Something Has To Give, In This “Refereeing Crisis”

by | Feb 8, 2021

If you believed the reaction on social media at times, you could start to believe that the world was ending. The current hyperbole regarding “declining refereeing standards” has come about through a conflation of different circumstances. It would be false to claim that the shrill nature of this debate has come about entirely because of the current pandemic. These borderline conspiracy theories have been consuming sub-sets of football supporters for years, most regularly from supporters of clubs who ordinarily have the scales tipped very much in their favour in the modern game.

There have been complaints about refereeing standards for as long as referees have been refereeing and players have been players. Adding spectators to that mix in the 1860s only made it more volatile. There are several stories of referees being attacked by infuriated supporters and having to hide inside their changing rooms after matches from the game’s Victorian and Edwardian eras. The growth of the media only added to this, and the tightening of football’s relationship with television in the 1960s meant that millions rather than thousands of eyes were watching some matches each weekend. By the end of the decade, Jimmy Hill – admittedly a former professional player, union representative, and manager by this point – was openly questioning whether there’d been a fall in standards on The Big Match.

And over the years since then, it has often felt as though referees were being pushed into an increasingly tight corner. The game has got noticeably quicker in recent years, making it more and more difficult for referees to even be able to keep up with play. Compounding this, players seem increasingly likely to try to game the rules, to cheat, and to make speculative claims for just about any tiny, perceived advantage, while managers are now routinely critical of refereeing performances after matches, even though they themselves are seldom, if ever, held to any degree of account in terms of what they say.

Referees get scant support from the game’s governing bodies, either, and the increasing absurdity of the laws of the game further adds grist to the mill. With handball and offside being what they currently are, referees can occasionally look ridiculous even when they’re giving decisions which are correctly in line with the current interpretation of the laws of the game. The introduction of the video assistant hasn’t really helped, either. VAR’s main effect seems to have been to raise the levels of expectation of supporters to a stratospheric level, which would be problematic even without taking what those expectations are.

Fuelled by players who treat the slightest tap on the ankle as an opportunity to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, managers who are mysteriously never looking when their own teams get things wrong but who are viewing through an electron microscope when the tables are turned, and a mass media that is considerably more interested in stirring the hornet’s nest with ‘outrageous’ hot-takes than offering considered analysis of what they’ve just seen, fans have become an infantry of the swiveled-eyed, keeping their demands at the top of social media trending lists and therefore very much in the public eye.

It’s not really necessary to detail the abuse that referees get on social media, these days. We all know it happens, and the extent of its grotesquery. Over the last couple of weeks or so, calls have started to come both from fans and from clubs themselves for specific referees to not be given their games again in the future. I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of the decisions that have gone against certain teams, here, because to do so in the first place is to completely miss the point.

The bottom line is that we either have to accept human fallibility or different interpretations of individual incidents by different people, or we have to accept that the current levels of exhausting rage currently bellowing their way around social media are perpetual. The counter-argument to all of this is a well-worn path: “All we want is consistency” or “all we want is common sense”, usually depending on which of these two options would better suit our own team following a given incident.

It’s tempting to wonder what might happen, should the patience of Premier League referees run out and they decide to withhold their labour. Their most vehement critics might argue that “we can’t do any worse”, but the experience of a referee’s strike in Scotland a little over ten years ago indicates that this wouldn’t be the case, in the slightest. In 2008, a strike over match fees which threatened the start of the 2008/09 league season was only averted when the Scottish Senior Referees’ Association and the SPL agreed to benchmark SPL referees pay to that of other European leagues. At the time it was acknowledged that this dispute was not only related to pay parity, but also about questions regarding their authority, with the Rangers Communications Director Jim Traynor commenting that referees saw a “need to be protected from chairman and managers who question their honesty and integrity”.

In December of the same year, though, several SPL managers were censured by the SPL and SFA over critical comments made about referees, and the result of this was all SPL managers signing an agreement to stop discussing refereeing decisions after matches. And less than two years later, it flared up again. In October 2010, following an incident during a match between Celtic and Dundee United, it emerged that the referee and assistant had lied to their supervisor and to the Celtic manager Neil Lennon about the decision making process behind that decision being reached. The assistant resigned, and the referee was pushed into retirement by the end of the following month.

The intervening six weeks, though, were chaotic. Following a derby match against Rangers, Celtic wrote to the SFA about the referee concerned, who received death threats from a small number of Celtic supporters. An SNP politician stated that he thought that all referees should have to register who they support. A few days later, the SFA’s Stewart Regan commented that “This whole handling of referees by managers, players and clubs has got to stop.”

