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-= PRESSURE POINTS: Officiating in the future… =-


"Pressure Points"
Officiating in the future…
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 1998 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!!! "


When things go wrong in life, a common response is to search for a scapegoat; someone to whom we assign blame and responsibility for failures which are often our own. Within the football community, football managers, club owners and players are, to varying degrees, made scapegoats for a club's failure to achieve success. Another member of the football community is also regularly made the scapegoat; the referee. It is not unusual to hear a player or manager say something along the lines of 'we were robbed by the referee', or to hear a claim that a penalty decision was the 'turning point' of the game. Players, managers, club owners and officials criticize referees from a number of angles; by fans, and by various media personnel. Their mistakes are constantly replayed and dissected, and, particularly at Premier League level, they are under enormous pressure and scrutiny.

Given these factors, and the fact that most of us would not countenance doing their job, we might be expected to treat them more sympathetically than we do. Clearly, however, most of us do not perceive referees in a favorable light. We are more likely to think about the mistakes they make, to question their integrity, ability, motivations, and occasionally their eyesight and parentage! Are they as bad as we seem to think they are? Have they got worse?

A number of sources indicate that refereeing 'problems' are not the recent phenomenon that their currently high media profile might imply. Consider the following:

“While the game in this country continues to improve in so many areas, there is one area which is going backwards: refereeing”.


"They have a thankless job to do, but we should take an urgent look at their ability because refereeing is losing its grip".

The first quote is from the newspaper column of former Arsenal player, Bob Wilson, published in 1997. The second is from an article in FIFA Magazine by former FIFA referee, Michel Vautrot, who is quoting from a survey of French club officials - published in 1946. Is it possible that refereeing standards have been in decline since at least 1946? Certain changes in refereeing might cast some doubt on the notion of a downward spiral in refereeing standards, but can we accurately compare today's game with those of 20, 30, 50 years ago? As evidence of a sustained effort to improve refereeing standards in the Premier League in recent years, for example, we might reflect on the introduction of seminars to review and assess performances and identify possible improvements, and the continuous assessment and marking of refereeing performances throughout the season by referee assessors. But in making comparisons, how might we take into account the increased pace of the modern game, differences in playing styles, and changing attitudes toward authority? In many discussions about referees, people often seem to be attempting to make these kinds of judgments without taking due account of the difficulties of making comparisons over time.

Rather than helping resolve refereeing issues, which most would agree would be 'for the good of the game’; such discussions instead often tend to create what John Barnwell of the League Managers' Association has described as a "them and us situation" between referees and managers. Perhaps a more fruitful approach might be one, which helped us to understand a little better two key issues:

Why criticism of referees has achieved such prominence
Why refereeing issues appear to be a perennial 'problem'

Under Pressure, Over Exposed

An examination of some of the pressures that football personnel are under may provide some insights into these issues. Premier League referee Gerald Ashby recently outlined what he sees as the cause of this pressure:

"The game is under so much more pressure than ever before and the expectancy level is so high from players, managers, and referees. The attitude of players towards referees has changed to an extent, more so over the last couple of years, and it is because of the amount of money in the game".

Whilst the increased financial rewards available to clubs and players may contribute to the pressure felt by football personnel, 'money' is without doubt not a new factor. In the 1930s, for example, Arsenal manager George Allison was tagged 'Moneybags Allison' as a result of his penchant for big transfer outlays, and Everton were described as the 'check book champions' in 1962-63. Nor can 'money' be viewed as the sole cause of pressure, as some critics seem to imply. Critics of the financial changes that the Football and Premier Leagues have undergone, in terms of changing patterns of club ownership and rewards for success, tend to ignore the fact that football has long been a relatively highly paid industry, and that factors other than 'money' exert pressure on football personnel.

Bill Shankly's classic phrase, "football is not a matter of life and death - it's much more important", identifies one of the key sources of pressure on players and managers: the fans, and the weight of expectations about 'their' team. Expectations about the game being played are bound up with histories of games past, whether it be a local derby, a defeat by these opponents last season, or the knowledge that "we've never beaten them in the League". Clearly, the players, managers, club owners, and supporters all want their team to win - whether that means beating the holders of the Cup, the winners of the League, or the teams hoping to avoid relegation.

