The referees’ own goal

Much can be done to make the officials’ job easier and improve the game. So why don’t they speak up in support of progress?

By Neil Wilcock

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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After cautions, sending-offs and substitutions, stop the unnecessary activity of the referee holding up the game for what amounts to on-field paperwork. there is no reason why someone in the stand cannot record that information for the referee and relay it to him after the game for his report.

It was refreshing to read Craig Fowler’s piece on Why We Should Love Our Referees in Nutmeg Issue 1, to consider the important role of referees, and in particular to hear the perspective of former category one referees. All too often in the cyclical debate on how best football should be officiated, we fail to hear the perspectives of those charged with doing so. However, what struck me in the comments of the two former referees was not anything they said  but rather what they did not, which was summed up by the author as: “That’s the overall takeaway that comes from talking to two experienced officials. They don’t even want much to change.”

The game has changed beyond recognition in all aspects in modern times. However, the referee hierarchies in response to those radical changes, as repeated by the two former referees, are reluctant to support changes which would radically alter their role in the game. How the game is consumed by fans and what is now at stake have rendered the task of referees impossible, yes, impossible. In evolving the role of the referee to those deeper changes, the referees have said very little beyond the customary calls for more tolerance and respect, which do not address the underlying problems. It falls on the referees to lead by outlining the changes they would like to see rather than seemingly being the reluctant enforcers of change. In my opinion, such ‘referee’s demands’ should include, but not be limited to, the use of technology. 

As sports at the elite end from rugby to tennis to American football embrace technology, football remains stubbornly resistant to what video assistant technology (VAR) could offer the game. The argument for the use of VAR is that it enables the best means possible for the game to be officiated in the fairest way between the two teams while maintaining the viewing experience. There is little argument that fairness would be improved as crucial decisions are made with the benefit of hindsight. As the arguments against VAR rest predominantly on the damage it would do to the viewing experience I will address only that point.

Sceptics say it will cause too many delays to what is theoretically a fast-paced, free-flowing game. However, anyone who has watched a full Premiership game can testify to how that free-flowing seldom-interrupted game does not exist. A game can be painfully slow at times due to the break-up of play surrounding big decisions. It can take a full minute to organise a wall at a free kick and if there is a sending off or penalty, it can be anywhere up to triple that. In the same time it takes to calm things down, allow the players to organise  and then check all credentials have been inserted into the referee’s little book (more on that later), VAR could have shown a replay and ensured that they made the right decision. The reality is the game is already slow and intermittent due to the arguments and protestations over almost every big decision. With VAR the delays due to argument and protestation would be reduced not prolonged.

Another objection to the introduction of VAR is that it will drive a further wedge between how the game is conducted at the elite level and at the grassroots. Purists argue that officiating games in much the same way in a Premiership game and an amateur game retains a certain authenticity of the beautiful game. However, the two-tier game exists already, from surfaces to equipment to finances, including in refereeing.

One objection raised by pundits is that “with technology, we’ll have nothing to talk about”. Even if it is said tongue-in-cheek, it is a lame deflection by pundits who would rather point out the obvious mistakes by officials and revel in controversy than have to analyse complicated things such as tactics or personnel. There does seem to be a perverse joy taken by some in pointing out the most obvious refereeing mistakes.

‘Bad decisions are just part of the game’ is a sentiment which can be reduced, especially with regard to game-changing decisions. A greater level of trust will stem from players and managers knowing the correct decision has been made as managers and players are unable to disguise their own failings as those of the officials.

Players and coaches would also be less inclined to remonstrate as they currently do in trying to influence the referee to make a decision in their favour. We should see less of the unsavoury spectacle of groups hounding the referee convinced he will be unable to withstand the emotional pressure of thousands of partisan supporters screaming at him. We will avoid the ridiculous situation where supporters know via their smartphones what the correct decision should have been moments after the referee has made his decision with his naked eye. I believe the enjoyment factor of supporters, which remains the overriding preoccupation of the majority engaged with the game, would increase many times over.

Now assuming that VAR could be a force for good in the game, we have to ask why it is taking so long for its introduction. This is where the comments of the senior referees in Craig Fowler’s article, as with referee hierarchies across the world, surprise me. They do not seem to want change, let alone  want to direct it. Therefore one of obstacles in enabling the use of VAR are the referees themselves. It is odd that the very thing which could alleviate the “abuse from players, venom from the stands and criticism from the managers” is opposed by those on its receiving end.

A further indictment of the referee hierarchy effectively slowing any introduction of technology is the absence of a clear set of demands on what any alternative to VAR should be. We have heard precious little from the referee hierarchy, in Scotland or elsewhere, on what changes they would like to see to alleviate the abuse and allow the game be played in a better spirit. Howard Webb recently said that we are in danger of turning referees into “remote-controlled referees” if we are to press ahead with video-assisted technology. Given this is from a former referee who after a controversial – but correct –  penalty decision at Euro 2008 was told by the Polish Prime Minister that he would like to kill him, you would have thought he would be more welcoming of some assistance.

