How can we help referees?

I share the view of one former top referee that the current group of professional referees is the worst that we have seen.”

That’s pretty much the consensus between fans and the media regarding refereeing standards in the Premier League. Barely a week has gone by all season without a controversial refereeing decision.

That in turn means it’s been open season on referees, with both individual referees and referees in general being criticised on a near-daily basis. It’s not just the ex-pros and usual media talking heads who are lining up to add their criticism, former referees are getting in on the act also.

That quote at the top? That was from Keith Hackett, the former head of Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), who are the body responsible for refereeing in England.

The truth is that refereeing standards in the Premier League have never been better. Studies show that referees get it right 95% of the time. They get penalty-box decisions right 98% of the time and offsides right 99% of the time. In your job, or even just in your life, if you’re right 95% of the time, then you’re doing quite well.  

But it’s that 5% of the time the referee gets it wrong that people focus on. They’re the decisions that get highlighted by the media and get shown in slow-mo from several different angles, which makes it easy for the viewer to forget that the referee got one look at it at full speed, often through a crowd of players.

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk of how to help referees. Pretty much all of that talk has centred around using video technology to help referees make the right decision. FA Chairman Greg Dyke has backed it, and current PGMOL chief Mike Riley has also tentatively backed it.

Well, I don’t for a few reasons. Firstly, video replays will slow the game down, and it’s the speed that football is played at which makes it the game that it is. Slow the game up and football loses one of its big selling points, and there’s no guarantee that video will always give a conclusive decision anyway.

Secondly, the cost of installing the video technology will be prohibitive to all but the richest leagues. Football is supposed to be a universal game; which means that there should be no difference, other than the skill level and athleticism of the participants, between the World Cup final and a few friends getting together for a game anywhere in the world. Goal-line technology has already changed that and video would kill it entirely.

Finally, and this is probably my biggest objection to using video technology to assist referees, there’s not really a need for referees to get every decision right.

Here’s a truth that most football fans won’t want to hear. No referee has ever cost your team a match. Sure, a mistake made by a referee may have cost your team a goal, or seen your team reduced by one player (or the opposition not reduced by a player) incorrectly, and that may have had a bearing on the final result.

But they are one decision in a football match that is made up of thousands of individual decisions, many of which players get wrong. The referee has never made a bad pass, missed a tackle, switched off and let his man escape, made the wrong run or missed an easy opportunity. All of those have just as much an effect on the final outcome of a game as a blown refereeing decision, if not more so.

Fans, at least the reasonable ones, don’t expect the players and coaches on their team to be perfect. They know they will make mistakes throughout the course of a game. They accept this. So why is it acceptable for players and coaches to make a few mistakes in a game, but not the referee?

Even if video technology is the answer, it’ll take years before a system is ready and approved in the league. So, if we accept the premise that referees need help now, what can be done?

I think the big change that needs to be made with respect to refereeing is behaviour. Fans, players, coaches and the media have to realise something. They are having an effect on referees. But it is an adverse one that’s hurting the game.

Now as I said before, I don’t have a problem with a referee getting a decision wrong. Mistakes happen. What I’m really concerned about, and something I think should worry all football fans, is that referees in general seem to be shying away from making potentially game-changing decisions for fear of getting it wrong.

Making a decision and getting it wrong has to be better than making no decision at all.

Referees are no different to anyone else. They’re ambitious and want to rise to the top. They want to be the ones who get to referee the big games, the ones who get to referee on a continental and an international level. But they also know that making a high-profile bad decision is a sure-fire way for all of that to fall apart as that bad call will be analysed to death. So, who can blame them for shying away from making a call?

In England, the TV analysts are largely made up of ex-pros.  Many of those players still have axes to grind over refereeing decisions made against them, and as a result, there’s a very antagonistic attitude taken towards referees, criticising decisions when a lot of the time they aren’t sure of the rules themselves. Print media is a little more insightful, and bit more forgiving towards referees.

Thankfully, things in the UK aren’t anywhere near as bad as they are in Cyprus, where referees are being targeted by arsonists and bombers. Even the home of the mother of one referee has been targeted. But, people should be more responsible with what they say and the effect those words could have.

