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-= Trading Places: Managers and Commentators as Referees =-


Trading Places: Managers and Commentators as Referees
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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Criticism of referees by football managers is widespread and hardly a match day passes without a manager firing off a salvo of adverse comment. The motivations inspiring this criticism are likely to be diverse. Such criticism may, for example, simply be a response to decisions made by the referee, which have been shown to be 'wrong' by the video replay. Alternatively, managers' comments on referees may serve to shift the blame for a team's defeat away from selection or tactical errors, or mistakes made by players. It may be part of a managerial strategy to help motivate players, in terms of encouraging them to really 'battle' in games in the belief that they are 'up against twelve men'. But another implication of such comments is that managers feel that referees are incompetent and are ruining the game. In this article, we examine the claims managers make about referees, and the nature of their criticisms. Initially, the kinds of qualities that the 'ideal' referee might possess and the criteria by which managers judge referees are discussed. Then, via a consideration of the public utterances and behavior of managers - with particular reference to their views on referees and refereeing - we try to form a view on how managers themselves match up to these ‘ideal’ criteria.

What qualities should a Premier League referee possess? While the following list of qualities are not intended to be exhaustive, they might be said to be likely to meet with some measure of consensus, at least among relatively detached observers of the football scene. First and foremost, the 'ideal' Premiership referee should possess a thorough knowledge of the rules. He - and probably she in the future - should have proven himself under fire. He should have the capacity to make fair and balanced judgments with a high level of consistency, and should have the courage to make decisions about incidents which may have a highly significant impact on the outcome of a match. He should be capable of making cool judgments, even in the most difficult of circumstances. He should be a man of great diplomacy and possess consummate negotiating skills. He should have the capacity to deal with people in a firm but fair way; a capacity not to allow previous controversial decisions in a match to influence his future judgments and, finally, he should have the capacity to exercise discretion rather than simply apply the rules in a rigid and mechanical manner.

Whether existing referees meet these criteria is not at issue here. All that one might say is that judgments about the personal attributes of referees are best not made in a vacuum. However impressive the qualities particular individuals might possess, there are bound to be situations which are so demanding as to make them appear wanting. And, even if they did measure up to our ideal standards, the likelihood is that in the cauldron of the Premier League, they would still not come up to expectations. Look at it this way, if we hone the fighting skills of a group of commandos to perfection, to the point of making them killing machines, and then placed them in, say, something akin to the final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, would their training ensure their unscathed survival? We think not.

The issue we consider here is whether or not the arch-critic, the irate manager, measures up to the standards he The issue we consider here is whether or not the arch-critic, the irate manager, measures up to the standards he demands of referees. Let us consider some of the qualities that managers look for in referees and patently find missing.

Managers in the raw

Some of the key criticisms of referees by managers relate to the issue of 'consistency'. Managers often claim their team, or certain players are not being treated 'fairly' by referees, that certain players are being 'judged before they walk onto the pitch', or that referees have performed inconsistently within a particular game. However, the manner in which many managers respond to controversial incidents in games reveals their failure to match up to the central criteria by which they judge referees. In other words, managers are rarely consistent themselves in their assessments of controversial incidents, and are rarely 'fair and balanced'.

How many managers have echoed the remarks of the former Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, Mark McGhee, "I gave the referee a bit of abuse because I thought he cost us the game"? The possibility that goal scoring opportunities were missed, that mistakes were made in defense, or weak strategies pursued are often ignored in the post match analysis offered by managers. Post match outbursts by managers criticizing referees in recent seasons have led to fines for Leicester's Martin O'Neill, Coventry's Gordon Strachan, Liverpool's Gerard Houllier and Bryan Robson of Middlesbrough. It is interesting to note that the typical response of managers under pressure is an emotional outburst, often seeking someone else to blame. This hardly meets the criteria for the 'fair and balanced judgment', or the 'cool head' expected of referees.

Clearly, in the high pressure environment of the Premier League, where a poor run of results is likely to result in a manager being 'shown the door', it is understandable that managers regularly seek to absolve themselves of blame and suggest extraneous reasons for their club's failure. The point is that this type of response to pressure from managers indicates that they are singularly lacking the qualities, which would make them effective referees. The ability of managers to make-to-make fair and balanced judgments about refereeing performances, and indeed about the performances of their own and the opposition players, is strongly in doubt under these circumstances. Under pressure, these managers seek a scapegoat, someone to blame in order to 'deflect the heat'.

Invariably, managers' post match comments about referees are partisan, which casts some doubt on the validity and reliability of their views on referees. Manchester United's Alex Ferguson has offered some evidence of this trend in the past season, particularly in the context of United's European Champions' League games. After a 3-3 draw with Barcelona, during which Barcelona scored two penalties to come back from 2-0 down, Ferguson claimed:

The first penalty decision was a disgrace and the referee had a real shocker. We have now had three major European games at home where the referee has not been fair.

