It’s only since I’ve retired that I’ve truly come to appreciate the level of commitment needed to be a referee.
As a player I had my fair share of run-ins with officials and I certainly wouldn’t have been their biggest fan. But I did accept that their decisions, no matter how controversial, were all part of the game.
Did they leave me feeling angry and frustrated? Absolutely, especially when they penalised me for something I hadn’t done. Therefore, as the ire grows in Irish League football towards poor refereeing and the standards of officiating, I can totally empathise.
There have been some horrendous decisions by the officiating teams in recent weeks, but there comes a time when the criticism has to stop and solutions need to be sought.
I’m not one who believes former footballers make excellent referees. They may read the game well as a player and know when a player is trying it on or a deliberate foul has been committed, but I believe there is a huge difference in how an official sees the match.
And therefore, I would rather encourage a young person to take up refereeing and gain valuable experience through all the levels.
Irish League officials are amateurs but if you look in England where they are full-time and have VAR, the referees are still constantly criticised for their errors of judgment.
My big issue is that referees, especially in the Premier League and where VAR is widely used, are no longer in full control. They are too reliant on the men in the booth to correct any mistakes they make.
They are happy to make decisions knowing full well if they are wrong then it will be overturned by VAR. It impacts their performance to be in complete control of the match.
We’ve seen it so many times, including last week with the two penalty decisions during the Tottenham v Chelsea Carabao Cup matches.
I would like to take the power away from the man in the booth. It would be interesting to introduce manager’s challenges, similar to the NFL and tennis, where they have two per half or per game regarding the use of VAR.
To me, the referee needs to be in charge. They are under more scrutiny than ever with the number of cameras and the ‘experts’ on social media.
Everybody is also so much angrier. I put it down to the pandemic and the lockdowns that have occurred. It seems everyone wants to vent and referees are often the target.
I know the Northern Ireland Football League as a whole have struggled for officials this year but if the fourth official was able to have a greater input that may just help proceedings.
We can try VAR Lite in the Irish League, but all the new initiatives in the world may be no substitute for good old fashioned dialogue.
Have representatives from the referees, managers and players in a room having an open and transparent conversation. Devise a sub-committee with NIFL’s blessing and thrash out the issues.
They could hold regular meetings and discuss how mistakes can be eradicated.
Allow the referees to see the players’ and managers’ perspective and vice versa.
If the constant criticism continues, it will likely affect recruitment drives. Down the years, it’s hardly been the most attractive role in the game but surely with the levels of abuse aimed at referees, why would you even bother signing up?
In recent times we’ve often talked about the investment in our young players and facilities but maybe we also need to give aspiring referees the best training and education we can offer.
We need lots of feedback and assessments, along with incentives for climbing the refereeing ladder. There needs to be a proper support mechanism for referees because they have never been under so much scrutiny as they are now.
Only a couple of weeks ago I was at the Larne v Linfield match. I could have sworn that Kofi Balmer had given away a penalty which resulted in a sending off. I was certain. When I met up with David Jeffrey and Stephen Craigan who were doing the television, they felt the same. But then when I watched it on TV later, Kofi was just outside the box so no penalty but yes, a red card for being the last man.
People get frames of incidents and freeze it to basically show the error of the referee. But referees are making decisions in a fast-flowing game in real time. No replays, no freeze frame technology and knowing one bad call could influence the game. The pressure must be immense.
Referees need our help rather than our criticism.
I made the mistake of presuming the Co Antrim Shield Final would be televised or streamed.
Just ahead of kick-off, I sat down and brought up the BBC iPlayer looking forward to the match between Larne and Linfield. I couldn’t find it, so I checked online. No joy.
Then on social media, I saw the comments about no televised coverage.
What a missed opportunity.
I must commend BBC NI for their live television coverage and streaming service of the Danske Bank Premiership and Irish Cup this season.
But they let down an expectant audience on this occasion.
I know their deal is with the IFA and NIFL, but surely considering the two major sides in the Final and the level of interest, the Co Antrim FA and BBC could have come together to arrange streaming coverage at the very least.
Having read social media I know so many other people were in a similar position to myself.
But it also shows the level of interest in Irish League football nowadays.
I love it because it is raw, honest and entertaining. Some of the challenges that you get away with in the Irish Premiership would receive a yellow card in England.
So I didn’t get to see my hometown club retain the Co Antrim Shield... I’ll just have to wait for it to come out on DVD.
The Scottish Premiership resumes tomorrow night when Celtic entertain Hibernian.
It will be interesting to see how the Old Firm teams respond to two weeks without competitive action due to the winter/Covid break.
When I was at Rangers a few years ago, we really struggled to get going after the resumption. It took us a good few weeks and had a major bearing on our season.
Rangers and Celtic usually head off to sunny climes, and we all remember the bother Neil Lennon and his team came in for last year when they jetted off to Dubai at the height of the pandemic.
But this year, with Covid still raging, the Old Firm have remained at home. Well, that is the theory.
Knowing footballers, especially those with plenty of disposable income, if they are given even just one day off they usually jump on a plane. Some go to see family, others book a restaurant in a major European city while the sun, pool and bar beckons for quite a few.
At West Brom, players would often fly to Paris or Madrid just for the day and then return for training the next morning. I never really understood it.
The Rangers and Celtic managers will be trusting their players to look after themselves and make sure they get plenty of rest so they can come out firing for the second half of the season.
Celtic have brought in the reinforcements by signing Japanese trio Daizen Maeda, Yosuke Ideguchi and Reo Hatate.
With their new talent creating competition at Parkhead, Celtic will want to set down a marker tomorrow night before Rangers play on Tuesday against Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
With the Old Firm clash coming up in a couple of weeks, no side will want to start sluggish.
But the players need to be careful of injury. With my experience of the Championship, where we consistently played Saturday/Tuesday, I never liked the idea of breaks. I was happy to play the hectic Premier League schedule at Christmas.
It was only when I started to have breaks that the injuries and hamstring issues would flair up.
We’ll soon find out if the two-week rest has done them any good.