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  • Writer's picturePaul Struthers

Football officiating - 10 ways to help resolve the current crisis

It takes a certain type of person to want to be a referee. The snarks will say it's someone who can't play football and wants to be the centre of attention. If a referee makes a decision they disagree with, whether through ignorance of the Laws of the Game or because of a genuine mistake, all too often you'll hear "the referee ruined the game" or "the referee made it all about them".

Those that do it know that it's challenging and pushes you out of your comfort zone; develops your skills in all sorts of areas that you can use in other aspects of your life (and vice versa); teaches you a lot about yourself; keeps you involved in a sport you may be too old to play; develops confidence and allows younger people the opportunity to progress to a level their footballing ability doesn't allow.

At it's best it's thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding. The last thing I want is to issue a caution or send someone off - or 'making it all about me' as some say. I want it all to be about the boys and girls playing the game and to play what role you can in making it a positive experience for coaches, players and spectators.

What we tend to see now - and unfortunately what too many referees have to experience - is the negative side. All too often refereeing and VAR drama seems now to take priority over the actual football. Last weekend, Brighton supporters were up in arms about the officiating of the Spurs/Brighton match and then there was elbowgate from an otherwise pulsating Liverpool/Arsenal game. Handballs were the dominating theme from this weekend's Premier League games. Social media (or certainly the algorithm on my For You feed) is awash with criticism of referees at all levels (for the sake of balance, interspersed with praise for officials from some grassroots clubs).

This post isn't about the rights and wrongs of any decisions. Brighton fans and journalists were certainly justified in feeling aggrieved about some of them, but entirely unjustified in relation to some other decisions. For example, they clearly don't know understand the handball laws, for example, and then like most fans cannot accept that a handball decision called in good faith wasn't overturned by VAR because replays were inconclusive, complaining that a bar that was previously too low was now set to high.

It also isn't about whether or not Constantine Hatzidakis intentionally elbowed Andrew Robertson in the face. The FA have investigated and concluded the same as me, that he was simply trying to shrug Robertson off him and accidentally caught Robertson as a result, an incident which in turn stemmed from Robertson touching or grabbing the Assistant Referee by the arm.

The vitriol and frustration aimed at referees on social media is out of control. An element of it is part and parcel of modern day life in the public eye, and some of the frustration is

understandable. Some of the opinions

expressed though are plainly ignorant of the Laws of the Game, and regularly come from managers and coaches of teams, like the one embedded below.

I understand allegiance can blind you to reason, but the Red Card for Serious Foul Play is entirely understandable from a perfectly positioned referee, and the second incident, which on the surface "looks" worse because of the reaction of the player who's fouled, but it is a far less dangerous challenge and looks like a Yellow Card all day long.

In any event, should a manger be able to comment publicly like this? Personally I don't think so as it adds to the division, shows a complete lack of respect and in this particular case goes further and calls into question the referee's integrity.

I know it's something I keep harping on about, but public criticism of referees by team officials or players simply wouldn't be tolerated in rugby and would lead to disciplinary action, as Exeter's Jack Nowell has recently found out.

What is particularly frustrating about this example on the left is that whilst I understand that the foul by the centre half in the second clip LOOKS worse, it is actually a far less dangerous challenge than the second one, for which a Red Card for serious foul play appears entirely justifiable:

"Serious foul play

A tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality must be sanctioned as serious foul play.

Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force or endangers the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play."

At the same time, we also have referees on social media fighting back, sometimes politely trying to explain decisions and at other times going back almost as hard as the original posters. The former approach makes sense and I'd always advocate taking the high road, but I understand the latter approach even if I cannot help but feel it can be counterproductive at times and only serves to exacerbate the them and us attitude.

I'm liable to take what goes on on social media with a pinch of salt, but it is apparent on the pitch and in the TV studios that there is an increasingly divisive relationship and narrative between referees and players, and the chasm between players (and fans) and officials grows ever wider. All the social media impressions and driven engagement in the world is not worth this.

