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Aug 29, 2006

Ref justice

Who'd be a Premiership referee? Not only are you constantly hounded by players and managers complaining at decisions that don't go their way, but you have 20 million people in TV land criticising your performance after every game.

Recently the game's top referees have been put under the spotlight after a collection of high-profile errors started the ball rolling and now every decision they make is put under immense scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly the media are the first to put the boot in when it comes to highlighting a ref's mistakes, just look at Graham Poll's treatment in the press after doling out three yellow cards to the same player at the World Cup. He was vilified for a basic error- and rightly so. A referee should be made accountable when his standards slip, in the same way that a player should be when he gets himself sent off.

But when does the scrutiny end? And how often is a referee praised for his handling of a game?

Considering the pressure they are under each and every week it is very rare to hear of an official having a good game. They can quietly go about their business for 89 minutes and yet will still be hung, drawn and quartered for a dodgy decision in stoppage time.

Players can hide a bad performance behind the fact there are ten team-mates on the pitch with them. The referee has no hiding place and has no choice but to face the criticism alone.

This explains the treatment of Dermot Gallagher this past week, after failing to send Ben Thatcher off for what can only be described as an 'assault' on Portsmouth's Pedro Mendes.

We await with bated breath what kind of punishment is given to the fiery Welshman, who does have 'previous' in this field after a horrific elbow left Sunderland's Nicky Summerbee in a crumpled heap back in 2000, but while Thatcher has been rightly been suspended and fined by his club, Gallagher's ineptitude has also been punished.

Sent on gardening leave, given time to get his head straight or whatever the FA would like to call it, essentially he was told 'that's not good enough - take a break'.

Unfair? Looking at the incident through a TV lens you would think not. There were 26 different cameras on show in the stadium and each one just seems to make the incident look worse. Of course the player deserved a red card, but in the heat of the moment one can also see how an unsighted referee could have made his mistake.

City manager Stuart Pearce, well known for his aggression in the tackle in his playing days, even defended Thatcher at first glance claiming that he had made a genuine attempt for the ball. Naturally, upon seeing what the rest of the nation had witnessed, Pearce immediately revoked his comments and condemned the challenge as 'indefensible'. Gallagher was not afforded that luxury.

A referee only gets that split second to make a decision, and there's no slow motion replay. On top of that they are given the dubious honour of being dubbed one of most hated professions around.

Never worried about a popularity contest, the nature of the job says they're always going to upset somebody and even when they make a good decision the team on the receiving end tends to feel aggrieved.

Unfortunately referees are rarely remembered for the great decisions they make. Even the iconic Italian Pierluigi Collina, who was widely regarded as the best referee in the world, retired soon after Everton's Champions League game against Villarreal in which he was criticised for disallowing a perfectly good goal.

That may not have ultimately been the reason for his retirement, but it showed even the most respected are not free from criticism.

Nearly all of the top referees in the global game have had to deal with constant criticism in a way that is virtually unheard of in other sports. The most notable of these being the Swedish official Anders Frisk who was forced into early retirement after receiving death threats from Chelsea fans after he sent off Didier Drogba in their match against Barcelona in 2005.

Such is the focus on modern a referee's performance, the FA have employed a regulator to make sure referees do their jobs. Keith Hackett, who goes by the title of 'General Manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd' but is better known as the 'referees' chief', is the man charged with this job.

As an ex-official himself, Hackett must differentiate between an erroneous appliance of the laws and a failure (because of bad positioning) to identify a sending-off offence. After last week's Thatcher debacle, followed closely by an appalling stamp from Fulham's Michael Brown on Ryan Giggs which merited only a yellow card, the refs are certainly in need of guidance.

With technology as advanced as it is nowadays, surely it's time to give these whistleblowers some help. As the Thatcher incident proved, referees can't be expected to see everything that is happening on the pitch and should be able to rely more upon their assistants for help. One could argue that all the controversy could have been avoided by the appointment of a proper fourth official.

Not the fourth official who currently acts as a punch-bag for most of the Premiership managers to let off steam and then holds up a big board as his finale, rather one that acts in a similar way to that of cricket's third umpire.

If referees were allowed to refer decisions to an 'eye in the sky', i.e. a fully qualified referee sitting in front of a selection of cameras with a direct microphone link to the on-pitch official, then mistakes like we've seen recently would be dramatically reduced.

Technology like this is only a problem if the referees feel obsolete. Keep the human element, let the official decide what to refer (as they do in cricket) and controversy like we've seen over the past few weeks could be a thing of the past. If nothing else it would help take some of the pressure off the men in black.

What the situation does not need is an overly cautious response like last weekend, resulting in bad penalty decisions and needless red cards. Hackett has a job on his hands to uphold the professionalism and integrity of the officials, while trying to avoid making scapegoats out of them when they do err.

If referees are ever to maintain a high level of consistency and fairness in what must be one of the hardest jobs around then they will need all the help that they can get.


  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter