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by Tony Attwood
In March this year, the Sky Sports website opened an article on refereeing with the comment by Keith Hackett that players and pundits criticising referees in the Premier League is “a little bit like me advising Lionel Messi on how he can improve his performance and where he went wrong.”
And of course we can see what he meant. When you don’t do a job, how can you criticise someone who is recognised as an expert in that job?
Everyone does it of course – we criticise everyone from journalists to footballers from house builders to Northamptonshire County Council (who have now gone bust – which is rather close to my heart since I live in Northamptonshire).
So it we stopped criticising things we maybe don’t know too much about we’d have a lot less to talk about.
Except sometimes, it turns out we do know. Because sometimes journalists are spinning a tale, some house builders are crooks, some referees are inept, and Northamptonshire County Council is made up of bungling idiots with their own political agenda that resulted in those of us living in the area having most of our public services that we have paid for removed.
Indeed Sky’s example about Messi reveals something much more disturbing than the fact that people who aren’t qualified to make criticisms do so all the time, because the analogy with a referee criticising Messi is false. For no one has ever suggested that Messi might be engaged in some nefarious, dubious or downright illegal activity on the pitch. (Off the pitch he certainly has been. In 2017 Messi was given a 21 month prison sentence in Spain for tax fraud of €4.1m between 2007 and 2009. He didn’t go to prison, but paid a fine instead in keeping with standard practice in Spain. But on the pitch, no, he’s a genius).
So now let us compare the Messi situation with the English referee situation properly.
I repeat, on the pitch there is no question that Messi is a genius whose abilities are awe inspiring. And he doesn’t always have an unexpected injury and so never play against a certain club. If he did we would have reason to be doubtful about how honest or straight he is as a player. Off the pitch we know he is a crook and a liar when it comes to tax fraud, but on the pitch, no question. A genius.
So now let us consider the comparison. The point that a retired referee criticising top referees would be as stupid as a ex-player or a pundit criticising a current top player.
Where the comparison breaks down is this: we have no reason to criticise Messi on the pitch because there is nothing to give us a suspicion that Messi is anything other than a top player who gives of his best. But there is every reason to give us a suspicion that things are not well with PL referees.
First of all there is the fact that refereeing is run in the Premier League in a very different way from the way it is run in other countries – via an utterly secret organisation that will not explain what it is up to and why it is so secret: the PGMO. When an organisation is shadowy and secret it is reasonable to ask, “why it is so secret?” Not only do we not have an answer to that question, we don’t even have the media asking the question. That is another reason to be suspicious.
Second there is the number of referees that PGMO employs. Both logic and corruption cases in other countries suggest that one of the prime ways to ensure that match fixing does not take place is to have enough referees so that each ref only gets to control games involving any particular club, twice in a season. Then if he is bent, the level of damage he will do is very limited.
Third there is good reason to be worried about match fixing itself because of the evolution of Type III match fixing. In the old days the cry would be that ref x favours club y. But Type III match fixing which evolved in Italy meant that bought referees were instructed not so much to favour the club that gave them the “bonus” for being helpful, but to make sure their closest rivals didn’t get the run of the ball. So if club A thought that clubs B, C or D might overtake it in the league it would say to a bought ref, “if club B, C or D get a chance of a last minute penalty to give them a victory, just wave the appeals away.” That sort of thing is much harder to spot.
Fourth, while most of Europe’s main leagues and indeed even Fifa have adopted video refereeing technology the Premier League has not. VAR makes type III match fixing – and indeed all cheating- much harder to arrange.
Now in the little piece by Sky about refereeing, none of these points were even mentioned. Instead the entire piece was about the accuracy level of the referees’ decision making along with the careful use of language to suggest that those who make criticisms of referees are “fixating”. One could say that is the fifth reason to be worried. One only tends to get this sort of deflective article where there really is a problem.
Consider this sentence: “It is natural for fans, players and managers to fixate on the decisions that cost their side, the penalty that never was and the soft red card at the weekend. But just how many decisions do referees have to make, and how many do they get right? You may be surprised at the findings.”