Ferguson also suggested that the chairman of Barcelona, Josep Lluis Nunez, who visited the referee's room after the match, "must have been delighted". Six months later, it was Ferguson's turn to be delighted. Having offered his pre-match analysis of what we should expect of Manchester United's opponents, Internazionale, in their Champions' League game ("scheming, diving, referee-baiting - the full repertoire"), Ferguson's post match comments were positively gushing:

We had our lucky moments, but the referee was fantastic. He called everything correctly.

The result meant that Manchester United progressed through to the next round of the competition. During the game, two penalty appeals from Internazionale had been turned down by the referee. One of these looked to have been correctly interpreted, as Ronaldo appeared to 'dive' after a challenge from Neville. The other incident, Schmeichel blocking Zamaorano in the penalty area, looked - with the aid of the video replay - to have been the wrong decision.

That the replays indicated the referee probably made one right and one wrong decision highlights the fact that referees are not, and in reality cannot be, perfect decision makers. This also underlines the fact that managers - and players and fans - are often right when they complain that a 'wrong' decision has gone against them. However, the contrast in tone and in the degree of significance attributed to decisions which go against them, compared to those which go in their favor, raise significant questions about the capacity of managers to make balanced judgments.

Ferguson is by no means alone amongst managers in describing decisions favoring their own teams as 'lucky moments', and those that go against their team as the 'turning point' in games. When decisions favor a manager's team he will often have recourse to an explanation in terms of 'luck', thereby diminishing the significance of the referee and refereeing decisions. This, in turn, serves to increase the significance of the actions of the players and the manager himself. Conversely, if a team has lost or drawn the game, in the post-match managerial discourse the importance of refereeing decisions which have gone against his team tend to be overplayed and presented as highly significant, whilst mistakes made by players or the manager are underplayed. This tendency is evident if we compare Alex Ferguson's reaction, highlighted above, with his response to the Liverpool-Manchester United game in the closing weeks of the 1998/99 season. In this game, Liverpool came back from 2-0 down to earn a draw. The first of Liverpool's goals came from a penalty awarded by referee David Elleray. Post match, Ferguson suggested:

There was no way they could have beaten us or even scored a goal from the position we were in, and the referee has handed it to them. That's the kind of man we had tonight. But we're not going to let him deny us winning the league. We would have won but for the referee. The players didn't deserve what happened to them tonight.

Not 'unlucky moments' then! In Ferguson's view, the implication is that during the course of the thirty-eight game Premier League season, Elleray's decisions were the moments that could have cost Manchester United the championship. The indignation evident contrasts sharply with his response after the Internazionale result.

Birmingham City’s manager, Trevor Francis after Birmingham City’s game with Huddersfield in November 1998, employed similar rhetoric. Francis described the referee's sending off of Peter Ndlovu for diving in the game as one of the " worst decisions I've seen in nearly thirty years in football". Francis' indignation was, in a sense, justified, for, after reviewing the video of the game, referee Rob Styles admitted a mistake had been made and subsequently withdrew the player's card. However, Ndlovu reported the manager’s reaction to the ‘injustice’ of this offence contrasts markedly with his response to a number of incidents and refereeing decisions, which benefited his team in their game against Bristol City in January 1999 - including what, as a ‘dive’. Ndlovu won a penalty, which was strongly disputed by the Bristol Players, and was not appealed for by Ndlovu's teammates. The incident led to headlines such as "Ndlovu dives in with late winner" (The Times, 25/4/99). During the game, which Birmingham won 2-1, Bristol also had a goal disallowed, and a penalty appeal for an apparent handball by a Birmingham player on the goal line, refused. It is perhaps not surprising to note that Francis did not rank these decisions as the 'next-worst decisions he had seen in thirty years of football', but merely felt that "the first half was one of the most uncomfortable of the season".

The highly involved, biased nature of managers' criticisms is, however, perhaps most clearly apparent when opposing managers offer their post match comments about particular incidents within a game. For example, after the Newcastle-West Ham fixture in November 1998, during which Newcastle's Stuart Pearce was sent off, West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp said:

I think the referee was right on most things, and though I have always been a big fan of Pearce, he caught Trevor. He's not the sort of player who goes down.

Ruud Gullitt did not share Redknapp's view:

I was happy about our performance. The score line is not a fair reflection. The referee had a big influence on the game. It doesn't make any sense that Pearce was sent off. The referee made it difficult.

Such comments leave little room for doubt that managers respond to incidents in an often emotional, usually partisan, and occasionally even paranoid manner, for managers sometimes offer 'conspiracy theory' type explanations for decisions that have gone against them. Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier felt referee Mike Reed had "wanted Liverpool to lose or perhaps he wanted Charlton to win" after his side had lost 1-0. Houllier also claimed "this is the second time this has happened to us with this referee and I think it is too much". After Stan Collymore was sent off for a second book able offence in the Aston Villa - Liverpool game in November 1998, Collymore's manager, John Gregory, claimed the striker "never gets a free kick or much protection". He also suggested "referees are judging him before he walks out on the pitch". Collymore's first offence in the game - a high, late challenge - left John Harkness with knee ligament damage, and to somewhat more detached observers of the game, Collymore was 'lucky' not to have been shown a red card for the tackle.

