By Paul Gardner
A week or so ago Blackburn Rovers coach Sam Allardyce, sounding as genial and reasonable as ever, had a few things to say about his team's upcoming game against Everton.
"Every player commits fouls," he said. "It's whether the referee sees it, and sometimes they don't if a player is as clever as he is." He was referring to Everton's Australian Tim Cahill -- a curious accusation because I would doubt that Cahill has ever been accused of being one of the sport's subtler players.
Allardyce was accusing him, in effect, of conning referees, or at least of being too clever for them: "Tim Cahill uses his body and it's not often he concedes a free kick, but most of the time we see him playing the man before the ball."
Presumably Allardyce was trying to condition the referee, to alert him to ... what, exactly? Surely any referee should be super-aware of what Allardyce was going on about? Not according to Big Sam. Because he, as a coach and an ex-player, knows more, sees more, understands more, than the referee: "It's certainly very difficult to spot from their point of view ..." he says. Which sounds like he's taking pity on the referees, making excuses for them, but which is actually a pretty scornful remark.
After all, the referee is down on the field, in the middle of the play -- and is usually exceptionally well positioned to see what's going on (a lot better positioned, as it happens, than the coach on the sidelines). So "their point of view" can hardly refer to the physical positioning of the referee; it can mean only one thing -- the venerable criticism of referees that they "never played the game" and therefore cannot understand its inner workings.
True -- a referee who formerly had a career as a pro player is virtually unheard of -- and anything less than that will not impress pro coaches. So referees are, right from the start, viewed as inferior beings on the field.
That used to be a fairly frequent criticism from pro coaches and players -- "the referees never played the game, what do they know?" -- but it is rarely heard these days. Not least because referees are much better trained and much fitter than they used to be -- they have made tremendous efforts to upgrade their profession (although most of them continue to be only semipro at the most), to show that they take their job very seriously.
Anyway, sounding off about referees can be a costly business -- coaches now get fined for making critical comments -- though these are usually made in the heat of the moment, after a game which the coach's team has lost.
Allardyce's comments, however, were made before the game, and were evidently pre-meditated. However politely dressed up they may be, they are sharply directed at the major weakness in the referees' armory: you never played the game.
It's not an easy accusation to answer -- but I would suggest that it is an irrelevant one, a rather snide criticism that should not be listened to. Experienced referees, such as Allardyce encounters in the Premier League, have a wide experience of the game, for one thing. Of course their "point of view" is not that of the coach, nor should it be.
No doubt Allardyce would protest that he's only trying to help the referees do a better job -- in which case he might also have drawn attention to the numerous examples of defenders "playing the man before the ball" -- after all, Big Sam was a defender in his playing days.
But there would be a problem with that -- it would probably not be a good idea for Allardyce to emphasize that point, when Blackburn includes a defender as rustic as Ryan Nelsen (it's worth mentioning that Blackburn, with 59 yellows and three reds, is next to bottom of the EPL disciplinary table).
Allardyce cannot resist underlining his, and all coaches', superiority. Of Cahill's alleged trickery he says "But you pick up on it if you have been in the game as long as we have."
Incidentally, while pitying the referees for, basically, not seeing what's really happening, he includes all spectators, who also, it seems have a deficient point of view. He doesn't mention journalists -- but I think I know what he would think of our point of view.
Part of my point of view, as it happens, is that I would prefer coaches, including Big Sam, to give us games that feature good soccer, and are exciting to watch. The Blackburn vs. Everton game finished 0-0. Cahill somehow managed not to get sent off. But there were, in the words of Everton coach David Moyes "a lot of aerial challenges."
Indeed. The game was awful. But then, not having been "in the game" like Allardyce, what do I know?