Yesterday hadn’t, if we are completely honest, been Chris Foy’s greatest afternoon as a Premier League referee. His performance during the match between Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur left a little to be desired and will have left those in North London of a blue and white persuasion rather scratching their heads. After the match, the Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was predictably incandescent in his press interviews, inducing the now almost traditional conspiracy theories that managers raise when their teams have a couple of refereeing decisions go against them and they lose (rule one of this particular trope: it is a sign of male weakness to admit that there were two teams on the pitch and that the other team were also being refereed by the same man).
So far, then, so depressingly, grindingly normal for a Premier League weekend. Spurs’ outrage, however, continued into today, though, with heaps of abuse being hurled at Chris Hoy via the realm of the the swivel-eyed, Twitter. There is, as the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed, a small problem with this – whilst Chris Foy is a Premier League referee who is, apparently, biased in favour of Stoke City and against Tottenham Hotspur, Chris Hoy is an Olympic cyclist and has never, as far as we know, refereed a Premier League football match. Hoy reacted to the completely unwarranted abuse with admirable good humour but football, yet again, is left to take a look at its culture of abuse and wonder whether the intellectually-challenged actually have inherited the earth.
The matter of an Olympic cyclist (and, for those that care about such things, a knight of the realm) receiving demented abuse from supporters of a football club because his name is one letter removed from that of a referee is, of course, a serious enough matter in itself, although in a way it provides a little light relief from an issue that is starting to show signs of making our game unmanageable. Referees have always been stooges, up to a point. They are football’s pantomime villains, to be knocked around when things aren’t going so well, and players, managers, indeed everybody in the game takes advantage of this, shunting the blame for their own shortcomings to a small group of individuals that don’t have that much of a public voice when they don’t get things right.
At all levels of the game, abuse towards them seems to be getting worse. The problems that the amateur game is having with even being able to recruit people to referee is well-documented and at higher levels there are plenty of examples of death threats being made against referees when they get things wrong. Perhaps we are at the point of being unable to cope with the notion of human fallibility, unable to keep the game in context and unable to accept that this just wasn’t our day, and while it’s easy to focus our rage upon the man with the whistle in his mouth, we should perhaps also reflect upon the fact that the game has created a culture in which such abuse is almost encouraged to thrive.
Everybody is in on it. The managers love nothing more to pin their own inadequacies on officials, safe in the knowledge that whatever sanctions are issued against them will be mere loose change in terms of what they earn. The television cameras show every possible incident from every possible answer, with the worst answer that a commentator or summariser can give being, “I don’t know”, even when the video evidence in front of them often confirms that there is no way that they could possibly know. Newspapers and websites encourage controversy, in the full knowledge that it will fill the vacuum between matches whilst keeping eyes glued to either a screen or page and, crucially, money rolling in. This has created a culture in which it is perfectly acceptable to throw any notion of perspective out of the window and hurl any sort of abuse towards referees. And while we may chortle at those that choose to throw their abuse at Olympic cyclists because their name is a little like that of a Premier League referee, we should also be concerned at the direction in which this is taking us.
While on this occasion it was Spurs, supporters of other clubs claiming any moral high-ground on this particular subject would be well-advised to exercise a little caution before joining in with beating them over the metaphorical. This problem is something that seems to affect every club to some extent or another these days, and all of it helps to create an unedifying atmosphere in which everybody seems to hold a permanent sense of entitlement mixed with an unpleasant, unfocussed rage when things start going against them. If Chris Foy (the referee) is to be dealt with by the Premier League and if such a scenario were to result in his demotion, then so be it. Shrill, hysterical background noise won’t make any difference to this process, and neither should it.
Perhaps the only answer ongoing debate to this is to get rid of referees altogether. No-one, it seems, wants them there, after all – or, at least, that’s the way it frequently seems from the outside. The future of football could be decided by one simple law of the game: no criminal activity on the pitch. Then, perhaps, supporters of every football club would get what they want – a game untroubled by referees and their accursed whistles, with no more decisions ever going against them. It would, of course, be completely unwatchable, but at least football supporters, the poor little lambs, would be spared the agony of seeing referees awarding decisions against their teams, whether rightly or wrongly on a weekly basis. Alternatively, perhaps we could just give everybody a replica Premier League trophy at the start of the season and not even bother with the matches. After all, sometimes it feels as if they are more trouble than they are worth.
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