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The seven reasons why professional refereeing in England should be investigated now

By Tony Attwood

It is not surprising that we have started to get a few comments made attempting to denounce or undermine the thesis developed on these pages that there is something amiss with the refereeing of Premier League games.

The tactic normally used is one in which just one element of our argument about referees is considered, a weakness is spotted within it, and that, it is suggested, explains why the debate should be swept aside.

Now, as far as I recall, we’ve never said that our concerns about the refereeing of Arsenal games should be taken as the truth just on our say so, which is why we come at the issue from a number of different directions.

Yet in arguments against our approach, one particular aspect of our research is cited and a problem with it is suggested, while the other approaches are ignored.

And yet it is precisely because there are so many different issues that we constantly continue to feel that there is something wrong.   I’ll briefly try and summarise the various approaches we have taken.

1: Tackles fouls and yellows.

This is the current approach we are exploring, showing that the way clubs are treated by referees in terms of the number of tackles in relation to fouls, and each in relation to yellow cards, varies enormously from club to club.

2: The sudden changes in the style of play of Leicester after publicity

We first looked at tackles, fouls and yellow cards two seasons ago in relation to the extraordinarily high number of tackles Leicester put in, and how comparatively few were penalised as fouls.  Within a couple of weeks of that groundbreaking article Leicester’s numbers changed dramatically, as if the referees had worked up to the situation.  It was very odd.  A coincidence perhaps.

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Following this up, last season we noticed another quirk in Leicester’s statistics – the number of penalties they were awarded, which was for a while way above anything ever seen before in the League.  If it had continued they would have created a new all-time record for penalties.  We wrote it up, and again within weeks the numbers changed; the penalties stopped.  A coincidence perhaps

3: The home and away bias

No one quite knew why home clubs won more matches than away clubs – maybe it was the travel, the unfamiliarity of the ground, the abuse from home fans…   But there was a chance to study this during the pandemic when matches were played in empty stadia – at which time home wins reduced while away wins went up – so much so that away wins were then the most common results.

A team of referees under the guidance of academics from the University of London and a club director, intrigued by these changing figures, undertook a series of experiments which showed just how much referees were influenced by the home crowd.  Home teams win more games than away teams because referees are influenced by the home crowd.  The research proves it.

Which completely undermined the PGMO claim that their referees were 98% accurate.  They couldn’t be, because they were subject to home bias.

4: The appointment of refs who give cards to Arsenal

At the end of last season we looked at the referees who had overseen Arsenal games and how many times each one had taken an Arsenal game.  We also looked at how many cards each referee handed out.   Refs who handed out multiple cards against Arsenal players in a match were much more likely to be given a second, third, fourth or fifth Arsenal match, than those who gave zero or one card.

5: The difference from Europe

Refereeing in England is quite different in many other countries, where (for example) in some locations referees are interviewed on TV immediately after a game.  There are many other differences, especially the number of times a referee can oversee a match involving the same team.  In some countries that limit is twice.  Such things are unthinkable in England: there is no limit and five games is not unknown.

6: The secrecy and lack of publicity and engagement from PGMO

There is no inherent reason why the body that organises refereeing in England (PGMO) should be as hyper-secretive as it is – but it chooses to be.  It doesn’t happen in other countries, so why in England?

7: The lack of enquiry from the media when they look into everything else

Those six points before this seventh issue, suggest that there is something odd about the way refereeing is undertaken in England, and this is the sort of thing that normally the media in England would seize upon.   That is not to say something is wrong, but normally one would find a few “Inside the hyper-secretive world of…” type articles.  But in England there is nothing.  No enquiry, no consideration of what is going on.

Worse the one commentator who would criticise referees (Alan Greene) was then sacked by the BBC.  Now there are no commentator’s who hold referees to account..

For all those reasons it seems to me that someone somewhere ought to be inquiring into the way in which refereeing in the Premier League works.   It may not find anything very exciting (although the six previous points give plenty of scope for exploration) but at least we might learn why refereeing in England is so different from everywhere else – and why no one has thought it worth while to investigate before.

The proof that something is seriously wrong with football refereeing and reporting

11 comments to The seven reasons why professional refereeing in England should be investigated now

  • Andrew Crawshaw

    Sorry Tony but iff topic. 33 minutes into our Women’s game and we are rampant. Three goals to the good and we are totally dominant. Beattie with a header from a McCabe corner with the first, Beth Mead smashed home the second and then set op Miedema for a tap in for the third.

  • paul35mm

    The reason refereeing decision making is secretive is simple; it allows for the manipulation of results based on factors external to how the game is played on the pitch.

