The Memories & Spirit of the Game, as only Ken Aston could teach it...
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-= The Man/Women in the Middle: =-


The Man/Women in the Middle:
An interview with the FA Premier League Referees’ Officer... Philip Don
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,
21 New Street, London EC2M 4HR

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" The harder you train, the harder it is to quit!!! "

In a refereeing career, which began at the age of 14 and spanned 29 years, Philip Don spent 12 years as a Football League referee. He was selected to officiate some of the most prestigious fixtures, including the 1992 FA Cup final and the 1994 European Cup final - the latter making him the first English referee to be chosen for the final since Jack Taylor in 1971. Don was also chosen as a referee for the 1994 World Cup in America. He combined refereeing with a career as a head teacher until, in 1995, his employers gave him an ultimatum - teaching or refereeing - and, with a family to support, he reluctantly gave up refereeing at 43, 5 years before the National List 1 retirement age. He subsequently spent 3 years as a match observer on the Premier League and as a referees' assessor on the Football League before giving up his teaching career and taking up his current position as referees' officer for the FA Premier League.

Prior to Don's appointment in 1998 The FA, overseen by the Director of Refereeing since 1977, had dealt with Ken Ridden all refereeing matters. In 1998, Ridden suggested that, as he was approaching retirement (he retired in 2000), it might be appropriate for the Premier League to appoint someone prior to his departure to take over responsibility for refereeing at the highest level in England. When Don accepted this newly created role as 'Premier League referees' officer', he took on a challenging and unusual job. The creation of separate refereeing departments at the Premier and Football Leagues means that, uniquely within FIFA, the appointment and training of match officials is the responsibility of League refereeing departments, rather than the National Association (The FA). However, as required by FIFA statute, The FA, still has the 'final say' on refereeing matters. In this sense, as an employee of the Premier League, but with ultimate responsibility to The FA, Don has to attempt to meet both the needs of The FA and the club chairmen who, collectively, constitute the FA Premier League. He also has to take into account issues raised by players, managers and, of course, Premier League match officials.

Given the range of people Don has to try and satisfy, the creation of a separate department 'outside' The FA has inevitably caused some difficulties. However, he stresses that it has also helped foster more positive relations between club managers and the referees' department than was the case prior to his appointment. He argues that when The FA was responsible for the selection and monitoring of referees and all disciplinary matters, the referees' department was mistrusted by club managers, thus hindering communication between the two groups. He has strived to improve this situation, estimating that he now speaks to "70% of managers on a regular basis" and noting that, when he took on the job, only 13 of the 20 Premier League coaches or managers came to the pre-season referees' meeting, whilst this year 19 attended.

In order to arrive at this improved state, Don has made a number of changes. In part, these changes have been made in order to raise refereeing standards. They have also, however, been made in an effort to assuage the clubs' fears that, because ex-referees assess match officials and because the referees' officer is himself an ex-referee, the refereeing world is a 'closed shop'. To this end, he has tried to challenge the perception that the referees' department will defend and protect referees regardless of how well they are performing. He now feels that he is on his way to becoming "probably the referees' biggest critic". He cites the demotion of 2 referees from the Premier League last season as evidence that a referees' failure to perform will not be swept under the carpet, and admits that some referees "need a kick up the backside every so often, and they get it". Don has introduced mid season appraisals, and writes to each referee every 2 months summarizing how he thinks they are performing based on match videos and observers' reports. This, he feels, gives referees a chance to rectify any problems they may be experiencing, but also serves as a 'warning' if they are in line to be taken off the Premier League. Refereeing appointments used to be made many weeks in advance of games; under Don they are made much closer to fixtures so that those referees in form are given what are expected to be the more challenging matches. He stresses that he reviews the list of Premier League referees "critically, on a very regular basis, especially this year where we've said we'll give the best referees, those performing better, more games and, to do that, there's got to be others who are not getting as many games". The effects of this policy were felt early on in the season by 4 referees who had been allocated just 1 game each in a particular month. Their phone calls to Don requesting explanations were answered with recommendations that they should "look at their assessments". While Don says that they were aware "deep down" that they had not been performing as well as they might, he stresses that referees need to be accountable for their performances and, perhaps more importantly, need to be seen to be accountable.

