My first reaction this morning upon learning that Irish League referees, led by infamous Linfield fan Davy Malcolm, were considering strike action to get higher match fees, I suspect may have been shared with other supporters. ‘An extra £50? For that lot? They’re incompetent! I wouldn’t give them 50p’ and so on.
This is, after all, a group of men (and indeed women) who count amongst their number the appalling Frankie Hiles, a prancing, grinning imbecile from Coleraine who once expressed the opinion on local television that nothing was sweeter than seeing a team from Ballymena being defeated (albeit that the interview was concerned on that occasion with rugby). Hiles had officiated Ballymena United games on countless occasions before and has done so on many more since those remarks, with predictable consequences. An apposite analogy might be Mike Riley (from Leeds) admitting his loathing for all things Mancunian in an interview ostensibly about rugby league whilst conducting a career which saw him repeatedly ruling out Man Utd goals at Old Trafford and possibly even scrambling home a winner for the opposition in the Cup Final. Except, of course, that if Riley did that he'd be my hero.
A strike by match officials is never going to attract a groundswell of support from paying fans who believe that referees’ chief ambitions are to victimise their club and sabotage their otherwise inexorable march to glory. Of course as reviled as they are by supporters, without a referee there can be no game of football. You would think that a football governing body at least would recognise the importance of match officials to the smooth running of their competitions. Not, apparently, when the governing body is as stunningly inept as the Irish Football Association.
The dispute has been widely reported to hinge on a demand from the Northern Ireland Referees Committee to increase match fees from £70 to £120. Admittedly that’s a substantial increase, but if you look a little beyond the BBC’s report (written two days before the re-launched league is due to commence), it becomes clear that this isn’t a sudden demand opportunistically sprung on the IFA as they try to ensure their new competition gets off to a smooth start. The Association made promises three years ago, when referees voiced their concerns, and have subsequently failed to deliver. It transpires that the IFA agreed to an increase in travelling expenses from 25p per mile to 30p per mile, but that change has not yet been made. Given the increase in fuel prices over that 3 year period, it is positively restrained for referees to request only the promised 5p.
Two weeks ago the News Letter reported that referees must continue to buy their own kits, despite Toyota clinching a 5 figure deal to sponsor match officials’ shirts in the new league. Senior officials here have reached a standard which entitles them to referee international matches and European fixtures, yet they receive the lowest match fee for any UEFA nation’s league with the exception of Wales. For a junior fixture in the IFA’s new Championship, this will be £30 and the ref will be assisted, not by further match officials, but by a linesman proffered by either team.
The set up is amateur, insulting and it is little wonder that the standard of officiating is often adjudged to be poor. Paying £15 a year, buying kit, driving around the country at your own expense and receiving little in the way of support from your association all to be abused by players, managers and fans and frequently castigated in the media. I wouldn’t bother. Would you?
The upshot is that the IFA hope to have a much trumpeted league competition commencing on Saturday, supposedly signalling a bright new era for Irish domestic game, and there may be no referees willing to officiate. That could leave them no option but to postpone the fixtures which would represent an even bigger farce than Portadown being excluded from the Premier division in order to spend a season beating intermediate teams by 5 and 6 goals every week. Of course the IFA might be able to put off the action by promising to address referees’ concerns. Although why the officials would believe them is anyone’s guess. Their Committee has set an 8pm deadline tonight for these matters to be resolved.