    Crazy? Let’s look at one, narrow example of how this works.

    Why does VAR have the “clear and obvious error” rule? So referees can ignore the correct call in favor of an incorrect call. Other sports like the NFL in the U.S. has a similar rule for the same reasons. There have been a few recent instances, but a good illustration of the point was Xhaka’s red card against Man City.

    The Swiss midfielder barely (if at all) made contact with Joao Cancelo, who play acted as players are taught, rolling around as if pole-axed. The referee reacted to Xhaka’s lunge and Cancelo’s dramatics, which is fine. It looked bad. VAR however, slowed it down and showed, clearly two things. First, Xhaka did not just ‘get a little touch’ of the ball as the TV commentator noted, the ball went blasting away after Xhaka got it, meaning the force of his tackle was directed and was spent on the ball, not the man. Cancelo threw himself to the ground, clutching his leg in a place where he was not even struck. VAR showed it clearly. The card should have been overturned. Perhaps even reversed, with a yellow shown to Cancelo for trying to get Xhaka sent off.

    Why wasn’t it? The ‘clear and obvious error’ rule. The error was clear and obvious, but even so, the referee’s decision stood. Why? In order for the league to manipulate results; there needs to be a mechanism that allows it, without giving the appearance of obvious bias or worse, match fixing. To be clear, this is not an attempt to claim referees are being paid off. This type of manipulation is subtle, and all the more insidious because of that.

    Refereeing is one of the most direct way to influence games. It is entirely possible that, before the game, Xhaka’s history of red cards; some deserved, some not, was pointed out to the game official. That, combined with the expectation of Manchester City superiority, the relative difference in quality and cost of players, and the scene is set. VAR should make this kind of manipulation impossible, but the clear an obvious error rule keeps it in play.

    Other methods of using referees to influence matches include, as Tony suggested, assigning officials who are biased for or against teams to referee those teams’ matches.

    This does not have to be overt and deliberate on the officials’ part. For example, a referee that believes that the league has gone ‘soft’ is more likely to allow physical play and ignore or assess lighter penalties when a ‘flair’ player like Mohamed Salah if fouled; as the official who refereed Burnley v. Liverpool earlier in the season did. The official’s bias may be unintended, but the assigning body knows the bias exists and uses it to influence the game; turning what might have been a savage demolition of Burnley by a vastly superior Liverpool side into a close contest.

    Returning to the Xhaka red card and its effect on the outcome of the game and the entire conversation around Arsenal in general; At 2-0, the score when Xhaka was sent off, Arsenal were losing, but the match was competitive. Smith-Rowe nearly converted an Ederson error into a goal and the team had chances to score. After the sending off, it was one-way traffic with Arsenal, already down by two, were now both now out manned and outgunned. Did the sending off change the result? In win/loss terms, probably not. However, in terms of the kind of loss and how the loss affected the dialog around the [player and team, it had huge effect.

    Objectively speaking, an away win for Arsenal against Man City was unlikely. A score line of 2-0 or 3-1 would have been unwelcome by Arsenal fans, but not a cause for an uproar. 5-0 however, and the sky is falling. This is a brutal defeat and it highlighted the sending off, led to all sorts of public criticism of Granit Xhaka by pundits and fans alike, and increased the pressure on Mikael Arteta in a way that 2-0 or 3-2 would not have.

    The ‘clear and obvious error’ rule is critical to allowing for this kind of manipulation. If the VAR officials had (and they should) the same authority any on-pitch match official, and VAR was used as the goal line technology, with a signal sent to the referee’s watch indicating an error and a reversal of the on-field call, this manipulation would be much more difficult and much more obvious. Which is why the clear and obvious error’ rule is in place. It gives plausible deniability to undue influence of matches.

  • Chris

    @paul35mm,

    I think your reference to the NFL is incomplete. Each team has a number of challenges available to them that force a VAR review. If the referee decision is overturned, the challenge is not onsidered used. If it is not overturned, they lose the challenge. Not sure if it is 2 or 3 per game or per half.

    This in effect allows for a blatant ase like Xhaka and prevents such abuse of power. Not sure if all and sundry see the slow-motion replays or any video material in sync with the VAR refs, but from what I remember, coverage does show the event from all sorts of angles.

    But then, my opinion is that as long the owners do not start throwing some serious monkey wrench into the PIGMOB mechanisms, I doubt anything will change and this illegal monkey business will go on. Considering how the oil states were able to go after UEFA about financial issues and in the end won, scaring the hell out of the governing bodies, I’m not sure such a move would be such a bad idea. Imagine PIGMOB and the FA being sued for a few hundred million euros or some penalty like that and having to consider playing court roulette with a 50/50 chance of total anihilation. Imagine they’d go after management of PIGMOB ? How long do you think the bodies would start thinking about calling a truce ?