That is a very clever use of deflection – answering a valid question through failing to address key issues, putting down anyone who asks the question, and then talking about something else. It is of course what politicians do, usually prefacing their comments with the phrase, “Let me be clear…”
Note the language: “It is natural for fans, players and managers to fixate…” “Natural” – it is just part of their nature. “Fixate” – they are not balanced creatures, but subject to whims and unhealthy obsession.
Even the question they ask (“But just how many decisions do referees have to make, and how many do they get right?”) is irrelevant, because a referee can get 99.9% of decisions right but still, if he has been bought, could make one dubious decision in the 89th minute and change the course of the game. Indeed Sky’s own point about just how many decisions a ref makes in a game gives weight to this point.
A game which is being drawn, and then has one team get a penalty that isn’t a penalty, gives one side two extra points. But in the way that Sky analyse it, it is merely one decision among 245. So even if they were to admit it was an error they can still claim that it is an error rate of under 0.4% – which looks very good.
In fact elsewhere they state that, “In total, refs make around five errors per game, meaning they are right 98 per cent of the time,” and cite that as a positive. But under the Type III match fixing that was evolved in Italy all it took was one or two “errors” a game to change a game. In short, the referee error rate is high enough to allow match fixing to happen.
Thus the obvious solution would be to bring in VAR (rather than be the only major league standing out against it), dramatically increase the number of referees (so that the impact of any bent referees would be reduced), and to stop giving false analogies and illogical briefings which appear to have no function other than to mislead casual readers and hide the real dangers.
If you are a long term reader of Untold you will know that for many years the quality of refereeing in the Premier League was a major concern of this blog. We produced many reports both here and (after the criticism was raised that we were all Arsenal fans and therefore our judgement could not be trusted) on the Referee Decisions web site (where referees who supported other teams undertook the reviews).
You might also know that at one stage we analysed the first 160 games in the Premier League one season, looking at all the matches and presenting video evidence to support the findings. That study is still available on this site.
Some of our work has been criticised but never with evidence that undermines the fundamental findings (normally it is on the basis that because a correspondent could find in the thousands of decisions analysed a couple that he felt were not analysed correctly the whole review was invalid.)
But let us imagine there is nothing wrong with refereeing in this country. One would then ask, why is PGMO so secretive, and why do media outlets that have a vested interested in talking up the quality of refereeing (such as Sky) use emotive language and fail to address the reasonable issues about secrecy, non-use of VAR and the small number of referees employed?
Indeed one might also ask why the Sky story contained quite so many irrelevant facts. Here’s another one, “Many supporters would struggle to give the name of a single linesman in the Premier League, but the outcome of a game can hinge on their decisions.
“The assistant referee makes on average 50 decisions each game; 45 of these are pure offside judgements, with four of these resulting in offside flags. Their accuracy? Again, a staggering 98 per cent.”
98% accuracy is not enough, if the 2% error rate contains match changing decisions. That is in fact exactly what we would predict if Type III match fixing were going on. And as for giving the name of an assistant referee – where is the relevance in that? It is a comment put in entirely to suggest that those who make criticisms are lacking in knowledge – without considering that the knowledge itself is not important.
This sort of approach (picking on an irrelevance and claiming one’s lack of knowledge of this point suggests one is unfit to make a criticism) is known sometimes as deflection, and what Sky put out was a piece that was total deflection throughout.
Untold doesn’t do referee reviews any more because a) having done the 160 match reviews, there was nothing more we could do, b) our dedicated team were spending hours and hours doing the work, and in the end we were just confirming our own previous findings and c) we were making only limited impact on public opinion. In fact it could be argued it was our work that caused the League, PGMO and the broadcasters to band together and produce articles such as that noted above.
But none of this means that the problem has gone away.
Indeed we’ll all know when the problem is fixed. Because at that point…
1. PGMO will become an open body which does its own public, fulsome equivalent of our “160 games” series all the time.
2. The number of referees in the PL will increase so no referee gets any team more than twice in a season
3. There are no more deflective articles of the type highlighted here.
4. Refereeing stops becoming a topic of discussion, not because of PGMO and media deflection, but because the accuracy level really has risen to the level that PGMO and its media allies suggests has already happened.
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