It was never meant to be this way. Me, hunched over a laptop, bashing at the keyboard like one of the infinite number of chimpanzees they say could write the complete works of William Shakespeare given an infinite amount of time. But it has come to this; freshly retired and already on to another ‘What pisses me off about football’ piece.
The trigger this time was an U11s game in the Mid-Lincs Sunday League. I was stood watching my girlfriend’s son, a robust midfielder of the Jan Mølby mould, as the ball bounced harmlessly towards the opposition’s right back, who happened to be on his own, ten yards clear from any other player.
Lacking the composure of say Phillip Lahm or a Cafu, for example, (Understandable, David. He’s barely eleven) he proceeded to volley the ball straight out of play. Whether you’d care to admit it or not, be it a momentary mind fart or a distinct lack of awareness of what’s around us, we’ve all done the same thing. It isn’t a criminal offence.
Instantly, the young lad spun around to catch the referee’s attention, vehemently claiming “Our ball!” This is where I had to steady myself. I took my gaze away from what had just occurred, staring at the ground momentarily to ask myself the question “Did he just do that?” And indeed he had.
I couldn’t help myself. I suddenly blurted out, “Mate! You’ve just kicked the ball off the pitch without a soul around you! How can that be your throw-in?!” And then I felt terrible. Not only did I feel guilty for patronising a boy who still needed binoculars to see puberty approaching in the distance, but also the guilt of knowing that as a former professional footballer, I was partly to blame for the absurdity I’d just witnessed.
Game after game after game, at every level of professional football we see players intimidating referees, claiming for decisions that are clearly not in their favour and particularly over the last few years, this phenomenon has increased exponentially. Kids are like plasticine. Easily moulded. What they see, they invariably do. For all the ridiculousness of that kid claiming a throw-in that was never going to be given his way, he was only re-enacting exactly what he sees on the TV. Now is the time to put a stop to it.
Every decision, be it a throw in, corner, penalty or free kick is contested by both teams and what makes it all the more disheartening is that they do it so convincingly. I’d place a bet on most players over Sir Ben Kingsley if they auditioned against each other for the role of hard-done-to footballer. It’s become an art.
You might say it’s the attitude of a winner who fights for every inch, but it really isn’t. It’s an embarrassment. I know exactly why they do it, I did it myself, but almost always for decisions that I saw could go either way. I can see the point. Really, I can. Referees are human and they may allow themselves to be convinced by the pleas.
The trouble is, players aren’t just contesting close calls that are difficult for the officials to read, it’s every single time the ball goes out of play. I’ve sat in the dugout many times and watched players smile to themselves as their high pitched conman cries are met with a raised arm from the referee in the direction of their opponents goal.
It’s just dickishness of the highest order. Claiming for a throw in when it’s clearly not yours doesn’t just make you look like you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing, it makes you look desperate.
We should take steps to stop any kind of dissent towards any of the match officials, full stop. The FA need to lay down the law so that every decision is accepted without remonstration from the players, which will then have a threefold positive effect on the game as a whole. Players will immediately refocus and get back into position rather than getting caught out whilst whinging at the ref. The game will flow more fluidly without the pauses for mid-match protests. Most importantly, the referee’s head will be clearer, therefore allowing him to make a calmer, clearer decision without unnecessary added pressure.
When I coach, I tell my players that while their attention is spent moaning at a referee, they’re oblivious to what the opposition is doing. It’s a hoary old point that football should be more like rugby, but after what I saw on that pitch, I’m starting to come around to the idea. We should encourage our kids to try to win a game of football on their own, rather than trying to get the ref to win it for them.