    Just so surprising that the Yankees, so prone in boasting their genetic poker superpowers, are just sitting there and getting slapped game day after game day and not upping the ante.

  • @paul35mm

    You speak the truth.

    The VAR escape clause “clear and obvious error” gives the referees the ultimate power in their fight against certainty, although in my eyes, in a great many cases, there have been clear and obvious errors, and there is nothing subtle about it. If VAR is going to work, it must be under the control of a truly neutral body.

    Repeated statements from the media-stooge refs (Walton, Gallagher and others) that “VAR is not there to get the correct decision”, is an alarm-bell that should tell anybody with a smidgin of intelligence that referees are not interested in a fair sporting contest.

    If you remember Xhaka’s (and Pepe’s) red cards last season, in the after-match interview, the Sky “reporter” said “you simply can’t put your hands round the throat of an opponent”. The media never pipe up with this tune when a non-Arsenal player is involved.

    They are in on the con with the referees.

    I agree that Cancelo should have been carded for that deception.

    Don’t forget, in the Man. City game Chambers received a left hook from Laporte at 1-0. Laporte should have walked, but the VAR check let the goal stand (exactly like the Brentford game). With fair referees, that game was anything but over.

    It’s funny that you should mention Burnley. There was a thread on Twitter today about their persistently dirty play, and guess who is playing them next?

  • Nitram

    With regard to giving referees the greatest possible influence over a match the vaguer the rules the better.

    The problem is, and always has been, the subjective nature of so many decisions in football, and it is this subjectivity that I believe feeds directly into how poorly we get treated by referees, as the statistics over 16 years plus clearly show we have, and more importantly why they get away with it.

    I have made this point many many times under the banner of ‘Referees Cheating Without Cheating’

    The basic point is that with a subjective decision you can never actually be wrong because by it’s sheer nature, a subjective decision is just a matter of opinion, and as we all know opinions vary greatly and what’s more we all think OUR opinion is right.

    So in an attempt to summarize how this subjectivity is used against us, lets, for simplicity say all these subjective decisions are 50/50. By consensus they could go either way.

    As such a referee can never actually be wrong. He can also never be right. It is what it is. It is his ‘subjective’ take on the incident. You may, you may not agree, but one thing you cant do is call him biased or worse, a cheat.

    But lets move this on and rather than one decision lets look at an entire match. Lets say, again for simplicity there was 10 major subjective calls. Penalty no penalty. Red not a red. 2nd yellow not a second yellow. And so on. Each one is 50/50. As discussed above, taken in isolation, no matter what decision the referee makes he cannot be wrong….or right, it’s subjective. Again, as discussed, he certainly cant be called biased or a cheat.

    But what if every one of those 50/50’s went against one team ? By their nature you would think each team would get half the big calls go in their favor, half against ? But what if they don’t go 50/50 ? What if it’s 60/40,80/20 in favour of one team? What if they all go in the favour of one team ? Is that not then cheating or at least bias ?

    And that is what I think happens to us. I don’t think we get anything like 50% of these 50/50 calls going in our favour. I don’t even think it’s 60/40 I think it’s more like 70/30 against us, and that is a massive tilt in our opponents favour.

    The problem with this is it’s very subtle and very hard to prove. We have the evidence, we have the statistics to suggest it is happening, and has been happening for many many years, but that isn’t proof, it’s a theory. That accepted I haven’t seen a more more convincing theory explaining those ridiculously lopsided stats. Saying we cant tackle certainly isn’t one. Okay one player in isolation maybe. Even one season at a stretch. But 16 years plus ? Come on !

    But moving on, why would a referee have a tendency to do this? Why would a referee err on the side of our opponent?

    The MEDIA.

    And the reason I say the media is because, again as I have said for years, it is the media who are the referees judge jury and executioner. A referee is deemed to of had a good match, not on the basis of how he applied the laws of the game, or how he was scored by the referees assessor, but by how he is judged by SKY Sports, BT Sport, MOTD etc. etc. If they say ‘The boy done good’ then the boy done good, and the referees know this without a doubt.

    The referees know exactly how we are abhorred by the media. The referees have learnt over the years that giving Arsenal a soft penalty, or not giving their opponent a penalty, or not giving Xhaka a Red, or disallowing an opponents goal for a mere shove in the face, is going to get them pelters. They will be ridiculed and criticized on national TV. They have even been demoted after incurring the wrath of Lineker and Co. Their job could be on the line, it could be as serious as that, if they continue to upset the the ‘lads’ in the studio.

