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-= Stalking Referees: Resolving Refereeing Problems =-

Stalking Referees: Resolving Refereeing Problems
By Sharon Colwell & Patrick Murphy, CRSS
Produced in association with and hosted by...
The Center for Research into Sport and Society at the University of Leicester
First published in 1999 by Singer & Friedlander Investment Funds Limited,
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Given the increasing prominence of refereeing issues in the football media in recent years, it might seem that refereeing problems, and the call for solutions are new issues. However, such issues have been raised over a relatively long time period, as the following brief examples indicate. In 1968, for example, Arthur Hopcraft devoted a chapter of The Football Man to refereeing, and suggested "it is increasingly obvious that the standard of handling top-class football has got to be raised". Hopcraft's proposed solution was the full-time, professional referee, arguing that such an individual "would be physically fit for the job... technically trained... constantly informed of developments in the playing of the game... he could afford to be unquestionable on the field because the players would recognize his professional status". In 1978, Sir Stanley Rous proposed the referee "should in future have electronics to aid him". He further argued "instant replays should be available to it is, a referee will consult his linesman if he has doubt. It would be almost as quick for him to see a replay if he wished".

Full Time Referees

The possible introduction of full-time paid officials, an idea supported by the Premier League Referees' Officer, Philip Don, and some Premier League referees, raises a number of issues. Such an innovation might well produce a range of 'benefits' for referees, players and managers. Potentially, the extraneous demands made on referees' time would be reduced, thereby allowing them to devote more time and energy to football. If referees did not have to combine two separate jobs, they would be likely to have more time to travel to and from games, to train, rest and prepare mentally and physically between games, and to liaise with players and managers. This latter possibility might facilitate an improvement in the currently strained relationships between many managers and referees, by allowing increased communication and understanding between them. With the exception of the occasional seminars arranged between members of the League Managers' Association and referees, contact between officials and managers generally seems to occur at the least appropriate moments, i.e., post-match, when managers are likely to be tense and angry if refereeing decisions have 'gone against' them. Discussions between officials and managers at less fraught moments, might, then, be expected to prove to be more productive than those that currently tend to occur. In general, the full-time, professional referee might also be afforded more respect than is currently shown to the 'part-timers'.

Along with these 'benefits', however, such an innovation has potentially 'negative' implications. The introduction of full-time professionals might, for example, lead to a reduction in the number of referees willing to commit to elite level refereeing. The pressure on full-time officials is likely to increase, in terms of heightened expectations about those being paid a relatively high sum to referee. This increased pressure might, then, dissuade some from wanting to referee at the highest levels. Similarly, if the 'best' referees are identified and employed full-time, it is possible that the status of the part-timers will be diminished in the eyes of players, managers and members of the media, which may serve to increase the pressure on them. Furthermore, to take up refereeing as a full-time occupation would mean, of course, that referees would have to give up their 'day jobs'. Given that referees have to retire from the international list at forty five, and the national list at forty eight, it is questionable whether refereeing would be an attractive alternative to most other careers, which would be likely to provide employment for another fifteen to twenty years. Referees can be demoted from the National List if their performances are not adequate. Might these factors encourage referees to choose more long-term, less pressurized occupations? Perhaps one of the most significant potential problems raised by the introduction of full-time professionals, is that their full-time status will make referees more dependent upon their 'paymasters'. Might this reliance make them less willing to act as independent arbitrators? Finally, full-time or not, referees have to make split-second decisions on the pitch. There is no evidence to suggest that by making them full-time, they will become better decision makers, or that those decisions will become any easier to make!

Video Replays

The use of video replays during matches clearly has the potential to allow referees a 'second look' at incidents. Officials could avoid having to make some of those split-second judgments, and could instead contemplate decisions with the aid of the replay to clear up any doubts. The hindsight afforded to armchair viewers, commentators and pundits by replays, which, of course, help us to be really certain in our minds that the referee has 'got it wrong', would thus be made available to the referee.

However, despite the potential 'positives', such an innovation again raises significant questions. Some of these concern 'who' would call for the replay -would referees and/or managers and/or players be allowed to call for incidents to be reviewed? Given the current response to contentious decisions in matches, it seems highly likely that managers would want to be involved in this process. How would such involvement be managed? Moreover, the 'classification' or definition of which incidents could be replayed would also be complex, in terms of actually trying to distinguish between more or less significant decisions in a game. The use of video replays may also have an impact on the nature and pace of the game, in terms of slowing it down in order to allow incidents to be reviewed. The 'advantage' gained by taking a quick free kick, etc., after a foul is likely to be reduced too, for the time taken to review incidents may allow teams time to reorganize. Further problems are raised if we consider the possibility that a fourth official might make the decisions on replayed incidents. Would their judgment be consistent with the referee on the field of play? Finally, the possibility that the replay might not actually be conclusive - we're still talking about that goal in 1966 - indicates the problems posed by incidents that are not 'clear-cut', even on the replay.


A range of ‘off-the-pitch’ constraints operates on football administrators attempting to resolve refereeing problems. Of these, 'cost' is a central issue, particularly in relation to the use of various technological aids for referees. In terms of video replays, for example, clubs would not only have to pay for the equipment to view the replay, but also for a number of cameras to 'cover' the pitch. How many cameras would be required to ensure this coverage? How much would they cost? Who would maintain and check the cameras and video equipment between games? It would obviously be vital to test and maintain such equipment to ensure that it was in working order for each game. Might clubs have to employ technological support staff to do this, and if so, would the required 'package', of equipment and trained staff, be an affordable proposition? The issue of 'cost' led the board of one Premier League club, Sheffield Wednesday, to reject the use of goal-line cameras, after trials last season. If smaller clubs could not afford to have the required technology installed and/or maintained, might they be refused promotion to the Premier League?