If fans feel unhappy about the performance of a player, manager, team, club owner, or referee, they can express that dissatisfaction, and thereby exert pressure, in a variety of ways. The most explicit display of dissatisfaction with the 'third team' in the past season was a fan's physical attack on the assistant referee, Edward Martin, during the Portsmouth-Sheffield United Football League match, after Martin's confirmation of a foul by Sheffield United goalkeeper, Simon Tracey, resulted in his sending off. Less physical, though no less public, expressions of dissatisfaction with football personnel, namely club owners and directors, this season included protests at the grounds of Stoke, Sheffield United and Newcastle United. Throughout the season, fans also voiced their opinions through an expanding range of media outlets, such as football magazines, 'fanzines', television discussion shows, and local or national radio football phone-ins.

Increased numbers of televised games, commentaries, sports discussion shows and newspaper sports supplements mean that the sights, sounds and sentiments of player or manager turned newspaper columnist, television pundit, or commentator are also familiar. Therefore, they too have a range of outlets to respond to fans, to discuss what might be going wrong and who might be at fault. It is, then, relatively easy to understand why we hear so much about football in general and, given their integral role in the game, referees in particular.

The current prominence of public criticism about referees may partly be explained as a result of the changing nature of some of this media coverage, and the exposure given to players, managers, and other club officials, often at moments when pressure is most keenly felt. For example, television cameras often focus on players and managers in the moments immediately following a booking, and we can often witness, and sometimes lip-read, the response of a player or manager to a referee's decision. If necessary, a replay of the incident with commentary, alternative camera angles and graphics can provide us with additional clarity. If fur their confirmation of views about 'controversial' or telling decisions were required, we can watch, listen to, or read, the post match interview, often given within minutes of the final whistle.

In the past season, these kinds of situations provoked Martin O'Neill to comment that "the referee was poor, desperately poor", Gordon Strachan to assess Steve Lodge as "a joke" and an "absolute disgrace" and John Hartson to admit "I thought he was an absolute joke and his performance deserved to be marked naught out of ten". In response to Steve Dunn's decision to act by the 'letter of the law' and blow for full-time, seconds before Wimbledon scored what would have been the winning goal against Wrexham, Joe Kinnear described Dunn as "another referee trying to get a bit of notoriety".

Given the emotions that football can evoke, the elation or disappointment, it is perhaps not surprising that such interviews are not always characterized by measured, careful exchanges about the referee's decisions, particularly if those decisions have gone against the interviewee's team, and further, if they have proved to be telling. So, on one level, players' and managers' views on referees are being sought at often highly emotional and/or tense moments, and we are readily able to digest their thoughts in a plethora of formats. On another level, fans have more public opportunities to express their feelings about clubs. This factor, along with the desire to win - for its own sake, for the fans, players, managers and clubs, and for the financial rewards -exerts pressure on managers and players.

Also, football personnel may well have their jobs 'on the line' if results don't go their way, and in a sense they are often made scapegoats themselves. Club chairmen departing in the past season after protests from fans included Jeff Bonser at Walsall and Francis Lee at Manchester City. Managers losing their jobs this season after a poor run of results included David Pleat, Chris Kamara (twice), Frank Clark and Steve Gritt. Indeed, one third of all Football League managers either resigned or were sacked during the 1997-98 season. Clearly, in the search for explanations for a team's defeat, a 'mistake' by a referee can provide a convenient excuse. As the old adage goes, 'attack is the best form of defense', and an attack on the referee can divert attention from a player's 'missed chances', or the manager's selection 'errors', or the club owner's decision to buy a new stand rather than new players. If we consider these pressures, perhaps we can begin to understand why players, managers and club officials often criticize referees, and why we hear those criticisms so regularly. Why, though, have refereeing issues been a 'problem' for so long?

The Spirit, the Letter, and the Grey Area In-between

The room for interpretation inherent in the wording of the laws of the game provides what may be the key to understanding why refereeing issues have been a long-term issue in football. In 1949, the F.A. issued the following recommendations in a guidebook for referees:

"It is essential that referees should learn to interpret the laws in spirit rather than too literally".

The referee is expected to achieve a balance between the 'spirit' and the 'letter' of the law. This flexibility can allow a referee to facilitate a flowing game, 'playing on' when offences occur, which, if the 'letter' of the law were enforced, would result in play being stopped. Often when we watch a game this is just what we want: a fast, 'flowing' game. Yet whilst watching a flowing game, we may begin to think that the referee needs to start 'clamping down' on offences, or that the referee is 'letting the game get out of hand'. There is, then, often some inconsistency in what we expect from the referee. At the start of the game we may enjoy the way the referee's interpretation of the 'spirit of the law' is keeping the game flowing, but minutes later, are insisting on a stricter interpretation, and expecting the referee to enforce the 'letter of the law'. We expect referees to strike this balance, and to show some 'common-sense' in their application of the Laws of the Game - not an easy task.