As part of the drive towards accountability, this season Don has overseen an important change concerning the promotion and relegation of referees. For the first time, the list of Premier League referees was reviewed mid-season. This opened up the opportunity for referees to be moved up from the Football League, or 'removed' from Premier League appointments 2, during the season. Two referees were promoted in December 2000 and, as Don puts it, "one has been very successful, the other hasn't really worked because, no matter what you do at Football League level, you're in the spotlight [in the Premier League], everything is analyzed; it's being able to cope not only with the refereeing on the field, but everything from the media in general, the television in particular, the spectators, the hype at a Premier League game". Don is keen to stress that the "door is still open" for referees taken off the list: if the problems or weaknesses which led to their demotion are rectified, then they will be reconsidered for Premier League appointments on merit.

In order to try and bridge the gulf between the Football and Premier Leagues and to support referees through this transition, he has introduced a policy whereby, prior to promotion, referees on the Football League list are 'broken in' to the Premier League experience by acting as Fourth Officials in order to "take in the atmosphere... so they're not coming in cold". Referees newly promoted to the Premier League are also supported by more experienced referee 'mentors', whilst 4 former international and/or League referees act as coaches, with each responsible for 5 referees and between 10 and 12 assistants. Each coach meets with one of their referees prior to a game to help prepare them, attends the game to offer support to all the match officials, discusses their performances with them the next day, and studies and gives feedback on assessments and match videos. The referees also complete a self-evaluation after every game, which is then discussed with their coach. The coaches meet with their group of referees about every 6 to 8 weeks, where they assess a video, compiled by Don, of incidents from each of their referees' games. Don poses questions about each incident - for example: 'was this careless or reckless?'; should it have been a red card for denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity instead of a yellow for unsporting behavior?'. The group then discusses these incidents with the aim of maximizing the consistent interpretation of the laws of the game.

In this quest to improve consistency, and to continue to change the way the refereeing fraternity is perceived, Don has addressed another complaint often voiced by players and managers; that the match observers - "the guardians of standards" as Don describes them - have never been monitored. Don now attends between 60 and 70 Premier League games a season, comparing his own thoughts on the referee's performance with those of the match observer. He takes notes during games, reads every match report and watches around 12 hours of match videos each week in order to monitor both referees and observers, ultimately trying to bring more consistency to the process of assessing refereeing performance. As part of this process, the general 'guidelines' for assessment that were used by match observers have been replaced with a more comprehensive and specific set of "competence based assessments". Don has also 'opened up' the world of match observation to include two ex-professional footballers and PFA employees, Mick Maguire and John Bramall, and he says the involvement of non-referees is a development he would like to see encouraged.

Coupled with the department's position 'outside' The FA, the changes Don has overseen which have led to better relations between club managers and the referees' department, have also been the source of some difficulties. Club managers now more readily approach him to discuss contentious refereeing decisions, and he has to negotiate a tricky path to try and help the clubs, whilst staying within FA regulations concerning the finality of refereeing decisions. Don feels that most people don't understand the complex relationship between his department and The FA: "The FA are the governing body, they determine the disciplinary process, sanctions and so on. I've helped clubs, and they are grateful, but the clubs would like to see me take on more of that role. I've got the difficulty of remembering that I'm employed by the Premier League and I've got a job to do, and at the same time, there are occasions when I probably appear to be defending the referees".

Don sympathizes with Premier League managers in terms of the pressures they are under, and has tried to build a co-operative relationship with John Barnwell, Chief Executive of the League Managers' Association (LMA) in order to reduce the post match criticism of referees by managers - something for which managers can be fined heavily, and something which does little to enhance the relationships between the 2 groups. The policy of a 30-minute post match 'cooling off' period, during which time managers may not approach referees, was introduced in tandem with the LMA. Don accepts that the match is "the most important 90 minutes of the week for managers. Why should they sit their finger on lip and arms folded? It's an emotional game". He regrets, however, that TV interviewers will "pull a manager as he's walking off the pitch when he's still very emotionally involved", and feels that "action has to be taken" when managers question the integrity of match officials; "when they start saying the referee is a cheat". If he feels that mangers have unfairly criticized referees, he will ask Barnwell to discuss this with the manager involved: "If I'm disappointed in some club reports, I will pass them onto John, and he will speak to the manager about it". Similarly, he encourages referees to talk to managers about the game after the cooling off period, and says that if he is told that a referee has refused to speak to a manager, "then I'll speak to that referee". He sees it as inevitable, however, that there will be tensions between referees, players and managers: "referees have got a job to do, the players have, and they're both totally different. I think people have to accept that".