The response to Dennis Irwin's sending off for two yellow cards in the Liverpool - Manchester United game mentioned previously in this article, demonstrates further the tendency of managers to treat such incidents in a partisan way. Whereas Gregory, above, is encouraging referees to ignore Collymore's previous disciplinary record, Ferguson's post match comments on Irwin's sending off seemed to suggest that Elleray should have taken Irwin's previous record as a 'well-respected' and 'well-disciplined' player into account, and should not have booked him for time-wasting. Irwin's second yellow card was awarded when he kicked the ball away after it had gone out of play. Whilst most would acknowledge that Ir win's was a comparatively minor offence, there was no acknowledgement from his manager that his player might well have been attempting to waste time. Given that five minutes previously, Liverpool had pulled one goal back, and that Manchester United were trying to protect their 2-1 lead with just fifteen minutes of the game remaining, it would not have been unheard of for a player to attempt to waste a few seconds, thereby slowing the pace of the game, disrupting the opposition's momentum, and perhaps frustrating them a little. Managers tend to want their player's previous records into account when it means they may avoid a booking, but not in more negative circumstances.

Constructive comment and partisanship

Whilst we would not be so unrealistic as to suggest that managers should stop criticizing referees post-match, and should instead highlight their own and their players' shortcomings, we would suggest that football administrators should not respond to the barrage of managerial criticisms of referees with knee jerk reactions. Essentially, managers' criticisms should be seen as the reactions of individuals who are highly involved, and who clearly have a vested interest in criticizing referees if such criticism deflects blame for a team's poor performance away from himself and his players. As such, their criticisms are rarely fair or balanced. The point to note from the above sample of managerial views is not that all their criticisms of referees are unjust. As suggested, video evidence clearly demonstrates that referees are far from infallible. The lesson to draw is that the views of managers are almost invariably partisan. Even when they are driven to complement a referee, their very partisanship makes their praise suspect.

Referees and referees assistants do not officiate in a vacuum. They are part of a network of relationships and this network includes the football authorities, the media, managers, players and spectators. Ostensibly, referees are in charge of matches. This is the formal position. However, the reality is that their task can be made more or less difficult by the changing priorities of the football authorities, the demeanor of the opposing teams, the ethos of the managers, and the willingness of the match commentators and sports journalists to criticize with, of course, the benefit of instant playbacks. With the prominence accorded their views, managers are a central part of this network and, undoubtedly, their views can be of great value.

Not surprisingly the pool from which all referees are drawn has never been extensive. The hothouse effect of the Premier League might well contribute to further evaporation. The minorities who make it to the top undergo a long and arduous apprenticeship. They may not quite match up to our ideal model, but it is reasonable to suppose that they are the best of the bunch. Referees may be far from perfect. Under the pressures of top-flight modern football they are sometimes inconsistent, bureaucratic and less than authoritative. But they are likely to be the best we have got. Moreover, they are likely to be considerably better than the host of observers who are quick to make judgments from the safety of the sidelines.

Where do we go from here?

We should recognize that the present conditions in which referees have to operate have made it more or less impossible to build a reputation for consistent competence. This is not say that existing referees are unable to cope, but rather to say that there is the world of difference between coping and satisfying unrealistic expectations. We predict that while the debate over whether or not the use of technology will assist or hamper officials will continue along its largely ungrounded and repetitive course, it is inevitable that we will see the steady encroachment of technological aids. If this does not occur then the likelihood is that the pool of aspirant referees will decline still further until it reaches crisis proportions. Ask yourself, would you, of your own volition, subject yourself to regular bouts of public ridicule, even the possibility of physical attacks, with all the consequences for your self-image and family life?

A final suggestion

As suggested, it is untenable to claim that referees are without fault and must be immune from criticism. However, we do wonder what kind of fist managers like Ferguson and Strachan and commentators, such as Andy Gray and Alan ('I never like to complement the referee') Parr y who are so vocal in their condemnation of referees, might make of the job if, magically, they were required to referee a Premier League game. Of course, under the present Laws, this is not a feasible proposition. However, it might be worth setting up a televised experiment, albeit in a less competitive context. Such an exercise might prove to be of enormous benefit to our general understanding, and to the understanding of managers and commentators of the problems confronting referees. The match could be followed by an analysis of their performance by a panel of referees. It would surely be guaranteed a prime-time audience. Are you listening Sky? If such a situation could be arranged we wonder whether any manager or commentator would have the courage to take up the challenge of the trial by television that referees endure on a weekly basis.

After all, as they never tire of telling us - 'It's a man's game' and would not a willingness to subject oneself to this ordeal be a 'manly' act?

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