Can a public figure any longer be a serious person?

There was a time not so long ago when most of those in public and private life could be divided into players and referees. The players saw individualism and flair as the keys to forward progress, while for the refs, order and organisation were what mattered. Both had their virtues and both believed they had the capacity to be a leader of men and women.

Often, when the country had been run for a while by a player – Mrs Thatcher, for example – the turn of a solid but dull ref, John Major, came along to steady things down. There was a sort of tension between progress and consolidation, brio and caution. Occasionally, as a result of some genetic screw-up, a crossbreed might emerge, but most people, by the time they reached 35, had a good idea whether they were one of life’s players or refs.

But now, with the new tyranny of image and fame, those old certainties are changing. Refs want to be noticed, too. Even Gordon Brown, the most obvious referee in public life, seems to be doing his best to present himself as a player.

It is a terrible mistake, as this week’s fall from grace of a real referee, a man called Graham Poll, has reminded us. A few years ago, Poll was just another little chap in black, trying to keep order on a football field. He blew his whistle when a foul was committed. He could run backwards without looking silly, an essential part of a referee’s job. He was good at the body language of the game – the exaggerated shake of the head when rejecting appeals, the showy pointing to the penalty spot, the rather camp double-circling movement of the hands to convey the message that someone had played the ball not the man.

Mr Poll had been due to retire in 2008, an event which should have been a dignified fade from black to grey involving perhaps the presentation of a mounted gold whistle. Instead, Poll has flounced off the pitch early, making hysterical allegations and giving self-important, name-dropping interviews to the press. No fading actress, having been fired from a soap opera, could have made a more absurd spectacle of herself than Graham Poll going into retirement.

Football is not life, but just now and then it can provide some useful general lessons. Mr Poll’s problem was sad and simple: he caught a nasty dose of celebrity. Because he was regularly on TV and his decisions affected the livelihoods of the genuinely talented and famous, he began to believe that he too was a public figure, a personality. His representation of this country in last year’s World Cup was a disaster: in a key game, the pressure of counting up to two proved to be too much and he showed a player three yellow cards before sending him off, when normally two does the trick. Yet, in the fashion of many would-be celebrities, humiliation has merely encouraged him to show off even more as he struts around the pitch like an over-excited cockerel.

The other effects of catching celebrity have been interesting. Not only has Mr Poll seemed to become less good at his job but he has also been increasingly difficult to take seriously. The authority that he once had as the person representing the rules of the game mysteriously evaporated.

In his own small way, the referee has discovered that even the most modest kind of fame comes with a price attached. Celebrity belittles even as it magnifies. The public begins to feel that the famous person is answerable to it, that in some mysterious way he belongs to it. Soon the very strengths that may have brought recognition and success in the first place are diminished. As a result, it has suddenly become increasingly difficult to be a public figure who is also a serious person.

Once again, the multi-billion pound business of football provides its own embarrassing example. Whoever happens to be managing the England team, whether he be called Taylor, Eriksson or McLaren, will soon be wearing the same expression on his face: haunted, harried, almost flinching in anticipation of the next blow to rain down on him. His job, officially, is to get a group of sportsmen to win matches but in reality involves managing the lumbering, unruly giant that now believes itself to be his boss – the public.

Soon team decisions – calling up an untried teenager for the World Cup, sacking or unsacking the team captain – are made with one eye, perhaps both, on what will be said on the back pages of newspapers. The result is always a disaster.

Those managers who do succeed, in football and probably in life, are those who are entirely uninterested in personal publicity and who have learned that, just as a ref is paid to make decisions, so a leader is paid to lead, not to be popular. It is the job that matters, not the fame.