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Pity the fourth official, the toughest job in football

Somewhere along the line, the football powers at be felt it would be wise to create the role of the fourth official. Near as I can tell it was officially implemented in 1991.


I am working on the assumption that IFAB (International Football Association Board) did so, as the demands of officiating football increased.


Massive pay increases, financial growth and intense scrutiny placed on decisions by a football media thirsty for controversy must surely have added weight to the decision.


The general duties of the fourth official range from the obvious, replacing the referee or assistants if injured, checking equipment and dealing with substitutions, to the slightly more obscure, such as acting as the conduit between the officials and the stadium authorities, who may need concerns addressed or relayed.


Some recent controversial A-League decisions such as David Carney’s controversial positioning on the left as he provided the winning ball for Sydney FC at Gosford, Besart Berisha’s send-off and the no-penalty decision in the Sydney derby, all led to a torrent of abuse directed towards the fourth official.


Out of curiosity, I took the rather nerdy and unsexy step of reading the actual FFA regulations relating to officials while on family holiday on the South Coast.


Many might struggle to find the desire or time to undertake such an activity and most of the content was bland and logical, yet the specifics around the fourth official were intriguing.


Apart from the more mundane tasks, the most interesting part of the role for the men and women known as the fourth official is their duties relating to the technical area. The phrasing in the actual regulations is beautiful.


To quote Law 18: The fourth official ‘has the authority to inform the referee of irresponsible behaviour by any occupant of the technical area.’


When I read this, I nearly fell off my banana chair. The first thing that struck me as a conundrum, was that, according to the language used, the fourth official is under no obligation to report anything. They appear to merely have the authority to do so if they wish.


Moreover, the identification of exactly what constitutes ‘irresponsible behaviour’ must be one of the most subjective and challenging tasks with which officials can be charged.


The combination of these two factors sees the fourth official take on the most ill-defined and challenging task in world sport.


Armed with nothing more than a pair of ears and eyes, they are expected to observe, judge and subjectively report the behaviour of the most eclectic and insane bunch of loonies, based on incredibly loose terms of reference, such as the phrase ‘irresponsible behaviour.’


The amount of irresponsible behaviour I have seen in the technical area over the twelve years of the A-League is considerable. I’ve seen cursing that is so clear and pointed that my nine year old can lip read it incredibly easily.


I was hoping my daughter might be able to get through a decade before becoming fluent in foul mouthed, short-man speak but unfortunately Kevin Muscat has sped up her linguistic development.


We’ve seen hands around throats, objects kicked, thrown and spat on, as well as the boundaries of the technical area turn grey, as coaches lose their perspectives and minds and venture out of the restricted space.


The personal clashes between managers and the tensions crafted brilliantly through the media, often culminate in a heated and explosive environment on game day.

Watching Australia’s hero John Aloisi and Muscat trade f-bombs is always fun, Graham Arnold and Muscat almost ‘have’ to let rip every time the big blue rolls around and former Melbourne city manager John van’t Schip bullied and intimidated Aloisi through the media, to the point where the tension between the two and the ensuing verbals were fait accompli.


Yet is their behaviour irresponsible? Personally, I think it is and firmly believe that managers should be held to a better standard. However, attempting to judge the tirade of abuse, between managers and officials, automatically creates a level of subjectivity that makes, without clearer guidelines, the fourth official’s job near impossible.


One might argue that what takes place between the coaches, players and officials is within the context of the contest and therefore appropriate, considering the passion exuded in the average game of football. However, while entertaining television and theatre, the behaviour has wider ramifications.


If I sit in row three and hear the abuse directed at the referee, an opposition player or the fourth official, does it become irresponsible? In broader society yes, yet there is an argument that ticket paying football fans know the pressures of the game and expect that passion and emotion to be emitted, therefore taking no offence at the language or abuse launched.


However, when kids are also in row three with those same footballing loving adults, does that not change the perspective. If not, it should. In a public shopping mall, such language and profanity is enforced by law, in the technical area, it appears not.


I would prefer kids to be safe from exposure to harsh profanities and surely the men at the helm of our A-League clubs can set a much more polished and professional model than the one which is on show most weeks.


Could managers not sit in the technical area and watch the game calmly, the way Gui Amor generally does? Sure, get angry, frustrated and passionate but resist the temptation to show the viewing public every swear word you know and avoid adopting the crucifix position with arms spread squealing for free kicks ever time contact is made in a challenge.


According to managers, every challenge ever undertaken in the history of football has been a questionable one and the decision against his team is a complete injustice that forms part of an elaborate conspiracy.


Are Kenny Lowe’s impersonations of various flighted birds irresponsible? They certainly are entertaining. Should Kenny be forced to tone down the physical expressions of exasperation or are we all fine with that as long as they are not accompanied by profanity and verbal aggression?


Running onto the field post-match and verbally assaulting the officials didn’t really give the authorities any flexibility in ruling on his behaviour yet, was his reaction a result of the failings of the fourth official?


Perhaps he could have kept things calmer, conveyed the managers’ query more clearly to the referee or helped to explain the decisions made by the man with the whistle. Unfortunately, with such loose parameters with which to work, how could he be expected to do anything.


Should the reputation and priors of the people in the technical area be considered in terms of adjudicating on irresponsible behaviour? Ross Aloisi certainly felt the full brunt of the officials after already serving a punishment for his verbal contributions and then being ejected again, early in his return match.


FIFA’s decision to implement a fifth official for the 2006 World Cup was no surprise really. Their primary function was to aid the fourth official. No wonder. The task with which they have been charged is near impossible.


Many sports have increased the number of on-field officials in recent times. Rugby league and NFL are two good examples. The NFL currently has seven on-field officials.


Thankfully, there doesn’t appear to be much current interest in adding a second referee to improve officiating in football. It’s little wonder considering how easy the referee’s job is compared to the fourth official, who must manage a barrage of abuse and insane gesticulating on a weekly basis.


As my holiday ends today and I head back to the big smoke, I’ll be thinking of the seemingly simple job of checking a bit of equipment and running a few substitutions.


Then I’ll check myself and remember the thankless and impossible task taken on by the fourth official.

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