Referees. Who would be one? Anyone who saw my attempts in the 1994 and 1995 Newcastle University Intramural Leagues would certainly say not me. At any level it can be a tough gig, there is no doubt about that. However, as stakes rise and the top flight games become ever more important for a number of reasons iit seems to me like managers, players, pundits and fans alike are questioning referees and refereeing standards with increasing frequency.
The recent agreement by FIFA to experiment with Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) seems on the face of it to be a move in the right direction. As relegation and promotion becomes increasingly financially lucrative or destructive we must see more correct decisions being made on a more consistent and regular basis. Imagine being the side relegated on the last day of the season by a dodgy goal, or denied promotion to the cash rich top flight by a decision that was wholly and plainly wrong.
As I have said, refereeing is not easy. Sat in a studio or at home in the aftermath you get multiple views at different angles and varying speeds. Stills and virtual imaging that can often show categorically that the ball was over the line,or not,for example. The ref gets one look at it.
One chance. At full speed, often with bodies in the way and, it appears, every increasingly without any sort of real support from their linesmen, who seem scared to commit to a decision of any kind all too often. This is where VAR can be a literal game changer.
There has of course been resistance to the introduction of VAR and one argument is that it can’t be used at all levels of the game which, thereby breaking the original tenant laid down by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) who make the laws of the game. However I think the IFAB are right ot look at it given the seeing crisis in refereeing at the very top flight.
Ultimately what do we want? Consistency. Put it another way I don’t mind a referee being a bad one. As long as he is consistently bad and both sides are playing to a level field. It’s when they seem utterly inconsistent, that’s when there is a problem. Then there is the issue of inconsistency between referees. What one referee will give as a foul another may not, and so on. We need to improve not only accuracy but consistency, across the board.
Time and again when you end up talking about a referee, chances are it is because he’s been at the centre of a controversy or an incident in the game. The best referees you barely notice. Unlike this odd almost cult of personality that some referees (*looks at Mike Dean*) seem to almost revel in. It isn’t healthy.
Refereeing in the Premiership has gone through significant changes since a group of referees retired and then departed the system altogether and there seems to have been an open civil war broken out between Mike Riley, head of Professional Game Match Officials Limited who govern referees and Mark Halsey, a very outspoken former ref who is highly critical of how the system is bringing referees through and training them.
Having had the pleasure to speak to Mark Halsey on the radio show I co-host in the UK (ToonTalk Radio www.toontalk.co.uk) last season he certainly has passionate views about this and makes some very convincing points based on his experience. The recent revelations about Mark Clattenberg openly saying he changed his style for a potential title decider game before departing for a role in Saudi Arabia would back what Mr Halsey feels about the way refereeing in the Premiership is going and makes overall quite depressing reading.
The other thing that irks me often is what accountability these referees have and the punishments they face should they make a mistake? What does being dropped a division say about how they feel about football outside of the top flight? And I can tell you from experience the standards in The Championship are much worse, based on my beloved Newcastle United’s experience there last season where I witnessed three of the worst decisions I have ever seen at ANY level of football.
But I digress. What this all indicates is that it’s about time referees had help and VAR seems to be it. Football is by no means the first sport to head in this direction. From American Football to Cricket, Rugby Union and League to Tennis, many sports have introduced video based technology and more to help officials get the right decision, more of the time. In every case it has taken time, however.
The NFL introduced Replay Review in 1986. As game times increased and fans became frustrated it was altered over time until the latest system which has been relatively unchanged since 1999. It has taken the NFL thirty years to get to this stage and still there are controversies on occasion. Similarly in cricket where DRS has only just been fully adopted by all associations, it is still not perfect, still has its critics and still every series seems to have a session marked by a DRS controversy rather than a stunning batting or bowling display.
That said in all of the sports mentioned statistics show that the accuracy of decision making in has increased. In the case of DRS by around 20%. Impressive. If we are looking for improved accuracy then some sort of video based assistance does indeed seem to be the right way to go.
However the one problem that remains with football is that all of the sports I have used as examples have natural breaks in play where time can be taken to assess, review and communicate between on and off field referees. The free flowing nature of football is such that there isn’t always an opportunity for this to be done and there is a danger that the very nature of the game could be affected.
Certainly what I believe is needed are very hard and fast rules on what is and is not reviewable, where and when these reviews can take place, who initiates them and guarantees that this can be done in a timely and efficient manner as to not to change the nature of football itself.
The early signs are mixed, I think it is fair to say, but we must remain patient and allow the process to happen for VAR to be adopted if this is the way the IFAB think it should go.
So far the IFAB say that in assessing VAR the global statistics show a 98.9% success rate in decision making and that 100% is impossible due to human subjection and perception, which I think mirrors what other sports would say. Alongside VAR I think we also need to see better training and development of referees.
This would address a chronic issue football is facing at all levels in my opinion. Meanwhile the IFAB has also stated they intend to see VAR at the next World Cup and are already in talks with potential sponsors ahead of the tournament.
Yes, it wouldn’t be a FIFA decision without a cash element either would it? Let’s hope, by then this is a system that can enhance refereeing standards and not sponsored mess, causing more issues than it solves.