Chris Holt: Standard of local refereeing getting worse
Sky Sports' coverage of the Carling Premiership has been nothing short of an unmitigated success - good crowds, good football and great games.
However, the station's live broadcasting has given rise, and oxygen, to a monster in the local game. No, not Steve Lomas, but the not so humble Irish League referee.
Friday's latest offering at Shamrock Park promised to be a scintillating affair - two evenly matched sides, both fighting for a place in the top six and, certainly in Coleraine's case, one of the best attacking Premiership teams in years.
And despite the likes of Kevin Braniff, Gary McCutcheon, Rory Patterson, Darren Boyce and Stephen Carson gracing the field, who did most people end up talking about? The man in the middle.
It's hardly the first time it has happened this season but it seems that when the TV cameras roll in, some of the men in black - or whatever colour they fancy wearing (more on that later) - get worse than they already are.
Alan Black was the guilty party on Friday night - sending off two Coleraine players and giving a very dodgy penalty to Portadown.
With the sides at 1-1 after just ten minutes, the game was living up to its billing as another superb advert for the local game. Then came an albeit only slightly dubious red card for Paddy McLaughlin and the game lost it's flow. And when Davy O'Hare followed McLaughlin down the tunnel, basically for very little and a penalty was also rewarded, it was 3-1 and game over.
It was a baffling decision that ruined a great game and that, unfortunately has been a trend in the Premiership over the past few seasons. I have come out of so many games wanting to report on a great goal or a dynamic defensive display yet so often am left asking questions of the referee.
The overall standard of refereeing in this country is shameful - and it's getting worse.
On any given Saturday I would be willing to bet that a high percentage of supporters leave an Irish League ground grumbling about the ref or the linesman or even the fourth official. It's not just because fans like a good gurn, but because more often than not they have been given reason to.
Why are they so poor? Well for that answer you have to look at the IFA and in particular, 'referees czar' Alan Snoddy. He's in charge, he's the assessor and therefore the buck stops with him.
There's no doubting that Snoddy is experienced and, though partial to the odd mistake here and there himself, was a fine referee in his day. But the problem with his appointment at the top is that it gives the impression of a closed shop and that there's a sense of 'all sticking together' rather than weeding out the poor performers. How many times have you seen a referee turn in an awful performance then end up at another Premiership game the following week? No dropping down a few divisions as a punishment, nope, they are back again, doing the same thing and that only offers credence to the opinion that the assessors are just as bad as those they are employed to be assessing.
But the real reason for my own personal ire, comes not so much from the incompetence of the officials, which in itself is great, but their sheer arrogance. Every week without fail I have a conversation with a player which includes the sentence 'you can't even ask them a question.'
Yellow cards are thrown around like confetti to players who are merely looking for a reason why a decision was made but are greeted by an angry 'Go away.'
Here are a couple of examples from recent games.
A player enquired of the assistant referee why a goal his side had scored was disallowed. He received the 'go away' treatment from the linesman who also complained to the referee and the player was subsequently booked for dissent. And seconds after showing the card, the ref then told the player why the goal was disallowed!
Here's another; a player asks the referee why he didn't speak to a member of the opposing side after an advantage was played following a foul. The player was again told in no uncertain terms to go away. The player explained that he was the team captain and was therefore allowed to speak to the referee, but was then told, 'no you're not, now shut up and go away.'
Just two incidents that seemingly happen in every game in the country. Respect is a word bandied around in football of late but as far as I am concerned, respect is a two way street and the referees aren't showing the players or managers - many of whom have borne the brunt of a few over-eager jobsworths this season - any of that.
It looks to me like sheer arrogance, the desperation to be at the centre of attention, making every game all about them when the fact is, they are the one aspect that no one wants to even know is there.
They say a good referee isn't noticed - if that's the case there can't be too many in the Irish League.
I mentioned earlier about the colour of the officials' kit, which is the subject of another story concerning a ref who was taking charge of a Setanta Sports Cup game which was to be broadcast live.
Before the game he entered the home dressing room and here's how the conversation went:
Referee: "What colour is your jersey?"
Referee: "You can't wear yellow, we're wearing yellow tonight."
Goalkeeper: "We don't have another one, can you not wear your black one?"
Referee: "No, we're on TV tonight, we're wearing yellow, find another jersey."
It may sound funny but it's a factual insight into the mindset of many of them and it's also something that has to be nipped in the bud quickly. If the standard keeps slipping the way it has been then people will be put off going to games and that's something that the game simply cannot afford to happen.
Maybe we could do with having someone in charge with no refereeing background. That way there are no cliques or 'backing one of your own'.
I'm sorry Mr Snoddy, but that therefore means that your time is up.