[/CENTER] Two years ago, the FA launched their ‘Respect’ initiative, designed to improve attitudes and behaviors shown towards match officials by players and spectators at all levels of the game. The campaign has been much derided since its inception, the back page spread lamenting refereeing decisions during a game or the managers lambasting of the oppositions ‘twelfth man’ still as regular an occurrence as ever. Yet the requirement for the campaign is still clear; with grass root football in particular suffering – the FA claim “thousands of referees quit football every year because of the abuse they receive from players and from the sidelines”. Given the poor pay at anything but the very top level of the profession, the abuse, the stigma... is it any wonder? These individuals train for such roles purely for the love of the game despite the obvious drawbacks... but are we now finding that love of the game simply isn’t enough anymore? Football is necessarily a passionate, tribal affair; it’s understandable that supporters lose their rag with the men in black (green, pink, yellow… hard to keep track these days!) in the heat of the moment. They may justifiably resent key decisions they believe went against their team on the day. But we should also be fair; often our views are obviously bias towards our own side. It’s trendy and frankly too easy at times to scapegoat the referee, but in all bar the most exceptional of cases, they are doing their job fairly and to the best of their ability. We sometimes forget just how much scope for individual interpretation there is built into the laws of the game – how often we find sane, reasonable observers of the game swearing blind that their view of the incident is unquestionably the ‘correct’ one, even when there are sane, reasonable observers elsewhere claiming the exact opposite? How often we deride a decision only to learn later it’s the law that’s the ass, not the referee’s interpretation. In the rules of the game lie both its strength and its weakness. At its best, football has a constant ebb and flow, a tempo which makes for the most exciting sporting entertainment possible. That flow is aided by the referee’s ability to let play progress despite a clear foul, or affording players a little extra leeway in a feisty derby affair to maintain a grip of the game. Much of the luster of football is talking the game to death with friends afterwards, reciting the many talking points thrown up over ninety minutes action. If football officiating was a completely cut and shut affair, we’d surely be missing out in this regard? Yet while referees continue to get scolded for their interpretation of the rule book, there surely is a case for looking at the laws, and perhaps adding some extra detail, a few more hard facts and letter of the law decisions perhaps. As always with these things, problems at the top of the game trickle down the pyramid. It’s not rocket science to understand, when a young player in a Sunday morning park game barks at the referees face and flicks him the ‘V’, they’re emulating the example their professional heroes have set the previous day. It’s not just the players though; the pundits who analyze the game have due culpability. I don't particularly rate the standard of the profession currently, because pundits are simply not doing their jobs properly. Few if any of them do any serious proper research into the topics they're talking about. Few seem to have advanced knowledge of rule changes, or the interpretation of rules. When slagging off referees, few bother to analyse factors such as where the ref was stood and the view he had of a given incident. It's such a poorly executed discipline that really ought to be performed so much better, and the broadcasters ought to exert more responsibility in the editorial decisions they make. We deride British standards, but it’s possible to get a fairer reflective opinion of our domestic referees when we compare them to those officiating in other domestic leagues. Despite the less physical nature of La Liga, it’s not rare to see a game there end with twice the cards of an English match, with a couple extra red cards to boot. One of the major criticisms aimed at Uefa is their policy of allowing referees from weaker domestic leagues, such as Tom Henning Ovrebo of Norway, to take charge of the most important games in European football (perhaps the solution there is to relax the rules regarding refereeing in foreign leagues, it’s preposterous to demand a referee can’t officiate a top level European game essentially based on their birthplace). Referees today are unquestionably fitter and better prepared than they used to be, especially since the dawn of the professional age in 2001. But it remains a tough job, particularly as the pace and physicality of the game increases, and technology is increasingly used to analyses each and every tiny aspect of the game. Yes, technology. No discussion of referees would be complete without that topic rearing its head. Sepp Blatter is firmly against anything that further alters the difference between football at the top level compared to its lower rungs, and it’s difficult to see anything changing while he’s in power. But football does now lag behind most other major sports in its resistance against such change – even cricket, with its rich traditions, has relented and brought technology into in-play decision making, as an umpires aid. Why not the football referee’s aid too? Harking back to the importance of the ebb and flow of football… there is also drama to be found in the suspense felt before a key match changing decision. Has it crossed the line? We don’t know, the referee doesn’t know, he’s walking over to consult with his linesman… has he seen it clearly? What will they decide between them, this has taken a good thirty seconds now and the suspense is too much… he’s given the goal!!! There are ways and means of ensuring any technological use occurs much faster than that existing officiating process. Football will always retain its accessibility and appeal at the lower level regardless. So to conclude; who do I think are the greatest exponents of their discipline? Martin Atkinson. He delivers a calm authority to a game, rarely gets a key decision blatantly wrong, and appears to have more of a rapport with the players during a game than most. Andre Marriner. Excellent at managing a game without appearing to forget we’re watching the game for the entertainment of the football and not to see him perform. Mark Halsey. Unfortunately out of the game since the start of the season, Halsey is on the verge of his return (delayed due to adverse weather on Tuesday), and everybody involved in the game wishes him the best of success in his continued recuperation. We can of course learn the lessons of poor officiating though, and hold them to account – in a fair and objective manner. While we should be more tolerant of the referee, there should still be recriminations if the form of demotion if their performance hasn’t been up to scratch. So who do I think need to work harder to cut it at the top level? Peter Walton. Appears too limp and inconsistent in his decision making to have a grip of the games he officiates, and command the respect of the players involved. Stuart Atwell. In fairness, the fault here lies with the system which has fast tracked Stuart, aged 27, to the top of his profession, when he clearly needs more experience learning his trade. Mark Clattenburg. A controversial career which has involved an 18 month suspension from the game for non-footballing matters often isn’t aided from some peculiar key decision making in prominent matches.