Dear me. Sometimes, people involved in football simply don’t open their mouths before they speak, do they? Mike Newell’s comments about a female linesman at the weekend are summoning forth acres of newspaper coverage – primarily, I suspect, because this is an exceptionally slow news week. Last weekend, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United all won, and the match between Arsenal and Liverpool, which might have been a powder keg of controversy and vitriol, was so one-sided that any further comment beyond what we saw on the television on Sunday afternoon or evening has been frankly unnecessary. We are also about as far between the two transfer windows as it’s possible to get, so there’s nothing to be said on that front. On top of it all, no-one really cares about England’s friendly tomorrow night, beyond the question of whether Steve McClaren will be able to actually even find eleven fit Englishmen to play or not. I’ve been waiting by the phone all day, but I haven’t heard from the FA yet, so I suspect that he has able to, (though I expect that it was a close call). Iain Dowie’s sacking was disappointing, if not completely unexpected, so… what else has there been to go on about other than the manager of a mid-table Championship team making, shall we say, “ill-advised” comments about female referees.
It goes more or less without saying that Newell’s comments were stupid. They may not have reached the Premiership yet, but female referees are becoming more and more commonplace in the Football League. To cast aspersions on all female referees based on the judgement (or lack thereof) of one shows up a gross form of sexism and stupidity. It would be a fair comment to ask this question to Mr Newell: would he make the same assertion about black referees based on any of the multitude of bizarre decisions made over the years by Uriah Rennie? Because there have been quite a few.
The big disappointment about all of this is that Newell is one of the “good guys”. He has been the only manager to stand up over the issue of bungs and back-handers in football. In that respect, he has been seen to be fighting the Good Fight. He has also been successful: on a shoestring budget, he has carried Luton Town to respectability and comfort in the Championship. His comments about the board are largely irrelevant. I would confidently predict that sacking Newell would take Luton Town backwards as a football club, and the board would be foolish in the extreme to put the massaging of their own egos above the greater need of the welfare of the team.
Newell was, I feel, raising an important point, but did it exceptionally badly. His subsequent apology is, I strongly believe, irrelevant. Anyone can apologise for anything after the event. Female referees, however, in professional football are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stage. I have no idea whether female referees are being promoted above their station on grounds of political correctness, but I strongly suspect that they aren’t. However, their decisions will, for better or worse, be held up to closer scrutiny than those of their male colleagues, especially if they wish to continue to rise the ladder and referee in the Premiership or beyond. At the time that Newell was interviewed, he was exceptionally angry, and was almost certainly not thinking clearly. He would have been better served by saying something like, “decisions like the one made this afternoon do not aid the cause of female referees, should they wish to officiate at a higher level”. Personally speaking, I did not see the incident during the match concerned that sparked it all off, but I think that it would have been more sensible of Newell to side with female referees generally.
Ultimately, the issue of whether a linesman or referee is male or female is neither here nor there. Considering the amount of abuse that they all get each and every week, perhaps now would be an appropriate moment for us to stop and think how we criticise all referees because, so far as I can see, putting them under the sort of intolerable pressure that we do every single week only makes them more rather than less likely to make the sort of errors that, if Mike Newell is to be believed, cost his team a point on Saturday.