BY MARK GODFREY
I write this while happening to find myself on the same aeroplane as a current, high profile Premier League referee for the second time in as many weeks. I’m not usually one for fraternising with strangers on trains, planes and automobiles but I feel that, had I been sat next to the said official (who was, incidentally, with his wife/girlfriend and child), we could quite easily have bonded over the copy of When Saturday Comes I had just purchased from the terminal’s branch of WH Smith’s; and also, not least, because he and I briefly opened the batting together for Blyth Cricket Club second XI some twenty or so years ago. He won’t remember me from that; my time at the crease at the opposite end was generally short and uneventful.
This fleeting encounter got me thinking a bit more about this much vilified group of guys. This particular referee has a widely perceived persona based solely on his on-field presence and mannerisms: occasionally stern and unshiftable, sometimes overly chummy with certain star names and not shy of giving (or not) the odd controversial decision, the kind that would leave Robbie Savage frothing uncontrollably from his perpetually overemployed mouth. But what’s this fellow really like? It was a question that had presented itself in my mind on the first flight I’d shared with him from Athens to London when he was accompanied by several of his most recognisable Premier League colleagues.
Like any group of work mates on an away trip (I’m led to to believe the jaunt to Greece was a UEFA training course rather than a lads’ jolly to Corfu) you would expect some degree of relaxed ‘banter’ and general chit chat. However, in the brief time I observed them at the departure gate and later in the immigration queue at Heathrow there seemed to be very little, if any, camaraderie or friendship between them. Were they all putting on a carefully prepared business-like front, wary that their public profile could be tainted by even the merest whiff of a dropped guard, or was there something more underlying to it? What if they were all boring, straightlaced automatons whose own lives away from the football pitch were strictly governed by non-negotionable rules and their behaviour was open to very little interpretation? Even worse, what if they all hated each other’s guts and could barely raise a smile in each other’s company?
Referees, on the whole, are no longer authoritarian Etonian schoolmasters or enthusiastic hobbyists who just so happened to have found themselves officiating top level football matches. They’re super fit professional athletes in their own right; career men who have obviously, and successfully, fixed their sights on the prestige and the pay packet the Premier League’s riches now offers the once humble referee, and just like in the city, in retail management, the military or any other ambition-driven industry, you can’t succeed without a substantial ego and the willingness to step over a few stragglers on the way up the ladder.
To some degree, thanks to both traditional and social media platforms, we kind of get to know the personality that lies beneath the heavily marketed and manipulated exteriors of our favourite and least favourite players. You can extrapolate further that character appreciation once an ex-pro climbs aboard the punditry charabang; Jermaine Jenas seems like a thoroughly nice chap while I’d probably cross the street if I saw Chris Sutton approach me in town.
I recently bumped into an old friend on the concourse at King’s Cross station and shared a pleasant train journey back up to Newcastle reminiscing about old times and very quickly the conversation inevitably turned to our common interest: football. Explaining a rather tenuous connection between his father-in-law and the Premier League referee Martin Atkinson, he recounted the story of meeting the official at a Newcastle United match two or three years back. Atkinson – tallish, slimish, hair greying all over – has never struck me as engaging or gregarious; more a rather bookish, mild-mannered middle management type with an interest in something genteel like amateur photography. Yet, he was described as being “sharp”, “cutting” and “witty”. He stopped short of calling him human but it was implied. It’s just a shame that we’re forbidden – by the controlling Soviet era-esque PR machine of the Premier League – from ever finding out that their officials are, in fact, normal and entirely palatable individuals. Some of them may actually be pretty decent blokes. Or wankers.
What also came to light in my train conversation was Atkinson’s playful mocking of a fellow Premier League referee. Again, it’s normal behaviour we are never allowed to experience. Who hasn’t taken the mickey out of a friend or colleague for their amusing idiosyncracies or Friday night misdemeanours down the pub?
I tried to imagine that refereeing group in their downtime in Athens. A few drinks at the hotel bar after a day in the classroom discussing simulation; a bit of cheery craic and some gentle leg-pulling: “Clatters, what the fuck kind of answer was that?!”, “Tayls was just copying the German guy’s answers”, and so on. I say I tried to imagine because we know very little about these people that have such a huge say in matters that mean a great deal to us, in footballing terms at least. And, actually, their public image suffers all the more for it. So what if Phil Dowd turned out to be a bellend? That’s what most of us have already decided upon anyway. If we could get just the minimum of access to them through post match interviews for example, to discuss the big decisions and how they feel the game went and how their own performance was then it might just make them relatable and likeable enough for the increasingly fervent lynch mob to have a modicum of understanding and forgiveness when they send off the wrong darker-skinned Arsenal player or fail to give a goal when the ball is blatantly four feet behind the line.
The Premier League’s massive new TV deal means that refereeing decisions are going to be even more important, even more scrutinised than ever before, and they’re going to continue to make errors, miniscule and colossal, that all of us will undoubtedly continue to whine about. So to pretend that these gluttons for punishment are not actually part of the show, or indeed, vital cast members of the Premier League’s soap opera is ridiculous in the extreme. It makes me sad to think that as we press our noses against the glass to get a glimpse into their world, they’re probably doing the same, hoping that we will welcome them into ours. So let’s invite them in from the cold and get to know them. Make them feel wanted. So what if you find them to be a bit morose, or annoying, or loud, or enjoyable? In the end, they are ordinary people just like you or I and deserve to have their voices, rather than just their whistles, heard.