SUNDAY’S tinderbox collision between Chelsea, Manchester United and referee Mark Clattenburg has seemingly left us with two possible conclusions, both unedifying: either one of England’s top officials is racist, or one of this country’s most powerful clubs has irresponsibly smeared him in the aftermath of a wounding defeat.
It is difficult to see how football can emerge well from yet another unsavoury episode, although some good might come if lessons were learned from a dispute that looks likely to amount to the word of Chelsea players versus that of Clattenburg and his assistants, with whom he was in constant radio contact during the match.
The Football Association, still bruised from a year of criticism over its handling of racism cases, has the unenviable task of picking through the debris and passing judgement. They will do this on the basis of witness statements and television footage, but, crucially and staggeringly, a total absence of audio evidence. While referees wear microphones throughout games in order to discuss decisions with their assistants, and those microphones remain open for the game’s entirety, the feed is neither recorded nor broadcast. This incident perfectly illustrates what a colossal failing of the system that is and why the time is right for change.
I would advocate broadcasting the audio to anyone who wanted to listen, via headsets or the red button on their television remote controls, making the entire process transparent. At a stroke it would eliminate any possibility of players making false claims against referees, and indeed vice versa.
Football is notoriously slow to acknowledge technological advances, as evidenced by the eternal wait for goal-line technology. But there is no need for lengthy pilot schemes and testing of this idea; the hardware already exists and has been used with success in international and European rugby for several years.
It wouldn’t just solve disputes of this nature, which are mercifully rare, but ought to improve players’ on-field behaviour. If footballers knew every word they yelled at referees was being beamed into peoples’ living rooms, and therefore damaging their lucrative sponsorship and image rights, they might just act with a touch more grace. Those involved in rugby say opening up the audio feed has improved player behaviour.
The potential benefits ought to outweigh the disadvantages for officials too. A curb on players’ angry remonstrations would make their jobs easier, at a time when the FA’s Respect campaign appears to have had little impact, while giving fans an insight into their treatment would earn them more sympathy. It’s a small change, but it promises to go an awful long way.
Frank Dalleres is Sports Editor of City A.M. @frankdalleres