Being a match day official, whether at the highest level or, like me, at the lowest level, has never been more challenging. The professional game is quicker and more skilful than its ever been. Gamesmanship or outright cheating is now an accepted part of the game. Almost every match is covered by countless cameras capturing and replaying every incident in slow-motion from every conceivable angle.

At the lower levels, we're asked to officiate without the guaranteed safety that television coverage brings. We rarely have the benefit of neutral Assistant Referees, have to make subjective calls the whole time and will make honest mistakes in the same way the players on the pitch will.

The worst I've experienced personally is low level disagreement that a verbal warning deals with, a reluctance to shake hands at the end of the game and then a poor mark for my performance, and fortunately that's only happened once. However, I have witnessed young, inexperienced referees have to deal with completely inappropriate levels of dissent or criticism, there is regular protest and dissent that goes unpunished beamed into our homes, and there are plenty of examples on social media of referees being abused, threatened and even assaulted.

None of this is a new phenomenon but be in no doubt that it is getting worse and is only only going to get worse still, and it isn't unique to the UK either, with reports today suggesting La Liga referees are considering strike action. The situation is entirely unsustainable there needs to be significant change and soon.

There are those who say the standard of officiating is worse than ever and referees shouldn't be above criticism. I don't agree with the former at all - the issue is as the coverage of football has improved the dissection of subjective decisions taken in a split second is far easier - we can see when a referee has got something wrong. But since when has it been remotely realistic to expect perfection?

Why are referees the only ones on the pitch expected to be perfect?

As for criticising referees, I don't believe they should be above criticism at all. Any referee at any level worth his or her salt criticise their own performance afterwards. Personally, I welcome and encourage constructive feedback after a game and will admit and take ownership of when I might have erred or been poorly positioned to make a decision. However, the crucial element that's currently missing is respecting the officials and their decisions, and when it's happening week in and week out at elite level it becomes the accepted norm at all levels of the game.

The good news is that these issues can be fixed. Change is always easier said than done - especially for a sport with an international governing body in FIFA and IFAB where change can easily be stymied or blocked - but where there's a will there's a way. And, let's face it, despite the FA saying the right things the will hasn't been there.

So here's my 10 point plan to get the situation fixed quickly.

1. First things first, the FA, PGMOL, FIFA, IFAB and all national associations need to get genuinely serious about harassment and treatment of professional referees by players and managers. This starts with an unequivocal, public acceptance that the status quo is not acceptable and commitment that they will act. Well meaning Respect campaigns are all well and good and have a place but are an ultimately ineffective way of trying to show that they're doing something without actually doing anything. The Laws that already exist need to be enforced more consistently, because not doing so makes it harder for lower level referees to set a higher standard, which is effectively what we're asked to do.

2. The Laws need to be enhanced as a matter of urgency and ahead of the 2023/24 season. I spoke earlier about rugby and still believe football can implement much of what rugby does. Only allow Captains to approach the referee and set clear guidance how that approach needs to be made (eg respectfully, in a controlled manner etc). All other unwarranted approaches should be sanctioned. I wouldn't be at all averse to implementing temporary dismissals in the professional game for dissent either, and whatever happened to the trial of moving free kicks ten yards closer to goal?

They might have made a horlicks of the initial tackle heigh announcement, but the below document from the RFU is excellent and makes an excellent starting point to consider what is unacceptable, It is sadly notable that what would constitute a red card offence for dissent in rugby is likely to only incur a yellow card caution in football, and is so frequent at so many levels of the game that it is language that is currently unlikely to lead to any sanction at all in many cases.

MOA Guidance
Download PDF • 238KB

3. Lead the horse to water when it comes to increasing understanding of the Laws of the Game and make a concerted effort, in conjunction with enhancements to the Laws of the Game, to educate professional players on the impact their behaviour has on the lower levels and how they can be partners in brining about change.

Coaches, managers & players at all levels should be required to complete a Laws of the Game module every year. Media should be strongly encouraged to do so as well and this could even be enforced for those media accredited on an annual basis. I accept this is not fool proof, as I am regularly checking the IFAB Laws of the Game app to check certain Laws and what to do in certain situations, but anything that can aid understanding and reduce uninformed comment can only help.

