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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