    It has nothing to with brown paper bags or betting rings or conspiracies hatched in darkened rooms. It is nothing that glamorous. It’s simply referees looking after their own careers.

    So in conclusion and going back to the original point, the more latitude you give them, the vaguer you make the rules and by definition their interpretation, the wider the subjectivity, the easier it is to Cheat without actually appearing to cheat at all.

    My unshakable belief is that we are actually being screwed by the media. The referees are just their method of delivery.

  • Nitram

    It’s nice to see SKY sports bending over backwards to defend the refereeing of the brawl in the Spurs match.

    This is the same referee that sent AMN off for 2 of the most innocuous challenges in the game at the Ems against Aston Villa in 2019.

    Gallagher: No punches thrown so a yellow was fine.

    He ignored the grab round the throat, which was a red for Xhaka if I recall.

    So after all that, bad fouls, retaliation, physical assaults, dissent, a mass brawl, and 2 yellows was fine.

    Sensible refereeing all round was the conclusion.

    And people, including Arsenal fans, come on here saying we are refereed in the same way as everyone else. Really, I mean really ??

  • But the question then arises – who is putting pressure on the media to do this, or being more generous, who is allowing the media to do this? If the sport was being administered fairly, it surely wouldn’t be in anybody’s interest to allow this situation to persist. The Premier League would certainly have the power to crack down on biased reporting agendas relating to their product, but no action is ever taken.

  • Nitram

    And just to say this is a prime example of why it is SKY and Co who run the referees, because now SKY, and I’m guessing though I haven’t seen, that everyone else is saying ‘nothing to see here’ ‘The ref done well’ everything’s okay and nothing will happen.

    Lets see if any of this does happen:

    -Will the players get sanctioned for a mass brawl ?

    -Will the Clubs get fined or points deducted for failing to control their players ?

    -Will the Palace player get a retrospective Red Card for putting his hand around the throat of an opponent ?

    You just know if that was Arsenal SKY would be shouting from the rooftops that this needs to be ‘looked at’. When it suits ‘You cant raise your hand to a player like that’. On another day as long as you don’t ‘throw a punch’ it seems anything goes. What a crock !

    I await to here what action will be taken.

  • Nitram

    seismic

    I don’t know but I am sure there are agendas and they could be based on all sorts of things, but you can bet your life money is behind most of them.

    I remember a few years back when Man Utd were struggling under Moyes the Premier league were getting all twitchy about losing overseas Television revenues and Scudamore was opining about how important it was to have a successful Manchester Utd in the League. This is what he said at the time:

    “It’s a double-edged sword,” said Scudamore. “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places.”

    You can read into that what you will, but as I see it that can easily be read by the PGMO that we need a successful Man Utd.

    Either way that suggests that the premier league have a vested interest in Man Utd doing well and surely that isn’t right.

    I have no doubt that the Premier League see Liverpool as just as important to ‘The Brand’ as Man Utd.

    The fact of the matter is, due to our relative failures in Europe, we just haven’t won enough, we are just not seen as important to the PL’s Global ‘Brand’ as those 2.

    Also our self sustaining model makes us less attractive than Chelsea and Man City who pump Billions into their coffers. Our self financing model means we only really take money out as far as they are concerned.

    The media in turn are interdependent on all this money swashing about that is generated by those 4 giants. 2 by historical European success and 2 by Billionaire sponsors.

    Frankly Arsenal just get in the way and are quite honestly a nuisance.

  • Kiran

    First time poster but have read multiple articles on this website.
    What did it for me was Burnley’s Tarkowski last night getting away with a disgraceful challenge in which he did not even win the ball (not even classed as a foul by ref) yet Xhaka who clearly wins the ball against City was red carded. The inconsistencies are astounding to say the least.

  • That inconsistency is laid bare for all to see when you realise that Atkinson was responsible for both decisions. The agenda is real. Dean was 4th official and Friend was VAR. Friend used to be a decent referee, although he seems to have ditched that reputation 7 or 8 years ago. Friend was the referee who was deemed unfit to referee Stoke vs. Tottenham due to his support for Leicester City. It was always highly unlikely that Burnley would receive a red card ahead of a match against Arsenal. Anthony Taylor will referee that game.

    I must say that I have long suspected that Everton are the team on the receiving end of more bad decisions than any club other than Arsenal.

    What is special about Arsenal and Everton? (rhetorical question)

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