4. The VAR protocol needs to be amended and improved and distributed far and wide to ensure when it will be used and what far is clear and understood. Give the referee’s mic feed to broadcasters and allow it to be broadcast as they do in rugby - as this clip from France on Amazon Prime shows it can make a huge positive difference to how referees are perceived. At the very least, VAR discussions should be broadcast and replays shown in stadia.

5. Clear, enforceable guidance of what is acceptable and what isn't in terms of post-match comments in interviews and by players/club officials on social media should be created and rigorously enforced.

6. On the subject of social media, as I mentioned in a previous post I still believe a lot more use of social media to explain decisions and Laws would help increase understanding and respect.

7. I readily accept that referees (myself most certainly included) will make mistakes and that not every referee is good, for a variety of reasons - confidence (especially for young and/or recently qualified referees), inexperience, fitness, poor communication skills and attitude can all play a role.

To improve performance, referees at all levels should have to undertake mandatory CPD and be given more proactive assistance than they currently are, especially young referees. At the moment, once you’ve done your course you're left on your own unless you choose to attend the CPD days offered, ask for a mentor or unless you want to move up through the ranks and need to be observed for promotion.

This would undoubtedly require more investment from the FA - the refereeing team at Wiltshire FA, particularly Ella Broad (Wilts FA's Football Development Officer and an Assistant Referee in WSL) is excellent, for example. They are proactive and incredibly responsive, but I know their resources are limited. Give them the resources they need.

8. Talking of promotion, the FA operates 13 refereeing levels, starting at Trainee (post-completing your course and until refereeing five matches) all the way through to Select Group 1, made of of those who can referee in the Premier League.

There is active encouragement to try to progress through the levels, and the higher up you go the better standard of football you can officiate in. I'm a Level 7 - the lowest there is outside of the two Youth levels (the Youth referring to the age of the referee). I'd be keen to go for 'promotion' to Level 6, which requires that you've officiated 25 games in which offside was in operation. I've done that but another requirement is that at least 10 of those games must be in adult football.

I have zero interest in refereeing adult football and therefore will remain stuck on Level 7, with my development left entirely to myself. This makes no sense and having at least some form of progression for those that officiate at youth level only can only serve to upskill and improve individuals and enhance the standard of refereeing, which is good for everyone involved.

9. Referees should be encouraged to brief TEAMS before matches, not just captains and managers/coaches. On my course with Wiltshire FA we were actively encouraged to try to build up a rapport and set the tone with teams beforehand and certain aspects of the importance of your own behaviour, appearance and body language from the moment you arrive at the ground were definitely a point of emphasis.

However, since starting refereeing, I’ve seen a general vibe on referee forums that speaking to players is a waste of time as they can’t behave themselves. This is patently not true - the vast majority can and do - and simply indicative of a wider breakdown in trust both ways. Treat them as adults and partners equally responsible as the officials for managing the game. Treat them as a necessary evil to be tolerated and it only serves to reinforce a "them and us" attitude.

10. Last but not least, local FA’s should be made to publish all findings against players, officials and clubs. At the moment this doesn't happen and thus whilst someone may be suspended or have been fined, there is no public record and the deterrent effect is entirely absent.

I'm sure there are many more initiatives or changes that could help. Do you have any thoughts on these ideas, or have any ideas of your own? If so, please do share your comments below.

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4 Kommentare

19. Apr. 2023

Great blog! Standing about 5 metres behind the ref at a National league Match recently, I experienced, up close and personal the unbelievably aggressive, intimidation and abuse referees encounter, in this case from three players. It was unsettling for me to see this anger, we are normally far removed when watching on TV or in a Premiership Stand. Change is def needed.

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Paul Struthers
Paul Struthers
20. Apr. 2023
Antwort an

Thank you and I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's one of the reasons I advocate for giving the ref mic feed to broadcasters, as I believe most would be shocked and it would - along with a raft of other initiatives - help bring about change.

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18. Apr. 2023

Great blog and totally agree with your balanced assesment of the current plights for new and experience referees.

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Paul Struthers
Paul Struthers
20. Apr. 2023
Antwort an

That's very kind, thank you for taking the time to read it.

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