I am thrilled beyond measure to discover that we live in the very last days of toxic howling about refereeing decisions. Enjoy it all while you can – the debates, the death threats, the sense that football is a rolling perma-inquiry into one set of standards or another. As of next season, it will be gone, or at least have been diluted to homeopathic concentration. According to an eye-catching report, the Premier League is moving to end the “hysteria” surrounding certain referee performances. It will therefore ask all referees for detailed explanations of their decisions in the 30 minutes after the final whistle, and then formally communicate this “thought process” to football journalists and media pundits, who will then disseminate it to the wider public. The rise of the stupids continues.
Apparently, this was all planned long before former Culture Club drummer Jon Moss had a tricky afternoon officiating Leicester v West Ham at the King Power on Sunday. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the debate over the karmic desserts of Moss’s performance, but to summarise it: he’s a man without conviction. He’s a man who doesn’t know how to sell a contradiction – for instance, why he’d give Jamie Vardy a yellow for his challenge on Cheikhou Kouyaté, and spare Danny Simpson for an arguably equivalent effort against Dimitri Payet. Consequently, he is five minutes away from needing to enter witness protection, with the pressure to explain exhaustively his process tantamount to having asked for it.
But as indicated, we’re in the last days of this particular Raj. The Premier League’s hi-tech solution is detailed in a Times article by Henry Winter. “The aim,” this states, “is for a delegate from the Professional Game Match Officials Limited to speak to the referee at the ground and immediately contact football writers, television and radio commentators to disseminate his reasons. It’s good to talk (albeit via a proxy).”
Really? I know it was never the slogan for a BT ad, but I would have gone with “it’s good to extend a reach-around to your most misguided ‘customers’”. Everything about this initiative is so pathetically coddling or pandering that I can hardly begin to unpick the horrors. Once again the mangiest end of the social media tail is invited to wag the dog. You didn’t understand the decision? You didn’t agree with it? And not understanding or agreeing with the decision makes you quick to anger? Do let me get the victim of your outrage to explain it all to you so you don’t wet your pants or threaten to rape someone before tea.
It doesn’t coddle the referees, of course. They will effectively be forced to show their working, like children suspected of being too thick to have arrived at the right answer by honest means. And it seems those will be the limits as far as transparency goes – there are no plans for a spin-off discussion show in which, for instance, Vardy would be asked why he felt moved to call Moss “a fucking cunt”. Players’ motivations may be surmised; referees’ motivations may not.
As for the Pony Express-style chain of communication the Premier League is said to envisage, that appears predicated on the amusing assumption that football journalism is the first draft of history. Yet there is something presentationally rather yesteryear in solemnly explaining a matter to the press club, in order that they might in turn explain it to everyone else. It feels like stone tablets in an era of digital ones. (During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the media accreditation allowed free entry into various tourist sites. I remember laughing outside the Forbidden City as a friend on the Times poked fun at the frequently absurd grandeur of some hacks. Waving your press pass, he reflected, had all the misplaced self-regard of declaring: “Let me through! I write about the English Premier League!”)
But perhaps I am being too dismissive about my line of work. Perhaps those first crucial 60 minutes after a game is what is known in policing as a “golden hour”, when a wealth of crucial material is available to the authorities, and their prompt action maximises the chances of finding an abducted child, or stopping people getting the wrong idea about a booking.
In the end, though, the most misguided aspect of all this is the notion that the referee being forced to explain himself will make an iota of difference to the hysteria, much less be an end to it. If the explosion of social media has taught us anything, it is surely that more information and greater transparency does not mean less argument – or even more informed argument. It just means – and I don’t want to get too Socratic here – more shit to argue about. And in just as toxic a way. Many are slow to accept this, which is why we still hear a lot of well-meaning stuff about “curating” web discussions. I always shriek with laughter at the idea of “curating”, with its genteel overtones conjuring visions of a museum director lovingly arranging his collection, when the reality is mostly playing a hugely expensive game of whack-a-mole with Holocaust deniers and so on.
Still, if the Premier League wishes to get into the curation game, perhaps it could work towards dispensing with referees entirely, and develop some algorithm by which games could be officiated in real time by Twitter. In the meantime, I’m absolutely all for everyone being allowed their say, but I wouldn’t spend so much as 10 pounds or 10 minutes on anti-hysteria policies. It’s mission creep, and will end like mission creep always does. Badly.