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Refereeing: The Impossible Job

Leyton Orient’s Leon McSweeney discusses one of the most contentious aspects of modern football; refereeing.

Refereeing in football must be one of the most thankless jobs in sport. Every decision made simply cannot please everybody. Undoubtedly, they will always be open to criticism, either fairly or unfairly by some quarters, be it from players, managers, spectators or pundits. In the modern game of football, where the blame mentality flourishes, is such focus and criticism on an individual justifiable and indeed, how can it be curtailed?

Referees, believe it or not, are human, therefore are prone to human error just like the rest of us. They have decisions to make in a split second and on one viewing without the luxury of video replays so is there any surprise that mistakes are made? I guess what angers players, managers and fans alike is the lack of consistency amongst refereeing decisions and this is merely a grievance dependent on the individuality and character of the referee. Some referees might see one tackle as a yellow card, some a red card and some might even wave play on and see no foul. It really is an individual decision and revolves around personal interpretation so what possible solutions is there to achieve a desired level of consistency?

Unrealistically and in an ideal world, one referee could referee every game which would unquestionably lead to an improvement in the consistency of decision-making but on a serious note and robotic refereeing aside, the fact is referees need help. Football, as we all know, is a results based industry and there is an undoubted relationship between decision-making and the determining of results, success and more importantly defining people’s careers. Goal line technology, I think we all agree, is a necessity, but where do we draw the line? Do we want the speed and excitement of association football to be stripped, and instead follow the example set by rugby and introduce a video referee where managers can contest the award of every decision such as throw ins, corners, offsides, goal kicks and free kicks. It is, indeed, a very fine line we must walk when trying to improve the game we all love and not transform it into a stop-start contest like that of American football, but when so much is decided by the blow of a whistle what other viable options are there?

Perhaps the feasibility of this technology in the football league is far stretched as obvious cost would prove a decisive factor, but in the money dominated world of elite and international football, and the Premiership in particular, there really is no excuse for its continued absence. I, for one, believe there to be a simpler, more cost-effective way to achieve an improvement in refereeing consistency. I believe it to be a solution for minimising the bugbears that get players, managers and spectators shaking in frustration. What I’m championing, is the promotion of a more attractive avenue in the recruitment of former players as referees. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that this would solve every failing of the current refereeing system and lead to harmony on the pitch and in the stands, but who better to a referee a game of football than a person that has played at a professional level all his or her life? Being engulfed in the world of football from an early age, like most players are, undeniably trains a player’s mind, both consciously and unconsciously, to see the things that a non-player might unknowingly overlook.

Players, better than anyone, know the tricks of the trade either through use or experience. Professional footballers see refereeing instances day in and day out in training and, throughout a career, there is a strong probability that a player will see every type of tackle, tussle, foul and dive at least once, therefore it stands to reason they are surely better equipped to differentiate between what is a dive and what is a genuine foul. Likewise, they can quickly categorise a genuine attempt to win the ball and one that purposely endangers safety, who requires immediate on-field attention and who is simply staying down to time waste.

In a specialised industry such as football, why are the participation rates of former footballers in refereeing programmes so low? If you look at the statistics of managers, both past and present, then there is a huge mountain of evidence to suggest that former players make the most competent managers. Obviously, there will always be outstanding exceptions to this such as the Wengers’ and Mourinhos’ , but overall, the vast majority of managers in employment in the football league and Premiership have played the game at some point at a professional level. The reason for this, I presume, is that chairmen and owners of clubs believe the best people to work with and organise a group of footballers is a footballer. This makes sense doesn’t it? On a similar note, the best goalkeeping coaches are usually former goalkeepers, and if you’re going to employ a striker coach then it makes sense to employ someone with an offensive background as oppose to a defensive one, so why, therefore, are we not encouraging and fast tracking former professionals with an inside knowledge of the game to train as referees?

Admittedly, refereeing might not be everyone’s cup of tea and I’m sure there are plenty of arguments for and against, but I’d imagine the strongest opposition from a fans perspective to an ex-professional becoming a referee is the claim that one might have unfair allegiances to certain clubs. However, this could also be said of any current referee so in my opinion is a weak line of reasoning. I believe the true reason for a lack of  participation by former players in the refereeing industry centres around the time it takes to reach a professional level. From my point of view, I think refereeing would be a great way of staying within the game upon retirement but what puts me off is the fact that I would have to start at the bottom rung of the ladder and referee at a Sunday league level, then work my way up which could take up to four years. Factor in the inconvenience that, whilst still playing, it would be impossible to referee a game on a saturday due to playing commitments and you can see the dilemma in all its glory. You may say that this statement is arrogant on my part to expect a certain special treatment and be fast tracked through the grassroots stages but my argument is, if ex players can jump straight into the rigours of management without the pre requisite of starting at a Sunday league level then why shouldn’t they in the quest to become a referee? After all, who could possibly be better equipped to know the rules of football than that of a former footballer?

The task of a referee is undeniably made harder by media scrutiny. Referees are, along with their assistants, easy targets for the blame culture which exists within the industry of professional football but it is this human error, however frustrating, which adds to the excitement and uncertainty of football. Without it, the game would be somewhat predictable and without controversy. Errors of judgement, both in the performances of players and referees, heighten the excitement of the game we all love, and seeing that every goal can ultimately be traced back to a mistake or error of judgement, regardless how small, then it’s imperative we don’t tinker too much with the formula already in place. Referees, like players and everyone else, have their off days but with the right assistance and guidance from their superiors, they can expectantly limit their involvement in negative sporting headlines and go about their job efficiently and unnoticed like the majority would prefer.

Sport Is Everything. Leon McSweeney.

You can read more of Leon’s articles via his personal blog, SweeneyMc83′s Blog.You can also follow him on Twitter via @LeonMcSweeney.

About Leon McSweeney

Leon McSweeney
Leon McSweeney is a former professional footballer. He has been involved in elite football since 2001 having previously played for Cork City, Stockport County and Hartlepool United amongst others. He's an FAI Cup winner and League 2 Play-Off winner. You can read more of Leon's articles via his personal blog, SweeneyMc83's Blog.You can also follow him on Twitter via @LeonMcSweeney.