At the end of a cavernous room sits an enormous armchair. Beyond it hundreds of giant screens – each of them rolling footage back and forth in super slo-mo of professional footballers’ arms. Arms everywhere, all in dangerous proximity to the ball.
At regular intervals a stern, clipped Home Counties voice can be heard uttering the same two words over and over again. “Unnaturally bigger, unnaturally bigger, unnaturally bigger.”
There is a knock at an impossibly oversized oak door. “Come.” The butler, Dean, walks through a smaller door carved into the bigger one holding a silver platter. He walks deliberately to the table across the stone floor. The echo of his sharpened studs rings around the whole castle with each step.
“What is it, Mike?” David Elleray pauses the screens and swivels in his chair. Pawson leaps from his lap and joins Catwell and Catkinson in the corner where they are gorging on a live rodent. A photo of Cattenburg sits on the mantelpiece gathering dust.
Dean lifts the platter to reveal a scroll. “The One Hundred and Seventy Ninth law change you were asking for, Sir,” he remarks, his referee’s kit freshly ironed. “Excellent,” says Elleray rubbing his hands.
“You always were smarter than Milford, sir,” Dean says, bowing.
“And how is Walton?” asks Elleray. “Still behaving?” They both laugh as the the International Football Association Board (Ifab) leader circles his bony finger around a large red button. Peter Walton has been confined to a boobytrapped cabin for the last two years. A netting of tarantulas hovers above his head, just out of shot. If he disagrees even slightly with any refereeing decision during a game, Elleray will take decisive action. It has worked so far.
Lightning strikes one of the turrets of Ifab castle as the rain continues to pour. Outside the walls three men are huddled together around a burning oil drum. The Outcasts. Hackett, Halsey and Gallagher are deep in conversation. “I wouldn’t have given it” … “Neither would I” … “The game’s gone.” But no one can hear them above the howling gale.
“Winter is coming,” remarks Hackett as he pulls his bear skin over both shoulders. “Aye, summer’s over,” nods Halsey. “No, Mark. JEFF Winter’s coming – budge up.”
Elleray walks to his window to survey his kingdom. “Consistency,” he mutters under his breath.
I have never been to Ifab headquarters – so some of the above details might not be entirely accurate. But the determination of football’s rule-makers to rid the game of all possible inconsistencies at the expense of all possible entertainment feels very real.
As Barney Ronay said on the Guardian Football Weekly the other day: “If you pitched football as a thing – we’ll be in this empty stadium and we’ll argue for ages about whether a ball hit someone’s hand – you wouldn’t get past the first round.”
There are currently more important unchecked powers in the world than those that saw Crystal Palace concede a penalty because a ball hits Joel Ward’s hand from point-blank range – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight them.
Even after Premier League club executives and Ifab endorsed a change which gives referees more leeway in interpreting the law – Eric Dier “handling” the ball while facing the other way in mid-air just after being pushed by a Newcastle player would still have resulted in a penalty. How can that be?
I have only seen David Elleray in the flesh once. A 0-0 draw between Cambridge United and Cardiff City when he sent off three of their players – it was glorious. It’s probably a coincidence that he stole the show that day.
But his, and Ifab’s, lack of accountability over law changes plays into this narrative of referees as power-hungry despots – desperate to exert control over whatever finite space they are given, be it a pitch on Donkey Lane or the rulebook of the entire game. And anything that makes fans and players think that officials are megalomaniacs is counter productive at all levels.
The only Premier League referee I have spent any time with is Jon Moss. A thoroughly decent bloke, interesting and interested – with a vintage record shop called the Vinyl Whistle. Similarly I’ve had plenty of pleasant chats on the radio with Mark Halsey, Dermot Gallagher and Clive Thomas among others. So why do I still have a natural suspicion of anyone in a referee’s kit, even for just a split second? Perhaps this is just my failing, but I’m sure not alone.
The serious side to this is at amateur level. In a recent study by the University of Portsmouth, 18.9% of over two thousand referees who were questioned in England said they had experienced physical abuse on the pitch. Last year a player from my amateur team dropped out on the day of the game because he had been knocked out by the dad of one of the kids he was reffing that morning.
The fact that a charity called Ref Support UK even exists should make us stop and think.
Of course Ifab continually changing the laws of the game doesn’t make me want to punch my local referee – but unpopular laws make the game worse for fans and players and more difficult for officials.
The responsibility to change perceptions of referees lies with everyone. That includes pundits and journalists who don’t know the laws but who yell for consistency and common sense at the same time, and of course players who abuse refs verbally and worse.
Competitive football is one of the very few things we can watch and play right now, and to do it we need referees. Perhaps it should begin by portraying them as human beings, not as evil dictators who live in castles, but that would be easier if the ref right at the top appeared to have the best interests of the game at heart.