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Guest Post – Sideline chatter

(File photo of random lino!)

By Cordwainer Bull

My first thought on reading Enzo’s blogstering about homophobic insults being chucked at the ref at McLeod Rd the other week was not so much indignancy, as: “What a very 1970s insult… those Westie bozos really need to update their material”.

My second thought was more whimsical, of an etymological nature, and obviously not appreciated in some quarters (see comments below Enzo’s blogstering).

But I’ve been rethinking the issue since my own sideline consumption at the Oratia-Melville northern league match at Parrs Park on Saturday, where I found myself sucked into the vortex of consuming the sideline antics as much as the match itself.

I should first declare my interest in this matter. In football I am variously an administrator, volunteer, writer, life member, and parent – but fundamentally I am a fan, and Melville is my club.

I was initially bemused by the sterling job Oratia coach Steve Cain did in “coaching” the near-side linesman (yes, I know the correct term is assistant referee, but this is my blog post)  offering a steady stream of advice on when the ball was in, when it was out, and when a player was offside – and when he wasn’t.

The officials got as much tuition as his players. You’d never guess, but players were apparently repeatedly offside during one half, and never the second.

“That’s out”, Cain generously advised. “That’s offside.” Repeat ad infinitum.

Ten minutes in, Cain had tallied five uncalled offsides and three wrong throw-ins where his team was the injured party.

Steve was a wonderful player, and is a coach of some standing, so has a strong basis for exerting influence. And I thought his running commentary had a definite effect on a couple of occasions where the linesman had been slow into position or was wavering with a close call.

To the extent that it started annoying Melville co-coach Sam Wilkinson, who lambasted the lino: “It’s not offside just because he (Cain) says it is. Stop listening to him.”

Whether you are a player, coach, or just a fan, there is always a temptation to “play” the ref and seek to exert some form of influence on decision-making.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg described knowing what to say, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect as a form of “practical intelligence”. Given the job of coach is to positively affect the game for the benefit of his team, Cain was simply employing practical intelligence in doing his job.

But there is a cumulative effect to this stuff.  The ref or the lino should have told Cain to zip it after the first 20 minutes, but they didn’t.

And the continual aggrieved patter has a viral effect. The lack of respect permeates. When the coach is continually chipping away without sanction, the fans then take up the task themselves as surrogates.

As the match progressed this lino – no spring chicken – attracted steadily more advice, sarcasm, and abuse from the sideline in general, perhaps not helped by a couple of ropey decisions. To the extent that late in the second half one gobby-mouth, who had actually stepped inside the roped-off technical area to get within ear-shot of the linesman asked: “Does he talk? I haven’t heard him talk so far.”

At this the lino turned around and said; “As a matter of fact I do,” – and told the gobby-mouth to get out of the coaching area and back behind the rope.

It was an okay comeback, though when the banter gets to that sort of sneering, sarcastic, personal level you have to wonder why he didn’t flag the ref and have the bozo removed from the sideline altogether.

In my view the lino was just a garden-variety example of the refereeing species, of modest ability but no doubt doing his bit for the game he loved. He was fulfilling the role to the best of his abilities without favour either way.

At one stage, after a patently wrong throw-in decision, one Oratia fan asked me: “So what do you think is the answer to improving our referees?”

“More training,” I offered, rather weakly. (I actually thought the referee had a reasonable game.)

On reflection, a better answer would have been to have our chatty sideline expert – young, confident, mobile, all-knowing – running the line instead.

In this respect, could we give our regulations a tweak? Let’s introduce the Blue card, which, when it gets flashed at abusive spectator – with their details taken by the off-pitch matchday controller – means they have to run a line at a lower grade match themselves before they are allowed back at any northern league football venue.

I know. File that idea alongside the Auckland Underwater Stadium.

A more practical idea might be for clubs which video matches to offer to supply footage to refereeing groups to study for their own benefit. (Is there anything more frustrating in football than a perfectly judged attacking run incorrectly flagged as offside?)