One of the reasons that the details of Philip Don's proposals for full-time professionals have yet to be agreed by Premier League chairmen also relates to the financial aspects of the proposal. Essentially, club owners have to make a choice about the way they allocate club funds. Clearly, they spend money on transfer fees and players' wages in order to attract the best possible players to their club. They may improve the fixtures and fittings of their club stadium, of medical facilities for players, or youth academies, in order to provide their clubs with sound footings for the future, in turn safeguarding their economic investment. Given these factors, would club owners be willing to put forward money for solutions to refereeing problems, which have yet to be proven to be feasible, efficient and effective in a footballing context?

A Change in Direction

The complex range of issues briefly discussed here highlight some of the difficulties inherent in trying to resolve them, and underline the reasons why the same solutions have been proposed over a thirty year period whilst none of those discussed have been successfully introduced into League football. Despite the recurring criticisms of referees over a relatively long time period, referees and refereeing have yet to be thoroughly researched. In contrast to the analysis of players' performances provided by the Carling Opta statistics, for example, no similar analysis of refereeing performances in football has been undertaken.

As part of our research at the CRSS, we are attempting to consider referees in a more systematic, detached way than has been the case to date. Whilst we are considering the kinds of solutions to refereeing problems discussed above, we are also adopting a slightly different perspective, in order to avoid being caught up in the current, relatively sterile debate. A potentially productive starting point for attempting to understand refereeing problems would seem to be an analysis what they actually do on the pitch, in order to discover possible areas for improvement. Via an analysis of a series of videotaped Premier League matches, we are attempting to systematically study the performances of referees. In particular, we are attempting to address one of the key criticisms leveled at referees; consistency. As part of our assessment, minute-by-minute analysis of games is being carried out, and the following questions are being considered.

- How consistent are referees?
- In what ways are referees inconsistent?
- Do particular types of tackles seem to be judged inconsistently?
- Are different players treated in a consistent manner by referees?
- How consistent is a referee within a single game?
- How consistent is the same referee between different games?
- How consistent are different referees between different games?
- Does the location of the official in relation to the incident affect the accuracy of decisions made?
- Are there particular times during games which seem to 'throw up' controversial decisions?
- Do the reactions of players to incidents seem to influence subsequent decisions?
- How often do referees consult Assistant Referees?
- How might we identify problem areas for referees?
- What would make referees more consistent?

By attempting to answer the kind of questions posed here, we are hoping to establish the accuracy of repeated accusations of refereeing inconsistencies. Earlier this season, for example, Manchester United manager, Alec Ferguson suggested, "Referees are so inconsistent. Don [the Premier League referees' officer] seems to have changed the aspect of refereeing, changed it to his vision of how it should be done, but it is not working". Southampton's Dave Jones said of Uriah Rennie, "I don't know what the referee was doing today, he seemed to make up the rules as he went along". Whilst, as we suggest in Trading Places elsewhere in this publication, managers' comments on referees are almost invariably partisan, they are not always without foundation. Referees do, of course, make mistakes, and they are unlikely to interpret similar incidents on the pitch in exactly the same way. The Laws of the Game allow for this variation, in terms of encouraging referees to interpret The Laws in 'spirit', rather than too literally, in order to avoid having to stop play for every foul, thereby facilitating a flowing game. But how do such criticisms affect referees?

The way changes to the Laws of The Game by FIFA impact on the performances of referees is also under consideration as part of this research. The effect that such changes can have was highlighted during France 98. Prior to the World Cup, referees and players were instructed on changes in the way the tackle from behind was to be interpreted and penalized. After twenty World Cup games, during which a total of four red cards had been shown, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, announced that referees were not acting in accordance with FIFA directives, that players tackling from behind were not being penalized, and that "the refereeing should improve". In the next two matches, five red cards were shown. The response to this increase in bookings highlights the difficulties referees face in implementing such a change. For, whilst Blatter felt that the referees "had heard and understood" his message, FIFA's Michel Platini complained, "one moment they don't hand out enough cards and the next they hand out too many. The referees need to be a bit more careful". Clearly, referees are constrained by the Laws of the Game, and by directives from FIFA, which can make their task more or less hard. Our research aims to highlight these kinds of issues, in the hope that we might then shed more light on the problems referees face.

As well as analyzing what occurs on the pitch, then, we are also considering the broader context. This includes the relationships between managers, players, commentators, other media personnel and referees. By examining these factors, an understanding of the complex network of relationships which referees are part of may be achieved, and some insight into the pressures, which they are under, may be gleaned. By doing this, we may begin to understand the ways refereeing might be improved, or could be made easier. Issues such as differences in playing styles, the varying degree to which players use relatively 'physical' tactics, and their propensity to 'dive', will also impact on the way referees control the game, and again can affect how easy it is for a referee to make decisions. For example, how does the possibility that players are 'diving' affect the referee's ability to make accurate decisions? What implications do these kind of actions by players have in terms of refereeing? Might we need to address players' attitudes and behaviors in order to improve the consistency of referees? How do differences in atmosphere, or the significance of the game being played, or the previous history of the teams playing affects the referee's performance?

Given the long-term nature of refereeing problems, and the fact that refereeing issues have been under researched, it is likely that the research at the CRSS will merely provide the starting point for future studies. However, we feel that by adopting a slightly different approach, and by answering at least some of the questions posed in this paper we may gain a better understanding of referees' performances, and may make a contribution towards actually resolving some of these long-term problems.

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