Keep Them Guessing…

Back when I was a player in high school, I came across this particular referee during one of my games who has left me with a long lasting memory and added a clever game management trick to my referee tool kit that I like to use every once in a while. As I was finishing my warmup, the referee crew had summoned the captains for the coin toss so I made my way toward the gathering. It seemed that his character was that of a standup comedian and he had his assistants chuckling by the time I had arrived. I thought to myself that this was a nice change of pace from the older, grumpier officials that I was used to.

When the other team’s captain and I had gotten an arm’s length away from each other, the referee said with a big smile on his face “go and get on with it like a couple of good lads.” I had only been exposed to a handful of foreign accents up until that point, as I assumed the other captain had too, so we quizzically looked at each other and hesitantly exchanged names and head nods. The referee then proceeded to introduce himself and his crew with his thick Scottish timbre, which was admittedly a little difficult to understand, but we got the gist of the speech: good sportsmanship, play to the whistle, yada yada yada.

After the coin toss and the typical following procedures but just before dismissing us, he said “…and just one more thing mates.” His smile faded, the brows grew sharper, and his eyes got bigger. His voice changed in tone and sound. He said, “Don’t you dare make this the worst game of our careers!” The other captain and I looked at him for a long while, then at each other, then took a second look back at him, and then turned slowly toward our separate teams and jogged off. The referee was staring us down the whole time during this awkward change of the winds selling every word of that final demand.

I didn’t know what to think. Was he Scottish? Was he American? Where’d the funny guy go? Is he going to send me off, if I commit a simple foul? A few minutes into the game when play was temporarily stopped, I found the other captain and asked him what he thought. He was just as confused and didn’t know what to make of him. As play continued, I noticed that he was making small talk with quite a few players from both teams. Oddly though, every time I heard him he was different. One minute he’d crack a fairly appropriate joke in a rough European accent to a midfielder and the next he’d give a stern warning in perfect Spanish to a goalkeeper about not overextending his back while throwing overhand for fear of injury.

In the 86th minute, with the game evenly contested and tied at 1:1 there was a hard tackle by one of my fullbacks against the other team’s captain on top of my penalty area. The referee, whoever he was, gave a piercingly hard whistle and sprinted to the scene of the “crime.” From the looks of it, the tackle surely merited a foul but a card – and its color – would have to be up to you know who. Both coaches were on their feet and waiting for the verdict. The captain seemed alright but took his time getting to his feet. My fullback was at the mercy of the official. He gave my fullback the same mean look he gave me at the end of the coin toss and I thought to myself … “this could be my teammate’s final play of the day.” As the referee stood toe to toe with my fullback, nearly seething at the mouth and pouring in sweat, he began to reach into his back pocket. My coach was up in arms giving the whole “Are you kidding me?!” speech while the captain rose up from the ground and glanced at me with confusion. The referee’s hand covered whatever he grabbed from his back pocket so as to leave everyone in even more suspense. The audience began agreeing with my coach in both opinion and volume. My fullback began to sulk and turn white in the face. Then at the pinnacle moment of judgment the field fell silent and everyone remained still.

All eyes were on the referee as he dabbed his forehead with the cloth he had pulled from his back pocket and said to my teammate in his original Scottish accent, “That was a great tackle, laddie. I’d prefer to see it done cleanly next time. Do ya think you could do that for me?” No one said a word. The audience and coaches eventually sat back down to collect their thoughts. The players got into position to set up for the free kick and play resumed normally to finish out the game.

I was lucky enough to meet this referee at my next clinic later that year and I just had to talk to him. I asked if he had remembered me and my game to which he said “of course.” He had no foreign accent and was very easy to read and understand. I asked him why he put on the show that he did that day. He grew a little smile on his face and asked “Do you remember what the foul count was that day?” I responded “No.” He followed with “Do you recall any unfairness?” Again, I responded “No.” He finished with “Then I did my job. I like to keep my teams guessing because an unpredictable referee is an exciting referee. If you had answered ‘yes’ to my first two questions we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.” I had to agree with him as evidenced by my seeking him out and asking him questions.

Is this good officiating? They say that a good referee is one that’s forgotten about after a match. You can make a hundred great calls and no one will remember them. You can make one bad call and no one will forget it. I would not argue that this method of refereeing or game management should be used in every match. However, the game described above definitely benefited from this style. If used correctly this can be a clever trick to add to your referee tool kit. If used incorrectly it can likely backfire on you.

Please share any tricks you may have or have used and their results whether good or bad.

Categories: General

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