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Looking at the big picture - Part one - Refereeing and the challenges that come with it

In the first part of a multi-part series, we look at refereeing in the Premier League, and the challenges that exist.

Manchester United’s defenders held the Chelsea players, but weren’t called for fouls

A poll carried out by BBC Sport earlier this month asked Premier League fans from around the globe whether they feel the standard of refereeing had declined since the previous season. The result of the poll saw 67.5% agree that Premier League referees are performing worse that last season. But why?

The standout issue which has been the cause of most controversial refereeing decisions over the last few years is the clarity of the rulebook. Rules that are not clearly defined; but instead rely on individual judgement in a short period of time.

An example of a rule that has not yet been defined by the FA is contact inside the penalty area, a subject that was a major talking point earlier on this season. The fixture between Manchester United and Chelsea in October saw referee Phil Dowd refuse to award Chelsea a penalty after clear obstruction from United’s defenders. However, in the previous week, we saw a penalty awarded by Michael Oliver against Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross for shirt-pulling inside the penalty area when there appeared to be very limited contact.

Former referee Howard Webb told Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football panel in November:

“Football’s a contact sport and we allow contact. It’s trying to define what’s legal contact and what’s not legal contact. At the moment we’re in a consultation period… with a view to giving out some clear guidance with what we consider to be legal and illegal contact. Even when we give the guidelines out… there are going to be occasions when referees don’t see everything.”

Howard Webb talks about what the thought process is when a referee makes any decision

Simulation has made the referee’s job tougher

Not only have certain rules not yet been clearly defined by the FA, which makes decision making inconsistent, but officials also have to detect simulation on a regular basis, making it even harder for them to give the correct decision.

With the Premier League being so fast-paced, officials need to be able to keep up with the play and get into positions where they can see any potential incidents that may occur, particularly ‘diving’. Simulation (diving) is becoming more and more apparent in the Premier League, but that does not mean that every player who dives is cheating or trying to gain an advantage.

Gary Neville made a very valid point a few seasons ago that just because players go down with little or no contact, they are not always cheating but are instead anticipating a challenge and are reacting in a way that prevents a collision – to protect themselves.

However, throughout this season we have seen players yellow-carded for simulation despite clear evidence that showed that there was contact with the player. Most notably Chelsea’s Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, against Burnley and Southampton respectively and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, also against Southampton.

An argument that followed is that a referee’s decision-making process is determined by player reputation rather than the incident itself, a claim that the Referees’ Association has since quashed.

Aguero was booked for simulation, even though there was contact

Nothing frustrates a good old-fashioned football fan more than when a pundit or fellow fan comes out and says ‘there was contact, so it must be a foul’. Have they forgotten football is indeed a contact sport? Players are allowed to touch, they are allowed to collide. 

We witness penalties being awarded each week for the tiniest of touches on a player’s foot. Is that really enough to deem it a foul? If referees keep awarding penalties just because the defender touched his opponent then soon enough tackling will not exist, and as a consequence, football will not exist.

But it’s not necessarily the referee’s fault. There are so many factors that a referee must be aware of in every single second that passes in a football match. The last thing a referee needs is a player to then try and gain an advantage by diving. What can be done to help the referees out with diving? Here are a few suggestions:

Two referees on the pitch

Firstly, a second referee could be added so one official occupies each half. This would lighten the demand of keeping up with play across the entire pitch and would add another set of eyes and perspective to help lower the chances of a player wanting to dive, thinking they can con the referee.

Although this could easily work, the problem is that we will still have the same issue of individual judgement in real-time. This means that we could have one hundred referees on the pitch, but it still wouldn’t help spotting the smallest of dives or the softest handball.

Retrospective action for divers and referees

A better alternative would be retrospective action for divers and referees alike. If a player is found guilty of diving, then they should receive a ban, not a fine as money means nothing to most of these Premier League stars but a strict ban from matches as punishment for cheating.

Players looking to con the referee are making their task harder

Referees these days are getting away with poor performances, despite having a difficult job. In any other industry in the world, if you perform your job to a consistently poor standard, you get sacked, or at the very least punished in some form. This isn’t always the case with referees.

It’s as if a referee’s judgement isn’t based on a situation these days, but who goes down and starts rolling around the quickest.

Just watch your very next football match and I guarantee that if there is a 50/50 tackle, the player who goes down injured will always come away with a free-kick because the referees rely heavily on the reaction to an incident rather than actually judging the incident itself. Whether this is because the game is too fast for them or if there is some other explanation, who knows, but something must be done.

Constructive criticism the way forward

Why don’t we allow a referee to give an interview after the game, explaining why they made the decisions they did? This would allow everyone involved in the sport to see the match from their perspective and who knows, we may even feel sympathy for them… it would be a step further along the line to help them carry out their job to a good standard.

Referees
Referees have come under a lot of criticism when their decisions have been wrong

How about creating a panel of former referees, managers and players alike who review performances of the referees each week? This would offer up everyone’s perspective of the game and they can discuss the major incidents of the weekend. If there is a general pattern of poor officiating on a consistent basis, then this referee must be warned and maybe even dropped/ suspended for poor performance.

There is currently already a referee panel in place behind closed doors with Dermot Gallagher also giving weekly interviews on Sky Sports News critically analysing the week’s big refereeing decisions, but being former referees themselves, it is likely that they will tend to back the official. With players and managers involved it would offer far better balance and perspective to the discussions.

Whatever the outcome, measures have to be taken soon before football starts to lose its identity. Referees are fast becoming the culprit and football their victim.

Join us next time where we will continue discussing how to improve refereeing, but this time through the use of technology and how it can have a positive impact on the backwards nature of football.

This article has been contributed by a member of the SK Featured Bloggers Club. It was originally published on the ‘Crazy About EPL’ blog here: The Bigger Picture: Part One –  Referees.

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