By Tony Attwood
The story that something in football is corrupt is an easy one to write and an easy one to dismiss. One simply picks on a set of circumstances that look unlikely or too coincidental to be real and say, “this couldn’t happen naturally – something untoward is going on.”
The problem is that proof is hard to come by – unless there is a whistleblower somewhere, and that doesn’t always happen.
We do know certain things for sure, like the head of Fifa suddenly leaving Switzerland just as he was being investigated for serious corruption alongside the head of the Swiss legal services.
And when it comes down to referees it is easy to suggest that certain decisions were wrong, and therefore there is bias. But that’s still not proof.
Except, this where the story in the Telegraph comes in. The headline is “Exclusive: Premier League facing shortfall of experienced referees as Kevin Friend steps down”
If are a regular follower of my commentaries on PGMO, the body that runs refereeing in the Premier League, you will know that one of the key criticisms has been that there are too few referees. My point is that by concentrating a lot of matches in the hands of a small number of referees, if there is corruption, or indeed even unconscious bias among a few, then this will have a bigger influence on the league as a whole.
If on the other hand each referee only oversaw each PL team only twice in a season, there might still be bias but its effect would be minimised.
This of course could be dismissed as unnecessarily expensive as it would mean employing many more referees, especially as there is no evidence of anything being wrong. Except that the pandemic gave us more evidence since during the pandemic the level of away wins rose dramatically when stadia were empty.
Detailed research by referees and academics showed that the cause was the influence of the crowd on referees. But this finding wasn’t new – for in the scholarly article The influence of crowd noise and experience upon refereeing decisions in football which appeared in the learned journal “The Psychology of Sport and Exercise” way back in 2002, it is concluded that “The existence of the home advantage in sport is well known. There is growing evidence that crowd noise plays a crucial part in this phenomenon.”
That’s bad enough, but as we have noted before, this last season’s results show that some referees are being influenced by home crowds and some not. Figures from WhoScored show us that Moss oversaw 25 games and in over two thirds of these there was a home win, while Marriner oversaw 19 games and only a quarter were home wins. It is a huge difference.
It is not proof of conscious or unconscious bias, but we can say that such a difference in percentages is so incredibly unlikely that it is worth investigating. And given all the surrounding data now gathered, the finger is not pointing at any cause other than the referees.
Thus all we are saying is that it would seem from those figures very likely that the result of many PL matches depends on which referee a club gets.
And from that simple point springs the big issue: why is this not being debated in the media?
One reason could be that it is because the journalists are so swamped by the refreshments and services given to them by clubs at matches that they don’t notice, or perhaps they are so lazy they never bother to read any background research on the subject they write about.
A third reason could be that they are not bright enough to understand the maths involved.
A fourth reason might be that they are far too busy to be checking actual facts and details. After all, we know that 97% of the transfer rumours they write about each summer are untrue so maybe the culture in football journalism is to print anything and check nothing.
Or a fifth reason might be that PGMO has asked or even insisted that the story is not covered because they know how bad it looks in terms of referee credibility and the fairness of the whole system. PGMO could do this because it could easily put pressure on clubs to refuse entry to media commentators who were critical of referees. Certainly, we know of the pressure put on BBC commentator Alan Green who was Sony Radio Academy Award for Sports Broadcaster of the Year until he was suddenly completely dropped after being critical of referees.
And a sixth reason might be that they have decided their readers are either not interested in the story, or are too lacking in intellect to be able to follow it.
It could be any of those – or maybe even several, but there certainly is a reason because unexpected statistics like those we have found in PL refereeing do not ever happen, year after year, by chance. The facts are quite simple: there is now massive research showing that crowds influence referees, and the games behind closed doors and the statistics since show that some referees have fought to overcome this but others not.
As a result there are three stories:
- Crowds influence some referees, which should not happen, but does.
- Which referee oversees a game is a significant factor in the subsequent result
- The media will not touch the issue.
Which leads to the fourth story – perhaps the biggest of them all: why is this situation continuing and why won’t the media mention it at all?
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