so vivid and brazen as it was on social media the uptake isn’t going to increase but the game is yet to find a way of helping its audience to see the world through a referee’s eyes. The best you get is data from Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the body which oversees the refereeing of Premier League and EFL matches, telling you that its own staff make the right decision 98 per cent of the time. Which is all well and good.
An intimate understanding of officiating – or of playing or managing for that matter – isn’t necessary for a layman to spot an inept performance. There is a well-known story in journalist circles, going back many years, of a football writer whose questions were challenged by a manager after a game at Barnsley. Had he ever coached a team, the journalist was asked. “No,” he replied, “and I can’t bake a cake either. But I know when one tastes like s**t.” There were errors from Simpson at Elland Road on Saturday, some of them glaring, and it is pointless arguing otherwise. But the contentious aspect of them is why they occurred: what did he see or what was in his head in the critical moments? In a heated Championship game with 33 free-kicks, did it feel that fractious to him?
The closest anyone comes to answers is through the conversations between managers and officials at full-time, though anyone in either profession knows that referees tend to stick to their guns. Simpson, as protocol has it, said nothing publicly and filed a private report to the Football Association. His assessor has his say and he gets back on the horse. Beyond that you are left with suppositions and the opinions of a retired whistler like Dermot Gallagher, employed by Sky on a Monday morning to pick through various flashpoints over the weekend.
Gallagher sided with Simpson in almost every instance, saying the penalty awarded to Brentford in the second half was one “every referee will give”. There was laughter in the studio and a cry of “it’s a dive” from Danny Mills off screen as Gallagher reviewed it. He agreed with the decision to dismiss Luke Ayling but not Moses Odubajo for what looked like comparable offences. His was a hopeful defence of some dubious scenarios.
Gallagher, undoubtedly, has more expertise in these matters than the average punter. He was a Premier League referee for 15 years before retiring in 2007. He has spent hours of his life assessing the game in real time and in practice. But can he presume to know what Simpson was thinking? Apparently not. The YEP has been told that the penalty was given on the advice of the assistant in front of Elland Road’s West Stand. Simpson’s view was impaired and he delayed until the linesman gave an opinion. It doesn’t alter the suspicion that Ollie Watkins dived – which in itself is something Simpson could use in mitigation – or that a potentially fluent match was broken up needlessly.
But it does alter the public’s perspective of how it feels to have a split-second judgement hanging over your head. There was talk of the virtues of VAR after Saturday, which is how it will go now that the VAR rabbit is off and running. It is only half the battle. Video replays, in spite of quirks in the system, eradicate errors and allow officials to revisit incidents where their interpretation failed them but they do nothing to shed any light on the job of refereeing itself. When the dust settles there is rarely any clarification about mistakes made or the nuances of reading a game. All that follows is an FA review which determines who, if anyone, to charge (but doesn’t then outline how a panel of three former referees decided Sergi Canos’ headbutt wasn’t a headbutt) and in that respect the disciplinary fraternity feels some way behind the levels of transparency expected in 21st-century football.
Simpson’s travails at Elland Road are almost beside the point because as ropey as his performance was, Leeds won’t finish short of promotion on the basis of one dodgy penalty given in October. Marcelo Bielsa knows that and there was no eliciting any criticism from him. It was rather Pontus Jansson who spoke of a “robbery” at full-time and while Bielsa may privately think that certain referees are from Mars, he might not be too tolerant of dissent like that. Even so, all that remains is a vacuum in which grievances fester without any attempt to negate them. There is an insatiable public appetite for everything football can teach. Sometimes you wonder if the public and referees have ever understood each other less.