But in a comparative sense, the Oratia lino was no worse than a number of the players, yet attracted exponentially less respect.

When players made a mistake the refrain was invariably something like “hard luck”, or “keep your head up”. Nobody got personally slagged for their errors.

By contrast when the lino made a mistake it was the end of the world.

I wonder if part of the difference is that players will usually put their hand up and acknowledge their mistake – and as fans we quickly empathise with their lack of ability.

Whereas by nature of their job, such reconciliation is far more challenging for officials. Will we ever see the day where a lino will raise his/her non-flag hand as if to acknowledge: “Hey, sorry guys, I stuffed that one up”?

Nah, won’t happen.

But our sideline behaviour needs modifying regardless.

To hark back to Enzo’s post, homosexuality has largely been destigmatized – but getting offside calls wrong remains a cardinal sin.

In the festering spiral of emotions on a club football sideline we remain highly intolerant of the slightest error, which is often understandable in a sport of such fine margins (and clubs do pay $45 a head for this stuff).

But whereas calling a ref a homo has become unacceptable (at most venues, Enzo) chipping at linesmen is still tolerated.

In this respect refs need to set their own bar, but us fans could start by moderating our feedback.

When linesmen get a decision badly wrong, let’s restrict ourselves to the same compassionate, supportive approach that we confer upon our own team’s dodgy keeper or dopey fullback: “Never mind, lino, it will come…Don’t think about it, keep your head up, keep going.”

[Cordwainer Bull is a former Waikato United and Waikato FC programme columnist. His hobbies include collecting literacy statistics, contemplation, and making sweeping judgements. His favourite player was Sticky Gill.]

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Enzo Giordani

An action photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand. I focus on sport, birds or cats depending on what stage of the apocalypse we're currently experiencing.

16 replies

  1. I suspect there’s a bit of a vicious cycle here. People think it’s ok to treat match officials like crap, then wonder why the standard of officiating keeps getting worse as the good ones find something more pleasant to go and do with their lives.

    1. I agree in some respects, Enzo. Although, I think there is a case for it to be said that the vicious cycle is perpetuated in some part by the referees themselves. In my mind, players in New Zealand have an attitude towards referees that can be likened to the attitude the disenfranchised and minority groups in the US have towards the police – one of general mistrust towards referees as a whole. As a player, my perception of the current situation is that referees are too heavy handed, or close-minded in a lot of situations and are quick to react in a negative light to any “disrespect” shown to them, regardless of the context. The number of times I have seen yellow, and even red, cards issued for players asking, perhaps a little heatedly, why a ref made a decision or why the assistant has flagged based on what the referee has said rather than making their own decision, is countless. In my opinion, it is rare for a player to launch straight into personal attacks on referees but rather the nature of the relationship degrades as the referee continues to be stand-offish or pig-headed about their decisions. Alan Wilson is widely regarded in division 1 as the league’s best referee because he will converse with players and team officials and is prepared to admit when he may have been wrong. As a consequence I would suggest he gets far less stick from players and fans alike, even when he gets a decision wrong, because he treats players like adults as far as the laws of the game allow. In short, he participates in a conversation with the players, he seems to understand a lot about how players are thinking and how that is affecting their behaviour, and he usually gives out appropriate punishment. He tends to flip the cycle on its head and perpetuates mutual respect between the players and himself.

      Respect should be a two way street and common sense, rather than heavy handedness, should be used to diffuse hot-headedness. More referees should follow his example

  2. Morning Enzo… I was actually at that game in my capacity as Father of Lachie McIsaac (spelt correctly with 2 x A’s, rather than 2 x S’s) the Melville number 18 and the poor unfortunate judged incorrectly off-side in the first half by our Linesman in question. However Lachie tells me that he approached the official as he walked off the pitch at halftime and he did actually apologize to Lachie and admitted that he may of got that one wrong???
    Big of him to admit that I thought.

