This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
So passes another round of Premier League fixtures, and with it a fresh spate of refereeing controversies. This week, the inevitable furore has been whipped up by Mark Clattenburg, possessor of the world's greatest Champions League tattoo, and Michael Oliver, a man who looks like he has never quite recovered from being rejected from an extras audition for The__Inbetweeners Film. Rather than inspiring an internet storm with another horrific tongue spasm, Clattenburg instead received a flurry of criticism after allowing a handballed goal from Alexis Sanchez to stand against Hull. Meanwhile, Oliver upset Slaven Bilic with his "awful" showing during West Ham's home game against West Brom, which Bilic felt cost the Hammers two points on account of a dodgy throw-in and some marginal fouls.
With both of their performances already analysed into oblivion, we may as well pass over the details of where exactly Oliver and Clattenburg got things wrong. Needless to say, they have been put under the microscope by former pros on the radio, in the papers and on the nation's favourite highlights show, Match of the Day. This all ties into a longstanding narrative about declining refereeing standards in English football, which seems to be a particular bugbear of retired footballers turned Premier League pundits. The question is: why don't these ex-pros do something about it, and help to improve refereeing standards themselves?
In terms of career options after football, there are remarkably few retired players who go on to become referees. Examples found by The Guardian include former Huddersfield Town, Bradford City and Chesterfield defender Steve Baines, who went on to have an eight-year stint as a ref from the mid-nineties onwards, and a couple of obscure lower-league players who sacked it off after only a few games. This seems unfortunate, in that there are few people who could contribute more to the refereeing profession than ex-footballers. After all, nobody else has more experience of manipulating, cajoling and berating referees than their former charges, hence nobody is in a better position to invert that experience and use it to their own psychological gain.
Before we go on, we should state that there is one glaringly obvious reason that former footballers avoid becoming officiators. Barring mitigating circumstances such as long-term health issues and injuries, the main thing putting many of them off is no doubt the relative paucity of money on offer. There is more capital to be extracted from the media industry than there is from the Professional Game Match Officials Board, especially when it comes to refereeing below the level of the Select Group which presides over the Premier League. Newspapers and broadcasters are willing to fork out more cash for less effort, with a few hours prep and a stint in a studio each weekend considerably easier than working up from grassroots fixtures to administering professional games.
That said, one would think there would be at least a few former players who would be interested in becoming matchday officials. Considering that punditry, coaching and senior management seem to be increasingly saturated occupations, refereeing should still be an option to those less concerned with the financial side of things. Disregarding those who retire through injury, footballers who have just hung up their boots are in the perfect position to succeed as referees. As well as the aforementioned psychological insight, they should still have exceptional levels of physical fitness, dexterity and coordination compared to contemporaries who are not natural athletes, while they should also have existing relationships with many players and a firm understanding of the laws of the game.
For ex-pros who still want to influence and experience football at the highest level, becoming a referee should represent an opportunity to prolong their time out on the pitch. Naturally, though, those who have experience of professional football will be aware of how poorly referees are treated, which is almost certainly a factor in decisively putting them off. Former players will likely have witnessed vitriolic abuse of the man with the whistle, whether in the press, in the stands or from the horse's mouth. Were more former footballers to put themselves forward as officials this problem might be lessened somewhat, with players perhaps more inclined to respect one of their own and accept his decisions with reasonable civility. Still, it would take a bold ex-pro to expose himself to a potential rollicking, especially having personally participated in a sporting culture which so often maligns referees.
This is perhaps the point of the suggestion that retired players should look to become referees as opposed to pundits, in that there is a major double standard in the way that the sport deals with officials. There are ex-pros lining up to criticise referees from the security and comfort of the studio, and basically none who are brave enough to expose themselves to similar criticism, face to face or otherwise. Add to that the fact that many of those ex-pros spent much of their careers making referees' lives a total nightmare, and the whole situation starts to seem a bit rich.
This is not intended as unconstructive censure in turn, but rather an alternative viewpoint on how ex-professionals might affect and change the game. Those with experience of playing professionally are genuinely well placed to make good refs, not only because of their athleticism and practical knowledge but also because of the authority they derive from having come from within the world of football. They are from the same walk of life as those who they would be required to officiate, and that might give them a crucial advantage over outsiders recruited from other vocations.
Short of encouraging an empathy revolution between footballers and matchday officials, former pros becoming referees might at least engender a shift towards a more positive relationship. If there are problems in communication between players and referees, then who better to resolve those problems than someone who personally knows where both sides are coming from? There is certainly room for refereeing standards to improve in this country, and ex-pros could be an active part of that process. There have to be at least a handful who would be willing to take the plunge, as opposed to offering faceless criticism on the radio and from behind the glassy protection of our television screens.