This, however, didn’t prevent Hearts from issuing a statement calling for refereeing standards to improve significantly, as well as post match statements from officials explaining the decisions that they’d made during matches. It also suggested that lower standards could be a “cover for bias and match fixing”. On the 21st November the Sunday Mail newspaper published a story claiming that 80% of Category One officials had failed a 30-question written exam on the Laws of the Game, which had been conducted at a Spanish winter training camp the previous February.

On the same day that the Mail published its splash, though, Scottish referees were taking a decision that would blow this story out of the water. At a meeting held that afternoon which followed on from a regular meeting held with the SFA, all thirty-one of the thirty-three Category One referees present at the meeting voted to strike, supported by all ten Category Two officials also present. They were clear on the reasons for this. Former referee Stuart Dougal commented that, “When there is innuendo, and questioning the referee’s integrity, that’s when it becomes unacceptable”. According to reporting in the The Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Mail story was considered by many at the strike meeting to be final straw.

The referees stated that the strike would go ahead regardless of the outcome of talks that had already been scheduled for the following week, but that they would return after that weekend. The SFA, for their part, turned to casual labour. They approached in excess of 25 countries within UEFA for replacement officials, but were turned down by many, including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales. The media reported that the Premier League in England didn’t have anyone available. Eventually, matches would be refereed by officials from Malta, Israel, Portugal and Luxembourg.

However, the Portuguese officials returned home shortly after arriving in Glasgow and the Israeli official,  Eli Hacmon, commented after refereeing the match between Kilmarnock and Aberdeen that no-one had explained to him why the referees were on strike before he travelled to Scotland, and that he would not have travelled, had known he known the reason why the Scottish referees had gone on strike. Only four matches out of twenty took place over the course of the weekend, although inclement weather conditions also played a considerable role. The reaction to it all from managers was mixed, but nothing material seemed to change in Scotland as a result of it all.

Would it be surprising to hear that referees in England might end up taking similar action? Probably not. Furthermore, these are very different times to the autumn of 2010. If referees did choose to take action here, the Premier League would not be able to import replacements from abroad. Would the Premier League chance its arm on the best referees they could find? How would less experienced referees cope with VAR? Even in an empty stadium, the pressure of knowing that millions of people worldwide may be holding their breath on account of your decision must be immense. 

I can’t tell you whether there’s been a decline in the standard of refereeing at the top level of the game in recent years, because the question is too subjective to be able to answer objectively. But here’s what I think; the pace of the game, which has increased hugely in recent years, is leaving referees behind. Should they be reasonably even be expected to keep up with the elite athletes that modern Premier League players have become? I believe that VAR hasn’t helped either, but also that no-one involved in its implementation has covered themselves in glory, either.

It feels as though expectations of every decision being awarded correctly have risen sharply, and that the definition of “correctly” is very much open to interpretation. I don’t believe that anybody in a position to do so – not the clubs, frequently the players, Premier League, the FA, the media or even the fans themselves – lifts a finger to make things easier for them. It feels very much – and has done for years – as though referees are repeatedly used as scapegoats by people who are fully aware that they can do so in order to deflect attention away from their own shortcomings. And I think that industrial action by English referees, in the current climate, would be a considerably more potent as a threat in 2021 than it was when taken by their Scottish counterparts a decade ago.

It was reported this very morning that arguably the highest-profile Premier League referee’s family received death threats over the weekend, and that the referee concerned has requested not to be allocated a match this coming weekend. Why haven’t I mentioned his name? Because it doesn’t matter, just as I haven’t mentioned any of the specific incidents in recent weeks that have caused so much controversy in this entire piece. They don’t matter, either. It is imperative that we remind ourselves that this isn’t normal and that this sort of behaviour must not be normalised, and that the issue here isn’t referees or their performances, but a football culture (we might even extend this to society in a more general sense) that is now at a point of feeling dangerously entitled, narcissistic, and violent, certainly in terms of its language.

It does rather feel as though the only way of arresting this is completely unattainable, though. Within the game, VAR would have to be completely restructured. The laws of the game would have to be rewritten, at least for handball and offside. More than anything else, though, it would require a complete head-shift in attitude from everybody back to being more forgiving of the fallible side of human beings who make mistakes, and that’s where it all starts to look impossible. Football has to ultimately stop taking itself so damn seriously, but Football knows that this will never happen. This, ultimately, is why meaningful change feels so far away, and why any sort of resolution seems so impossible. Blaming everybody but ourselves and our clubs causes more issues than it resolves. Radical action needs to be taken, before somebody gets hurt.

We’ve all had cause to think that the world might be ending over the last twelve months or so, but believe me, refereeing decisions will not be the cause, should it happen.