    1. Officials are only human sometimes they get it wrong just like a striker doesn’t always hit the target and a GK doesn’t always keep a clean sheet .Our club are relying on CBRS (club based refs ) to officiate 13th metro as the AFF ref list is down by over 70 refs on last year’s list I guess we all know the reasons for the decline .

  3. Would be great if Cordwainer Bull (or perhaps Melville’s magical media intern) could get screenshots of the various offside calls? I’m fairly confident – having stood next to him for the first half – that most of the calls were good and that Cain’s complaining was ridiculous (there was some hearty laughter) but I’d love to know for sure.

    Not that whether the calls were right or wrong really takes away from the issue at stake.

  4. I was also at the game and a number of the calls the AR1 made were maybe a best guess. The guy made it difficult for himself thru poor positioning deciding that he would work the forwards rather than the last defender and ball watching. Having been the guy in the middle on numerous occasions I know it’s a damn sight easier than being the lino but in general no one seems to coach these guys……ref or be damned seems to be the case! Teams will spend many hours training and to have that subjected to poor craftsmanship by the officials is not on. Fortunately (???) in this game Melville deserved their win and there are no issues there……but if it had been 0-0 and this guys call had decided the game, well that’s for another day I

  5. As always Bruce, I thoroughly enjoy your writing.

    It is unfortunate though that on the back of this article, some people chose to climb on in rather than reflect and add some reality to this situation but it is wonderful to see everyone’s opinion on referees in NZ. However no one seems to want to don the kit and do it themselves. Maybe it’s because they are worried about losing their own perfect record as a match officials? I heard a story 2 weeks ago that refereeing ranks slipped in AKL by 30 referees from this year to last. I am unsure on how true that is, but if so, that’s a hell of a lot…. so who fills that void? The very people that are bashed as being rubbish yet do it to ensure the players have a game. If it continues, the side line knocker may find themselves having to run the line. How will they find that?

    To your comment John about how referees overreact, it’s always the referees? No player has ever done that so it HAS to be the officials fault? Is that what you are saying here or are you perpetuating exactly what Bruce talks about and blaming officials. Consider that.

    To add some perspective here, we are talking about NRFL div 1. This ain’t the World Cup, OFC Champs league.. in fact I’ll keep coming down the grades past national league, past premier to Northern 1. The quality of officials is reflective of that. There will be some guys whom are not up to that level but is that the rule or the exception? I might add that if you would like better officials, then get better and rise out of the division you are in.

    I’m not perfect. I’ve made thousands of mistakes and opened myself up for criticism quite a fair amount of times by either being too fat, big mouthed, shit, or some other reason but one thing I can pretty much guarantee – my accuracy of decision making was infinitively higher %wise than those telling me I was wrong so if you are going to throw stones and say ‘the referee/lino was crap’ how about 1: can you do better? 2: offer something a little more constructive than that.

    1. I’m not saying there is no fault on the players at all, Chris. I know plenty of players who deserve the sort of treatment referees get on a regular basis, players who think they’re bigger than the game. Like you say, very few players would take up the mantle of being a referee – I know I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis. I think there is a genuine lack of humility in NZ football as a whole. Referees who treat all players as spoilt children, coaches that think they know everything because they were decent players and players who act as children and think they’re gods gift to football. The issue stems from a lack of respect on all sides and my comment was not meant to suggest that players are not at fault at all but to highlight that the ‘vicious cycle’ as Enzo put it is perpetuated by both sides. There has been a push this year on clubs to show respect for referees and a suggestion that heavy punishments will be handed out for those who don’t tow the line yet over the course of preseason and a third of this season I have twice come across referees who have been more disrespectful toward players than the players to them. I’m sure this is in part to defensiveness based on past experiences, but the mindset has to change for both players and officials otherwise these kinds of debates will continue to happen. We’ve started it at Hibiscus Coast – I’ve been thanking the referees after games for a number of years regardless of their performance – and there’s a definite push within the club to minimise the level of arguing with match officials.

