Who’s the Bastard in the Black? And You Thought Footballers Were Theatrical Prima Donnas…

Flint's Off on One

One of football’s nuggets of enduring wisdom dictates that timing is everything. Denis Irwin’s run to collect Éric Cantona’s delicious chip against Spurs could only have happened at the precise moment. Without a Swiss watchmaker’s precision, Charles Edoard Coridon’s utterly ridiculous scorpion kick volley for PSG ceases to exist. As beautifully poetic as Pelé’s telepathic assist to Carlos Alberto in 1970 was, it was nothing without mathematical calculation.

But there’s another type of timing that is often ignored. Admittedly, it is infinitely more personal, but the surging rise and gentle fall of crowd noise is equally prescient. As a boy, I would sit in the North Stand at Old Trafford with my Dad, and drink in the mass of bodies. To a young child’s mind it was a miracle that thousands of people could chant in what seemed like such perfect unison. One particular moment stands out – and I swear there is not one hint of embellishment in this – when I learned my first swear word.

It was one of those impossibly perfect moments of synchronicity. The opposition were awarded a free kick, and as is the duty of all fans, United’s support were incensed. I don’t actually remember the incident clearly. In fact, if truth be told, I can’t even recall the opposition that day. What I do recall is a brief five-second period, and the moment of education. When 50,000 people largely share the same opinion, it can take some time for their vocal remonstrations to die out. Eventually they did, and at the precise moment complete silence befell the stands, a shrill 8-year-old voice pierced the momentary calm.

“Daddy, what’s a wanker?”

I don’t remember the colour of Flint Sr’s face, but you can bet it largely matched the home shirts. One of the oldest refrains on the terraces regarding the personality of the referee had expanded my vocabulary, much to my father’s intense embarrassment. Well, not yet it hadn’t – of course Daddy was too mortified to spell it out there and then. The vitriol towards the man in doubt over the general gist though.

I like to think my family brought me up to have a certain level of manners. It deserts me on Russian roads, but then you try being chased by an angry Armenian for half an hour and keep your cool. Extreme provocation aside, I have often found the extreme provocation spewed towards match officials exceptionally distasteful. Sure, we want decisions to go our way, but the poor buggers are human for God’s sake.

I’m certainly not a holier-than-thou zealot. I have cursed some unsavoury character assessments at the man in the middle a number of times. There is, however, a difference between tribalistic blindness and outright hatred or abuse. Tales of teenage up-and-coming referees being chased and beaten by parents at age-group matches are disturbingly common. Those kids who see their parents acting like mindless zombies can’t be blamed for losing respect for officials very quickly.

It’s not the awful attitude towards referees that has pissed me off though; it’s the referees themselves. “But you’ve just spent a page defending them,” I hear you say. When they make a judgement call, yes. What I cannot bear, however, is when the preening self-absorbed prats make the whole show about themselves. The ‘performance’ they often put on when disciplining players’ transgressions can reach insufferable levels. I get that they can feel insignificant in the shadow of multi-millionaire superstars, but the arrogance some officials exude infuriates me.

What’s wrong with just showing a card? Why the need to treat grown men (ok, I know this term is generous to some, but you get my point) like errant schoolchildren by summoning them to the headmaster’s presence when we all know you are simply going to book them anyway? The charade is at best pointless and at worst aggravating to testosterone-ridden sportsmen.

It’s clearly in the referees’ directives to demand players traipse over to receive their yellow card. Not content with simply completing the formality, referees are instructed to show them who is boss. I don’t see how it makes players any more accepting of the decision – if anything, it has the opposite effect. To an extent the bastards in the black are only following orders. Can they be blamed for obeying their superiors? Perhaps not, but I wish some of them would stop bloody enjoying it so smugly. The flamboyance with which they puff out their chests, as if showing a yellow card is the most sensational moment worthy of all the cameras and eyes in the stadium, just smacks of self-indulgence.

When Paolo Di Canio gently tickled Paul Alcock’s chest, the referee performed the worst theatrical display I’ve ever seen. Collapsing to the ground like a hunted animal, he showed all the reactions of a plank of wood. By the time his arse had touched the grass, the Italian had turned and was already five paces away. Now there’s no defending the intent of Di Canio to raise his hands to the ref. There was even less need though for Alcock to feel the need to play to the gallery.

A good referee is widely acknowledged as one who goes 90 minutes largely unnoticed. People flock in their thousands to watch footballers, not their censors. So next time a man or woman in black – or more likely violent electric pink nowadays – flicks out a card with the panache of a Bolshoi Ballet dancer, allow yourself a burst of anger in their direction. You want respect? It’s a two-way street my friend; respect the players and fans too.