The best referees are invisible. Any sport is enhanced when the official with the whistle fails to come the attention of the fans because the are performing their essential — and often incredibly tough — role in the background with perfect anonymity.
Irish League referees broke that general rule this week by scuppering the kick-off of the new Premier League in a dispute over money that turned out — like so many disputes about money — to have deeper roots.
As a result of the refs breaking cover, today’s launch of the new league has been frustratingly postponed from the natural home of football, a Saturday afternoon, to a less appetising Tuesday night when they must compete with ... the exciting series finale of archaeology drama Bonekickers. OK, so maybe the situation’s not too bad.
If the Premier League is a success, the inauspicious start will be forgotten. But it looks now like a missed opportunity for the league, and the Irish FA bears
responsibility for failing to sort the referees’ gripes sooner.
But the refs must take their share of blame as well. When this dispute first went public, they won the sympathy of many fans. They clearly weren’t used to that, because they immediately dumped it by forcing the unnecessary postponement of today’s matches.
Referees have a tough job, and is often a source of wonder that anyone has both the abilities — sharp eyes, awareness, speed of thought, fitness — and the willingness to do it.
So the Irish League referees had a good case when they suggested that the new league, with more money in the pot from sponsors JJB Sports, could afford to pay them more. Each week they give up their Saturdays, run the equivalent of a few miles and (at best) put up with the scorn of fans. Sometimes they run the risk of more serious abuse.
All that was for £70 a match. The refs weren’t looking for love — which is probably just as well — instead they wanted greater recognition for the important job they do.
Faced with the threat of a strike, the league
agreed to increase the fee to £120 per game — a substantial rise, but one that was probably overdue.
But pay, it turned out, wasn’t the only issue. The referees also want the league to provide linesmen to help officiate matches in the Championship, the new intermediate league. They may have a case, although it must be recognised this isn’t the biggest league in the world.
Without agreement on the extra officials, the referees refused to turn out for today’s matches.
That’s a mistake. If the Championship level matches are the problem, their boycott could have lain there exclusively.
Having reached a settlement on the pay issue, they should have been prepared to allow the new Premier League to launch as scheduled. After all, a successful start to the new league is in their interest as well.
A moral victory was scuppered by a late own goal. So the refs and the league have reached a score draw, which is another way of saying no winners.