      This whole defensive attitude of “you did this so that’s why I’m doing this” has to stop. Differences in opinion will always happen, but they should be handled with professionalism not childishness. I’ll repeat, my comment was not an attack on referees I was just indicating the opinion, which had not yet been expressed, that referee attitudes, as well as players, are part of the equation

      1. Just picking one small part out of this – the “heavy punishments” – I suspect this may be the wrong approach. If clubs are fearful of hefty fines when incidents are reported there is a big incentive for them to pretend it didn’t happen rather than tackle the problem. Governing bodies might get better results if they work collaboratively with clubs where problems arise rather than coming in with a big stick. Any connection this comment might have to recent events is purely coincidental… 😉

        1. I think the education side is a huge thing, that needs to happen far more regularly. NFF were doing the rounds at the beginning of the season with Chris Casey visiting clubs to educate players and coaches on rule changes and the like. The more of these conversations between all parties that occur, the better in my opinion. The post below sums up a majority of player attitudes in my opinion. If the referee is unwilling to communicate and appears arrogant the more likely they are to get stick. On the flip side though, a player arguing a decision when they’re not even aware of the rules is just as guilty. Open communication and open-mindedness is the only way to fix this issue.

  6. Hi Guys – and in particular John and Chris who I have played and spectated in games you guys have been officiating in.

    I am a serial offender of referee abuse – it’s not something I am proud of and it’s something that I nowadays try and limit as much as I can – but I will admit to all sorts of stupid carry on in my playing days and in my time on the side-line in the last 5-6 years.

    I wanted to add something from my point of view – I find it extremely hard to question or remain angry at a referee when they show even the slightest bit of understanding or personality (regardless of ability level), whereas I find it much easier to unleash on someone who appears arrogant or bitter – regardless I always feel bad about it later and feel remorse.

    The question about level of referee always seems to raise it’s head – I don’t know if referee’s actually have a level they can or can not referee at – a nasty situation that forces the referee to make a call that will piss one of the teams off can happen at any level of football so the referee is not up to this level call always frustrates me.

    I’m trying to change my ways and I have def improved and I have a few referee’s I get on with and chat to regularly – but it’s a bit of a vicious circle of referee’s getting abused and then getting bitter about it and then copping more abuse for their attitude.

    I don’t have a solution but I just wanted to chime in as one of the guilty and apologise and put my hand up and say I’m trying to be better.

  7. NZF had a chance to crack down on attitudes towards referees during the national league season just gone, but gave nothing more than a wet bus ticket and minimum punishments.

  8. I am a Northern League referee.

    I refreed a match at the start of the year and incorrectly awarded a penalty to the away team in the 20th minute of the match. My AR informed me I made a mistake, I apologized to the teams, we had a drop ball, and got on with the game.

    In the post match speeches both coaches commended me for my humility…
    But here’s the kicker
    I wasn’t being humble when I changed my decision – I was simply doing what was right.

    It got me thinking what other officials with what types of attitudes had those two clubs encountered previously to make them think so highly of a simple decision?

    Yes, as referees we tend to jump up onto our high horse – but there is a reason for that, we feel safer up there.

    It is easier for a referee to flash a card at a player who has just given him a gobfull than it is for a referee to calm the player down, talk to him explaining the decision.
    However, no need for either to occur if the player does not let rip in the first place.

    I am all for referees discussing things with players on the run, having a level of personality etc, and I acknowledge a requirement for mutual respect between “us and them”….. But I will not lower myself off my “high horse” simply to walk into a slaughter.

    1. And before you all ask – What is the solution?

      IMO the solution is tougher punishments on players who over step the mark, and the coaches/clubs who do not control their players and stop them from doing so.

      Sure, bring the line down a bit, referees being more humble and personable, meet players in the middle etc… but if we do that, there needs to be a level of accountability, there needs to be an acknowledgement and acceptance of consequence for when players over step that, and fail to respect what the officials are trying to do.

      EG – Australian speed limit is actually 110km on highways etc instead of 100km… But pity the fool caught travelling 111km.

