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
" 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
"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
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
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