Along with his efforts to try and improve the off the field relationships between managers and referees, one of the most important aspects of his job has been to maintain and improve the standard of refereeing performances on the pitch. When he came into the job, he was concerned that Premier League referees' fitness levels had lagged behind the players' and, in addition to the fitness test all referees must pass to stay on the National list, he has now introduced dietary assessments and extra fitness assessments every 3 months. Don is keen to utilize sports science experts in the drive to improve standards: he has brought in an eye-vision scientist, who tests peripheral vision, binocular vision and reflex time, whilst a sports psychologist is involved in the assessment of referees' performances on the pitch, particularly newly promoted referees.

Don has also tried to ensure that match officials are given more time to prepare for matches. If they are traveling over 120 miles to a game, hotel accommodation is provided for them the night before the match by the Premier League, as is transport between the hotel and the match venue. All 4 match officials get together at the hotel at least 4 hours before kick off, "so the bonding, the professionalism, the team spirit can start to work". Whilst the financial investment required for these arrangements was forthcoming from the Premier League, for the less affluent Football League - with twice as many referees and 3 times as many assistant referees to support - such an investment was simply not possible. In recognition of the fact that the elite referees of the future will come from the Football League, a 3-way funding partnership between the Premier League, The FA and the Football League has been established in order to try and 'bridge the gap' and to offer the same kind of facilities and support for the officials in the Football League.

However, the issue of funding for other refereeing developments remains an obstacle, even in the Premier League. For example, the introduction of goal line technology to assist referees has been discussed for many years. FIFA have granted The FA permission to experiment with equipment that could transmit a signal directly between the referee 3 and the ball as it crosses the line, but with costs estimated at "millions" to install it in all Premier League grounds, this has proven too expensive to develop. Whilst Don and a number of Premier League referees have voiced their support for such technology in order to try and reduce the risks of goals being 'wrongly' awarded or disallowed, Don feels that some of the chairmen see the introduction of goal line aids as "a very expensive insurance policy". To date, not all the chairmen have been willing to pay the premium to take out this 'policy' and, given the cost of the project, any further development would require the approval of all 20 Premier League shareholders (i.e., the chairmen) - hence, the research is on hold.

Similar financial stumbling blocks have been encountered in Don's efforts to introduce full-time professional referees at the elite level. Given that Don had to quit refereeing 5 years early, it is perhaps not surprising that he sympathizes with those referees juggling employment and refereeing commitments. As yet his current employers, the Premier League chairman, have not shared these feelings. When Don first took the proposals for full time professionals to the club chairman they were turned down on the grounds that the standard of refereeing was not, at the time, good enough. Don thinks the Premier League should be paying referees enough "so that they don't have to worry about working full-time". When he took on the job, English referees were the lowest paid of those officiating in the top 7 European Leagues - they are now third in that list, earning £900 per game with the possibility of an additional payment of £300 per game, depending upon the number of matches refereed. The demands made on referees’ time in order to officiate in the Premier League are substantial. On top of their 'day jobs', officials have to find time for fitness training, travel to and from matches, training and development seminars, consultations with their referee coaches, and the completion of self evaluation forms and match reports. Don suggests the time has come to "to acknowledge the commitment of the top class referees". His own commitment to improving standards and his determination to try and change the way most of us think about referees might mean that referees begin to get more appreciation for the contribution they make to the game.

Interview conducted 1/2/01.


1. Match officials must be promoted onto the National List in order to officiate Football League and Premier League fixtures. Retirement age from the National List is 48.

2. Referees not selected for Premier League appointments take charge of Football League matches.

3. FIFA have specified that a third party cannot be involved if goal line technology is introduced - meaning that goal line cameras cannot be used. [That sure has changed... ]

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