The referees’ professionalism is in no doubt; when it comes to discipline, temperament and attitude on matchdays, sometimes in the face of wild provocation, they are far ahead of their playing counterparts. But as Kevin Ferrie wrote in The Herald on the subject: “…with those who choose to officiate in sport already generally, rightly or wrongly, considered to be a strange breed, the logical conclusion is that it will increasingly lead to people with peculiar outlooks, bordering on sociopathic tendencies, taking charge of matches since it is only those who can cope with being set up to fail, then pilloried for doing so. There are easy measures available that can minimise the obvious errors.”

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) have said they will begin a trial of the use of video assistant referees for “game-changing decisions” no later than the 2017-18 season and the Fifa president Gianni Infantino described technology’s introduction as “inevitable”. The shape of those introductions are still to be considered, and will depend on individual associations’ willingness and the discussions therein. The BBC reported in March: “SFA chief executive Stewart Regan said the Scottish Cup could be the ideal vehicle, so it is fair to assume Scotland is one of those interested.” Given that apparent openness, it presents a fantastic opportunity for the Scottish Referee Association to discuss with their members what changes they would like to see and in what design they would like to see the introduction of technology. No one is better placed to make those recommendations than those who know what it is like to officiate professional games. I am afraid to say I hear no trace of those discussions taking place and the position of the referee hierarchy is scepticism bordering on resistance rather than constructive engagement and meaningful suggestions.

Personally, I would be wary of the blanket approach of “game-changing decision” as the IFAB worded it, meaning technology would be applied to key incidents concerning goals, red cards, mistaken identities and penalties. Given how often these can occur in an average football game, and depending on the incident whose advantage the consultation of VAR would be in, it could indeed open a can of worms. Without entering a full discussion here, I favour a challenge system akin to tennis whereby each side would have two challenges per half to consult VAR with the challenge returned if it goes in their favour. A challenge system would defer to each team the responsibility on consulting VAR, which would also remove from the referees an important decision, thereby making their jobs easier.

Refereeing needs to evolve along with the changes in the game and it needs to use the options available to it. Utilising some of those options at the professional level could be easily done and without much re-education of players/fans/managers. In any future discussions between the IFAB, the SFA and the Scottish Referees Association surrounding the introduction of trial technology or enhanced referee assistance, I would be making the case for two simple but profound changes to make the job of referees easier and improve the game as a spectacle:

– After cautions, sending-offs and substitutions, stop the unnecessary activity of the referee holding up the game for what amounts to on-field paperwork. If everybody watching knows who has been recorded in the referee’s book for an offence or substitution, there is no reason why someone in the stand cannot record that information for the referee and relay it to him after the game for his report. Quick free-kicks are often held up after cautions because the referee needs to record in pencil the offence and offender. Such a deferment of a simple responsibility will quicken up the game and ease the referee’s to-do list.

– Time-keeping should be conducted from the stands, by a fifth official. The time-keeper would be charged with indicating how many minutes are added on at the end of the normal 45-minute period and then deciding on when the game should be stopped for the end of each half. The fifth official would communicate this through an earpiece with the on-field referee. Currently, the referee needs to keep track of time added on amidst controlling the situation for which the time has stopped, whether it be a substitution, injury or melee in which players are jostling and receiving yellow or red cards. A time-keeper could easily be charged with this responsibility and be free from distraction. Such a deferment of responsibility will result in more accurate injury times, take the pressure off the referee from players urging him to add on time wasted or end the game  and allow him to concentrate on managing the players.

Both of these suggested changes are simple and easy-to-implement, and as with the preference for a challenge system in using VAR, it takes some of the on-field responsibilities away from the referees. It should be clear to all that the job of the referee is difficult and unnecessarily so in many aspects. We should set about changing this so they have as much help as possible to improve how a game is officiated. We should be in the business of reducing the scope for human error, and in the circumstance of one referee with two linesmen against 22 players it is proving ineffectively so. I am sure we would see an improvement in other decision-making if the referees were able to concentrate on fewer tasks during a game.

To show how far we have come to isolate referees, consider that decisions initially used to be settled by the two team captains  and that evolved to dialogue between two umpires provided by opposing teams. Today you can watch pundits analyse how the referee dealt with a riot between two teams, as if his actions, not those of the rioters, were the most important in that scenario.

The treatment of referees seems to go in cycles, from a muted period in which they are forgotten about or even lightly complemented to crises. After each of these crises the football commentariat seem to settle on the conclusion that the referees’ job is extremely difficult but certain things need to change to help them. Yet they never do.

To break that cycle we need to make fundamental changes to how the game is officiated. There is no group better placed to suggest and lead those changes than the referees who will be responsible for carrying them out. Referees have been forced to listen to players, coaches, pundits, administrators  and fans; now it should be our turn to listen. 

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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