The Imperfections within the Beautiful Game: The Referee Dilemma

By Simon White  @SimonWhite14  @TLE_Sport

Brought to light by a series of astonishingly bad decisions in recent weeks, it is hard to refute the fact that the standard of refereeing in the Premier League is dropping.  From sending off the wrong player to Manuel Figueroa not receiving a card for leaving an utterly horrific gash in Stephen Ireland’s leg, it is about time the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) realised things need to change.  Whether it is a sporting decision, or one regarding a player’s safety, the referee needs to be able to make the correct decision nearly every time.  In a big game or not, there should be no difference and it is not until the PGMOL is reformed that the failings of referees can be addressed.

To be clear, after the heat of the moment and pain of injustice, every football fan accepts that match officials are only human and make mistakes.  This leads to the now ever-recurring debate of using technology in football.  It certainly has its uses.  Thanks to the implication of goal-line technology (GLT) in the Premier League, we have not had any repeats of the Lampard v Germany incident in 2010.  There have even been instances this season where it has not only provided justice, but also added to the spectacle of the game.  In QPR’s eventual 3-2 loss at home to Liverpool, Eduardo Vargas’ injury time equaliser was only given due to GLT and helped make for a fascinating finale; when in previous years the goal would not have been given and Liverpool would more than likely have clung on to a 2-1 win over a deflated QPR team.

However the use of technology in the game must be limited.  To review every foul would make the game too slow and take away the excitement of the game we love.  This has worked well in other sports such as cricket, where the Decision Review System (DRS) can only be used to determine whether a batsman is in or out, not for wide ball or catch claims.  If then we believe there is a time and a place for technology, how do we improve the standards of refereeing in instances where it does not apply?

As it stands the PGMOL organisation officiates the Premier League, Football League and various FA run competitions.  It is under this banner that referees in these competitions currently oversee games, either in a part or full-time capacity.  This dichotomy immediately raises questions.

Why are only some referees professional? Does being part-time affect the amount of respect players give a referee?  And are the full-time ones better than those who have other jobs?

This is the reason for poor refereeing.  To accuse the organisational structure of the PGMOL of being the defining factor in whether a referee gets a decision correct or not seems an odd angle to take, but when you look further it is hardly surprising.

The trouble comes when a referee become a member of the “Select Group”, of referees.  When a referee is deemed to have achieved this level of excellence, they are put onto a full-time refereeing contract which places them – inevitably – on a pedestal above their fellow officials.  This entitles them to referee Premier League games.  Whilst we want the best at the highest level, it should not be done by creating an exclusive group.  By placing referees in this group (Currently made up of 18 officials) it becomes harder to drop them after making big errors, as there are not enough people with the appropriate qualifications to replace them.

Roger East who erroneously sent off Wes Brown is a member of this group.  So is Neil Swarbrick who failed to punish Figueroa’s outrageous lunge on Ireland.

Let me once again stress that this is a not a personal attack on these men.  As I have previously stated everyone can, and is allowed, to make mistakes.  The problem lies with the system.

The “Select Group of referees”, should immediately be abolished, allowing all referees from the Premier League and the Football League to become full-time and professional.  In order to achieve this, referees should not be employed by the PGMOL, but employed by the Football Association.  The FA could then hand out contracts, very similar to those that players themselves sign when joining a club.  This way the FA can choose how long to employ a referee based on their previous performances, how much to pay them, and by training every day as a full-time professional, the referees can hold themselves to their highest possible standards – like players!

Indeed making the officials more like footballers should make them command more respect from professional players across the leagues.  By increasing the standards below the Premier League, those at the top would then know they had to be the best to stay at the highest level, rather than be somewhat protected by their “Select Group” status.

I would argue an increase in referee wages would help with this issue too.  It was only last year that shadow chancellor Ed Balls said Wayne Rooney was worth his £300,000 a week because he is the only person capable of doing what he does.  Whilst that figure is undoubtedly too much, whatever your politics, it follows that doing the same for match officials would improve standards.  Reward the best and the best will strive for the top.

By employing referees this way, poor performances can be dealt with as referees can be dropped just like players. Those who show themselves not to be of the required standard can then not have their contracts renewed (or in extreme cases terminated), paving the way for new talent to rise through the ranks.

Players are the main attraction to any football match, and they always should be.  But by taking top referees from a place of security into a true meritocracy, we can improve standards across the game.  PGMOL need not be disbanded, but changed to focus more on the fantastic work they do coaching referees along the breadth of English football.

Technology has its place in key decisions, but to use it on everything would destroy the drama of football.  The entire professional game should have entirely professional match officials.  Referees, third and fourth officials should all be trained suitably to do their jobs as people are in any other industry.  There is no doubt that, if more referees had the chance to officiate the big games, make a good living from it and be in a position to earn the respect of fellow professionals, standards would improve across the board.

This will not eradicate bad decisions and nothing ever will.  But it will reduce blots on the beautiful game, meaning supporters can get back to enjoying the spectacle of football.  By putting referees in the spotlight today, we can take them out of it tomorrow.

Simon is a freelance sports writer.  Visit his blog and follow him on twitter @SimonWhite14

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