One thing that always seems to get dredged up after a refereeing mistake by people on TV is that referees should be made to explain their decisions after a game. That will achieve absolutely nothing, mostly because they will always give the same answer; That’s what they thought was the right decision at the time. Where some fans may think there’s a refereeing conspiracy against their team, the truth is there isn’t.

Then there is the problem of managers and coaches. It has become a usual tactic to publicly put pressure on a referee before a game and far too many managers are allowed to blame the referee to cover up their own mistakes, or the failings of their team. Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes have seemingly never lost a game without the referee being responsible. Even some of the calmer managers are now publicly talking about referees in order to influence their decision making.

Here’s where you’d think a competent governing body would step in. Well, in England there is the FA, which is about as toothless as a governing body can be. The FA launched a campaign called Respect, which was supposed to clamp down on abuse of referees. In typical FA fashion, they backed down when given the chance to enforce it and the whole thing instantly lost all credibility and nobody bothers with it any more.

What most fans don’t realise is that managers have an official way of giving feedback about a referee after every game. If they want to complain that’s the forum to do so. Not on TV after a game, not in press conferences. Not by storming onto the pitch at the end of a game screaming obscenities.  

If we want managers to stop abusing referees the solution is easy. Let’s have some sanctions. Meaningful ones. Let’s not just give token fines and touchline bans to managers who abuse referees. Let’s ban them from the stadium altogether. If that’s not enough of a deterrent, let’s start docking points. That’ll stop them from abusing officials.

But, that requires a strong governing body that isn’t afraid to give meaningful punishments for abusing referees, which cannot be said about the FA currently.

So, I reckon a more practical solution is to mic up referees. A huge source of frustration amongst fans is that a decision is given and they don’t know why. Well, give the referee a mic and they’ll hear why.

This is done in both codes of Rugby where TV audiences can hear what the referees are saying to the players, what the referees are saying to each other, and what the players are saying to the referee.

This doesn’t mean that rugby referees get it right all the time, but it does at least mean that Rugby fans more often than not know why a decision has been made. Currently in football, all the officials wear mics, and can communicate with each other, but nothing is recorded and nobody else is privy to the referee’s conversations on the pitch.   

One of the only things that make players and clubs change their behaviour is money. If a TV audience hears a player swearing at a referee, that’s the kind of thing that makes sponsors nervous, especially if that player or club are associated with a family brand. If a sponsor gets nervous and threatens to pull out of a deal, the player in question will either stop swearing at referees or their club will make them. That’s the only effective way I can see to stamp the abuse of referees out.

The other advantage to this is that it would make both referees and players more accountable for their actions, and I think it would change the perception of a referee from football fans. Currently the perception of referees is that they are unaccountable, which is completely wrong, and there is an air of mystery surrounding them. I think that if you could hear what they are saying during a game, it would dispel that somewhat and show the world that referees are ordinary people too, and would make fans more sympathetic.

Referees are by no means perfect, and by no means above criticism. There should be a better system of making referees accountable for their mistakes, which if done properly, should help a referee improve their performance. However, they are an essential part of the game and should be protected as such by the authorities, which means the FA have to act and get tough on clubs, players and managers who abuse referees.

Referee abuse is having a devastating effect on the grassroots game. Referee numbers are declining all of the time and it’s because referees, even at low-level youth games are being subjected to the kind of abuse that leads them to think that the £20-30 they’re getting isn’t worth the shit they have to put up with. They are being abused because people think that it’s okay to do so.

There is a real refereeing shortage. I live in Liverpool, one of the most football mad cities in England. According to their website, 1000 matches are played every weekend in Liverpool, but there are only 800 referees. All of the UK now, it’s common to see games being played without a referee in charge. If referees are being driven away from the game, where are the next generation of Football League and Premier League referees coming from?

Once they actually start to punish people for abusing a referee, then they can start to take measures to stop them doing it in the first place. If that happens then hopefully incidences of players surrounding the officials, haranguing them and hurling abuse can be consigned to the past. It has no place in our sport and should be stamped out as soon as possible.