Ref justice can be rough justice in Irish League

THE elderly gentleman who approached me as I came out of the Showgrounds on Saturday was determined to make his point.
The standard of refereeing in the Irish League has become an increasingly contentious issue in recent seasons.The standard of refereeing in the Irish League has become an increasingly contentious issue in recent seasons.
The standard of refereeing in the Irish League has become an increasingly contentious issue in recent seasons.

“I hope you’re goin’ to gie thon referee a touch in the paper,” he said indignantly.

As extraordinary coincidences go, I had earmarked this week’s column to talk about the general issue of refereeing in the Irish League, irrespective of Mark Courtney’s seven-card trick in Saturday’s game against Glenavon.

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Let me start by nailing my colours very firmly to the mast when it comes to refereeing; I wouldn’t do it for all the tea in China.

Referees have a difficult job, not helped by the Sky generation and its 27 different camera angles and super slow-motion replays. People see that analysis on television and then try to apply it to the Irish League – where referees get one chance and one chance only to make an instant decision on a situation – which is unfair.

However, there is one factor in the Irish League refereeing debate which sets it aside from other leagues, in my opinion.

I’m old enough to remember when the likes of Alan Snoddy, John Ferry and Leslie Irvine were the men in the middle on Saturdays.

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And, just to prove to younger readers that criticism of referees isn’t a new concept, people thought referees in that era were rubbish as well!

It would be fair comment to say there has been a gradual decline in refereeing standards in this country over the past 20 years.

What sets the Irish League situation apart from others, however, is that it can be pinpointed down to a particular DAY when the relationship between referees and the footballing fraternity was irretrievably damaged.

Saturday, August 9, 2008 was the date in question – the day that referees ripped the heart out of Irish League football by going on strike on the opening day of the new-look Premiership campaign

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It had the result of getting referees and their assistants the handsome pay rises they had sought, but it also drew the battle lines between themselves and the rest of football.

From that day, the performances of referees came under extra scrutiny, to see if the quality of their performances rose in accordance with their match fees – five years down the line, the answer to that is a very firm ‘no’.

To put it into some sort of context, outside of the biggest clubs in this country, I wonder what percentage of Irish League players would be taking home the £170 given to a referee for taking charge of a senior game, or even the £85 an assistant referee pockets?

There is also a worrying trend within the Irish FA to ‘fast-track’ young referees who look genuinely out of their depth at the top level.

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I feel sorry for those officials because there aren’t too many jobs, either in football or in any walk of life, where you can walk in in your early twenties and instantly command the respect of people 10 or 15 years older than you.

I remember when former Ballymena player Dessie Loughery took up the whistle, a lot of people remarked that we needed more ex-players to referee. I recall thinking that it was a terribly insular ‘keep it in the family’ approach but experience has taught me that former players are more likely to spot the indiscretions that go on on the pitch, more so than some of the younger ones who have never kicked a ball in their life.

* Follow Ballymena Times Sports Editor Stephen Alexander on Twitter (@Stephen_Bmena)