In defence of the referees..

Arsenal players surround Stuart Attwell during home game versus Manchester City after Gabriel’s second yellow card

Extra money, with some slight abuse on the side’. I remember describing to my friends my rationale for becoming a qualified match official during my time at university. It was a decision I had made rather easily, having volunteered as an official prior in more disjointed, disorganized levels. Yet, 6 months on from my last officiated game, as I reflect on my time at grassroots level – a certainly gruelling one at parts – it is quite interesting to see how my sentiments certainly reflecting the highest level of the sport. There is an extreme disconnect within the sport between the twenty-two players and the arbitrator who controls the game. So, as a self-proclaimed ‘honorary member’ of the Referee’s Union, it is only right I speak up for the men and women in black.

It is right at the heart of football which lies a deep cynicism, a continual game of confirmation bias, searching for reasons to validate opinions on certain players or managers. It is what makes discourse around the sport so interesting, watching 90-minute bursts and letting results and performances determine what we feel we already know. Answerless debates are conducted almost daily, as the search for an impossible consensus on whether Mohamed Salah has eclipsed Eden Hazard’s legacy within English football continues to shift with every passing incredible performance from the Egyptian. It is then almost no surprise that this cynicism makes no exceptions for the ‘supposedly’ neutral overseers of the beautiful game.

Anybody who has ever been a main or assistant referee knows that in almost every game, comes a decision where marginal calls must be made. Whether it’s an offside call (both with and without VAR), penalty decision, red-card, or a significant handball – you are expected to make the ‘right’ decision. The result of the game is directly influenced by this, and at the top level where margins are fine – one result is the difference between relegation and safety.

But here-in lies the impossible problem – what is the ‘right’ decision? While offside is binary; you are either offside or you’re not – Romelu Lukaku’s goal being disallowed in the Carabao Cup final no doubt would have frustrated most Chelsea fans. Yet is the annoyance only because the right decision was made by a matter of centimetres, or was it because of another instance of a perceived agenda against their team?

Romelu Lukaku’s offside goal in the Carabao Cup final which brought more annoyance at VAR’s marginal measurements

But here-in lies the impossible problem – what is the ‘right’ decision? While offside is binary; you are either offside or you’re not – Romelu Lukaku’s goal being disallowed in the Carabao Cup final no doubt would have frustrated most Chelsea fans. Yet is the annoyance only because the right decision was made by a matter of centimetres, or was it because of another instance of a perceived agenda against their team? Likewise, Arsenal fans’ recent gripes with the officials have been well documented in this Twitter thread <a href=”https://twitter.com/eIastixsz/status/1496079189573013505″>https://twitter.com/eIastixsz/status/1496079189573013505</a>, a list of decisions which for the most part, begs the question around inconsistency.</p> Twitter thread, a list of decisions which for the most part, begs the question around inconsistency.

The emotional impact of these perceived incorrect decisions deepens an already existing distrust, which in turn feed even more serious allegations, that perhaps referees are corrupt, or hold overarching hatred against certain teams. This goes to the extent where correct decisions which are even right by letter of the law, e.g., Reece James red card versus Liverpool at Anfield, Gabriel Martinelli’s red versus Wolves – are viewed and discussed as further episodes of agendas and incompetence.

Football elicits emotional responses and as you ascend the pyramid, more pressure builds on both coaches and players. Spectators from across the globe supporting their clubs have expectations for their sides to compete at the highest levels and will not pull punches for criticism of officials whose decision making impedes that. It is worth noting and unsurprising that emotion is reserved only for when decisions do not favour whatever team they support, and the inverse is often hypocritically understood as an arbitrary form of ‘justice’ for past perceived unfairness.

So, what about the referees? At the basic level, you quickly understand it is impossible to appease everybody in the game – every decision made has a winner and a loser. For every tough decision that is awarded one way, there is one team who benefits and one who does not. The bigger issue is the consistency.

Officiating is supposed to be clear and authoritative – yet this is lost massively in communication with the average football fan. Everton’s gripes and formal complaint with the referees for Rodri’s alleged handball are justified – yet every opinion besides the decision maker Chris Kavanagh is given a platform. His thought-processes are second-guessed by players, managers, pundits, fans, and experts alike – left to the imagination of those seeking clarity on his decision-making.

Everton lodged a formal complaint following the VAR coverage of this Rodri incident, which was not called back for a handball

Within law, there is a doctrine of precedent, where past judgements bind subsequent cases – and the elite levels of English football need to adopt and communicate this principle better to help protect referees’ integrity more. Instead of the private, unreachable personas that referees are – making their judgements on certain key issues and moments public helps everybody understand at least what their perspective was, and the laws of the game can evolve accordingly based on an internal consensus. The NBA’s Last Two Minute Reports may come in vain in the wake of a ‘no-call’ yet provides a helpful understanding on how decisions have come to a conclusion – and how it relates to general good practice.

It doesn’t require you to even have been an official to tell that no matter how good an official is, they will make mistakes. You are effectively following a game at 100 miles per hour; it is impossible to get every throw-in call, every foul, every corner/goal kick decision right. Thought processes have to be quick and efficient, and unless VAR is in use, are usually not rescinded once made. For video assistant referees, the constant ‘clear and obvious’ decision-making system, along with line-drawing offsides will continue to irritate – but that asks a different question of the ‘correct-entertaining’ battle that the use of VAR induces (*story for another article*).

While I cannot vouch for integrity of those I have never met, every official you see in the Premier League or Women’s Super League has worked for years to get to that level. I spent around three years doing it and was a Level 7 match official and would have had to climb 10 levels to make the international FIFA List, where both Michael Oliver and Anthony Taylor feature, the highest level a referee can reach.

While their decisions dominate discourse and in effect, decides games and leagues, until those at the top better communicate the intrinsic difficulty these officials face and move to give them a platform to talk about their decisions – the voiceless men and women in black will have to settle for me to speak up for them, which I guess, isn’t a bad compromise.

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