  9. Hi all,

    I know a couple of referees have replied previously, but I will just add on a few more information and suggestion from my understanding of the current refereeing situation. (I am going to remain anonymous too)

    1. Referee attitude: I know many referees have a defensive (and possibly authoritarian) approach to dealing with players. Some could be due to their experiences and personality, e.g. they found that it is the best way to deal with players, and it is hard for a referee to change how they officiate a play if they are used to a certain way, and if they are not aspire of officiating at a higher level (remember some are just volunteers that are out there doing it because they enjoy it, they don’t actively look for ways to improve); or they have an alpha male personality and it is not always easy to change who they are. Or alternatively, it could be because of their cultural background. For example, I have had the privilege of officiating overseas, I found that many European and Asian referees, with the exception of English, rarely talk to players. They do not get coaching on ‘player management’ until they are on a national league/international level, so it is not easy to change the way they officiate.
    I am aware that many players prefer someone that are willing to have a chat and not afraid to admit their mistakes, but unfortunately, not every referee have the same man management style, and it is hard to get people to do things they are not used to.
    Referee coaching encourages referee to use ‘road block’ technique when it comes to man management (use quiet word, public banishment, involve team captains, before using YC/RC), but not everyone uses it due to clashes with their refereeing style or the context of the match.

    2. Referees reffing at levels above them: The referees are assigned to different levels at the start of the season, so in an ideal world, the referees would be appointed to matches within the levels they are assigned to. Unfortunately, referees are volunteers and the appointments are very much affected by referee availability. There is nothing to stop a referee from pulling out of a game due to whatever reason they want (especially during long weekends). Furthermore, there will be injuries and referee not passing the required fitness test for their level. So it is very often that referees are doing games at levels higher than what they should be doing (especially assistant referees). Some rise up to the challenge (as Chris said), and for some, the promotion could be too much for them, but there is not enough referees (especially quality referees who can perform at NRFL level) to replace those who are out-of-depth at the higher levels.
    This is where many of you can help – more referees are needed and it would really help if some of you could sign up for refereeing. Even just one game per weekend can help. Or alternatively, you could encourage people to sign up for refereeing. In the UK, clubs actively encourage its social players (especially young players who can’t quite make the grade) to sign up for refereeing. The more young, fit referees we have, the easier it is for us to develop them for the future. (Referees of older ages are also welcome, Mike Hester started his refereeing career late but realised his world cup dream in a decade).

    3. Training: Bruce mentioned that referees need more training and I couldn’t agree more. Referees definitely need training to get better, and NFF, AFF and WaiBop referee groups do conduct their own training sessions. However, as mentioned previously that referees are volunteers, not everyone can fit training into their daily schedule, and there is not enough incentive to get them to do it either except for the ones that are either aspired to get to the top, or already at the top. Furthermore, many of these training groups do not have access to suitable facilities. For example, I know AFF referees have training at Victoria Park at night times throughout the winter period. However, there is no lights at the ground and no football marks for appropriate practical training drills, so it makes training difficult and not really attractive for people to attend.
    This is also another area where you could help – I know many of the readers on this blog are club administrators, and I am sure the referee associations at each federation would appreciate some sort of support – in the forms of donation of old training equipment, sharing facilities and resources – referees don’t take up as much space as teams, they just need an area with lights where they can run on, and perhaps some referees could officiate any practice/training game at your club in return towards the end of the training! And yes, it would be very helpful if referee associations can have video footage from games so they could use that for training and educational purposes.

    I know there’s a lot of tension between referees and players/spectators. but instead of pointing at each other and say player/referee need to behave better, why don’t we find a way to work together and improve the refereeing standard & problems in the country?
    I am aware that clubs, federations and even individuals have limited resources and abilities, but that gives us more reason to work together, rather than against each other. If all of us could contribute one way or another, such as signing up for refereeing courses, encourage people to take up refereeing, sharing resources, or even just be nice to the referees and appreciate their time and effort, I am sure we will see improvements in refereeing standard and quality.

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