LIAM MACKEY: Man in the middle faces becoming hostage to fortune

In football, as in the world about us, the whistle-blower is never too far from the headlines.

From Rob Rogers hitting Cork City and Waterford for six to Michael Oliver feeling the wrath of, first, Gigi Buffon, and then the social media mob, the role of the referee has been under intense scrutiny in recent times. 

And then, from right down at the roots of the football tree, comes disturbing news this week from England of a Sunday league referee who feels he has no option but to pack it in after being assaulted by a player for the second time in 10 years.

The fallout from the rumble at the Regional continues, with Waterford confirming they intend to appeal the six- and four-match bans handed down to Stanley Aborah and Bastien Hery, respectively. 

Man in the middle faces becoming hostage to fortune

While that process is ongoing, all one can say is that, on the night, few would have wished to be in the referee’s shoes as he tried to distinguish the guilty from the innocent in the chaotic scenes which erupted in injury-time at the RSC.

For different reasons, it was a challenge to definitively apportion blame in the Champions League quarter-final between Real Madrid and Juventus which ended in late, late drama of another kind, as Oliver followed up the awarding of a penalty to Real with the sending off of legendary Italian goalkeeper Buffon.

The penalty call looked the right decision but, even accepting that Buffon’s aggressive demeanour towards the ref was as over the top as it was uncharacteristic, did Oliver really have no other option but to double-down on Juve’s punishment by flashing the red card?

By the letter of the law, perhaps yes, but it has long been a reality of refereeing that some leeway is allowed for common sense. 

By that unwritten rule, there’s a compelling argument that a drama would not have been turned into a crisis had the ref chosen to take some of the heat out of the situation by at least allowing Buffon the opportunity to try to redeem himself between the posts for the resultant spot-kick.

What can be said with certainty is that Buffon hasn’t done much to redeem his tarnished reputation since. His reference to Oliver having a “dustbin” or “bag of rubbish” for a heart was, you might say, an example of trash-talking losing, or perhaps gaining, something in translation, but it was put in the shade by the subsequent social media vitriol heaped not only on the referee but his family.

It was followed by a wave of counter-support for Oliver would be rather more welcome if the suspicion didn’t persist that most of it sprang from anti-Juve sentiment, especially in Italy, rather than from a rare show of sympathy for the figure that football people too often regard as the devil.

In any event, while Buffon can’t be held responsible for the vomit expelled by knuckle-dragging trolls, it would still have been nice to see him disassociate himself from attacks on Oliver’s loved ones.

By far the most troubling refereeing story of the week originated far from the madding crowd — and TV cameras — with the news that 36-year-old official Rob Hawkes has decided to retire having allegedly been punched and kicked, and left with a cut eye and injuries to his legs, in a Sunday league match in England.

The incident, which led to the game being abandoned and sparked an ongoing police investigation, happened seven years after Hawkes was assaulted by another player.

“I have been assaulted twice and it has got worse,” he told BBC Sport. “The third assault? I do not like to think what that might be.”

Hawkes, a father of two, journalism lecturer, and referee with 20 years’ experience, believes such violence cannot be viewed in isolation. And while his focus might be on grassroots football, some of the behaviour he describes is something which will be all too familiar even to armchair viewers of the elite game.

“Verbal anger, threats, and aggression are not working on referees because we have become immune to it,” he said. 

“You start to see them bumping you, jabbing you in the chest to make their point.

“To me, the next logical step is what happened to me. My fear is what happens after this? What does it take to realise Sunday morning football has a huge problem? It is a powder keg waiting to explode. Players are getting away with what they like. There is no sense or acknowledgement that this is a massive issue — someone will go a step too far.

“I have had people on Twitter saying ‘what did you do to provoke the reaction?’ I just refereed a game of football. I can’t see how I can go back out there and referee with any sense of security. You are out on your own. If a team or player decides to turn on you, you’re at their mercy.”

His final thoughts on departing football speak a self-evident truth. 

“We are the reason the game goes on, on a Sunday morning. Players who think we are bad, imagine how bad the game will be when no referees turn up.”


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