By Tony Attwood
There was an article in the Sun recently (yes I know) which had the headline
Premier League referees struggling because chief Mike Riley and those in charge NOT giving proper coaching or education
“We’ve got personnel in place that have never refereed at the top level trying to coach officials on how to manage Prem games.
“The training of VAR needs to be seriously improved as well because we are seeing huge inconsistencies in reviewing incidents.”
Later in the piece, he says, “The PGMOL does not know how to manage their dressing room and I know that because I am still in contact with some officials. They don’t have assessors at games monitoring the officials anymore, there is just an evaluation system so they don’t get that face-to-face feedback in the dressing room like we used to…
“It comes back to leadership from Riley and his management team because referee standards have declined since Keith Hackett’s exit.”
So the argument is that the management of PGMO is simply not very good, referees are not being trained properly, and the correct procedures are not being introduced.
It is a viable argument, and indeed it is excellent to see a newspaper taking on the issue of the quality of refereeing in the Premier League, rather than just parroting the old line about the Premier League being the best league in the world and so having the best referees in the world.
But there is a problem because there are other issues besides the training of referees which need to be taken into account. Let me try and outline a few of them.
1: Lack of oversight of PGMO
As we have so often said, no one oversees PGMO to make sure it is running itself in a fair and reasonable way. Arsenal can get the same referee over and over again – when self-evidently if each club never had any single referee more than twice in a season, even if there were any rotten apples in the refereeing barrel their effect on individual teams would be limited.
Very few organisations in Britain have this sort of freedom to do what they want without supervision, but referees can do. The only thing international football can do to express its disapproval of English referees is to refuse to appoint them to big events, as with the last World Cup.
2: Unwillingness of the media in general to consider that there might be anything wrong
The piece in the Sun noted above is special because it is so unusual. But unfortunately, it didn’t take us any further forward in terms of having an independent regulator of refereeing in the Premier League. That won’t happen until the whole of Premier League and Championship football stands up to PGMO and says, “someone needs to be monitoring what you do”.
3. The media deliberately ignore the issues that plague football.
Uefa’s revelations about the growth of match fixing and its statement that the Association does not have the resources to counter it, was ignored by the English media – although it was not ignored in the rest of Europe.
There are of course two possible reasons for this. One is that the editors believe no one is interested in refereeing (which is hard to sustain as an argument when players and fans so regularly argue with refereeing decisions). The other is that the media has agreed formally or informally not to take on refereeing stories.
This is not to suggest a conspiracy but rather to reflect the common agreement that there is between much of the media over what is, and what is not, a story. A rich white man’s house in Berkshire is broken into and robbed and his wife is assaulted – story. A poor black family in Greenwich has their house broken into and robbed, and the family assaulted – no story.
4. Examination of the psychological bias issue
All decision making is prone to psychological bias. The word goes around that Leeds are a dirty team and need to be shown who’s boss from kickoff by the referee, and so they are penalised at every turn. Liverpool and West Ham are said to be managed by gentlemen who ensure their teams don’t engage in nasty underhand tactics. They get different treatment.
But just look at this table, which is derived from the official figures.
|Club||Tackles per foul||Tackles per yellow||Fouls per yellow|
So although West Ham and Leeds tackle about the same amount before committing a foul, West Ham can deliver just on twice as many tackles as Leeds before getting a yellow. OK, you might say, that is because when Leeds players tackle they are butchers. And Leeds fouls are almost twice as likely to get a yellow as West Ham fouls. Ah well, you say, that proves it.
Now I am not a Leeds fan as you surely must know, but I’ve watched Leeds in person twice this season, specifically looking at the fouls, and I sure didn’t see that their tackles were twice as nasty as West Ham’s (who I have also watched). Nor did I find this when I watched them on TV, doing nothing but specifically looking at the tackles and fouls.
I cannot say “this is ref bias pure and simple” nor can I say it is “subconscious bias”. But that looks to me like bias is the most likely explanation. If there is another explanation, why doesn’t someone come forth and make it?
But because we have no independent regulator of refereeing, nothing is investigated. Maybe I am wrong and Leeds are twice as dirty as West Ham – at least if there was a regulator it could be examined. If you are a regular reader you’ll know I have no axe to grind on behalf of Leeds, and maybe these figures are somehow justified, but we never even have them justified because the media will not recognise that there is an issue.
And when the whole of the media – newspapers, radio, TV – all move in one direction by refusing to recognise an issue: I smell a revolting rat.
So thank you Mark Halsey for opening this can of worms. But please please please don’t stop there. Let’s go forward and work out what is going on and why. Given that clubs are not being treated equally, it can’t just be a lack of referee education. So please keep going, for if anyone can explain things, it is probably you.