The call for common sense often voiced in discussions about referees also gives us some insight into the reasons why criticism of referees might persist and why, in a sense, referees 'can't get it right'. Common sense is a largely subjective notion and, therefore, what is considered common sense varies between individuals. When we ask referees to demonstrate common sense, we are not really expecting them to do what they think should be done, but to do what we think should be done.

In the 1997-98 season, Alex Ferguson demonstrated this kind of inconsistency in his assessment of Martin Bodenham's 'liberal' handling of the Arsenal -Manchester United Premier League game. Bodenham ignored penalty claims when Nigel Winterburn appeared to foul Paul Scholes, of which Ferguson said, "It was a clear penalty, and you just hope referees stop these type of incidents, but he [Bodenham] is the master of not seeing these things". Of the same game, Ferguson said, "I don't see why anybody needed to be booked in a game like that". Ferguson is insisting, firstly, on the letter of the law, and secondly on the spirit.

Clearly managers are not alone in the inconsistency of their expectations. Often what we think should be done at one end of the field - in our team's penalty area - differs from what we think should happen at the other end - in the other team's penalty area. If a 'liberal' interpretation of the laws means our player avoids a booking that may otherwise have resulted in a suspension, then the referee is likely to win our favor, and to have made what we feel is the right decision in the circumstances. If the referee shows similar discretion towards an opposition player, is our reaction consistent, or are we more likely to feel the referee is wrong and should have booked the player?

We may also be inconsistent in the way we perceive incidents in a game and in the degree of importance we attribute to them. We tend to attribute a greater significance to decisions that go against our team than those that go in our favor. For example, of the Arsenal - Manchester United game discussed above, whilst acknowledging that Arsenal had out-played his side in the second half, Ferguson said of the first half incident "That was a clear penalty. That was a turning point for me". West Ham's John Hartson felt similarly aggrieved after his side lost to Leicester; "We played well and were just robbed by the referee". These sentiments demonstrate the way we tend to attribute more serious consequences to decisions by the referee that go against us, than to those that go our way. If the referee misses an incident, which would result in a penalty for the opposition, we feel lucky, and 'we'll take the luck when we get it'. Perhaps the 'spirit' of the law has more resonance when the decisions and luck go our way?

Often in the same breath as demanding a display of common sense, we will also ask for consistency. In the interview in this publication, David Elleray identifies the three levels of consistency we ask for: consistency within a game; between games refereed by the same referee; and between games refereed by different referees. To achieve this consistency, referees would need to apply the letter of the law, rather than to interpret the spirit of the law. As Elleray has said elsewhere:

"People in football want two things: consistency and common sense, but to use consistency one has to reduce the margin for common sense".

As the response to Steve Dunn's decision to act on the letter of the law in the Wimbledon - Wrexham F.A. Cup tie demonstrates, however, sticking to the letter of the law does not always meet with our approval. Michel Vautrot describes the referees' 'unwritten rule 18', as "Intelligence in the perception of the game, the attitude of the players, the place and the moment of the offence". This asks a lot of referees. Are we asking for the impossible?

This season, the F.A. has sought approval to experiment with technology on the goal line. If successful, this should help reduce both the number of 'goals' that have not been awarded that should have been and similarly, those that have been awarded that should not have been. Whilst we can expect this kind of innovation to resolve matters of 'fact', we cannot expect technological assistance to clear up incidents where the referee is required to use discretion or make common-sense judgments. Perhaps there are no 'absolute' solutions to these issues. However, the pressure on all concerned might be eased if we can resolve to be more understanding about some of the difficulties faced both by football personnel under pressure and the third team of whom we have such inconsistent, but great expectations. Don Revie's words spoken back in 1976, demonstrate something of that understanding:

"I fear that at times we managers feel that referees should be absolutely perfect for 90 minutes. Yet we don't achieve this as managers. We don't always pick the right team; carry out the right training, book the right hotels. Players don't put every pass right and coaches don't always bring youngsters through, as they should. So we are wrong in expecting referees to be perfect when we are not perfect ourselves".

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