The “Plight” of the Match Official

It’s the hardest job in the world, I wouldn’t like to be in their position and they only get one look at it. We’ve all heard, and probably repeated, the clichés that surround match officials and they’re all pretty accurate. Is the job incredibly difficult? Yes. Are they under constant public scrutiny? Yes. However, they are so protected by their own superiors that failure and inconsistency is rife and there’s no end in sight.

Let’s start by looking at the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), at the top of the list we have Neale Barry and Mike Riley – these guys, both former referees, are the public face of referees and their assistants. Much like Gordon Taylor at the PFA, the PGMOL seems to publically defend match officials without ever acknowledging any inadequacies that the rest of the world can see. The difference between these two organisations is PGMOL have a duty to improve standards, not just to protect their clients, a duty they fail spectacularly. Perhaps that’s because they spend time and effort announcing that one of their members is leaving to join the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, concentrate on your job rather than acting like someone’s agent. Furthermore, don’t experiment with 4th, 5th and 6th officials and, when the experiment fails, continue with them. It’s very rare that you see one of the officials behind the goal contribute to a decision, worse still it seems they often have the perfect view of an incident and don’t report it.

Each summer Mike Riley, or another PGMOL representative, gives us a list of new initiatives and guidelines that referees are going to follow in an attempt to improve standards. These guidelines are communicated effectively to the public and football clubs, it’s an excellent system that improves many areas – it is only done once a year, pathetic. How many of us sit on a problem at work for 12 months and expect a pat on the back when it’s finally addressed? We’re bored of watching football matches where the same issues are occurring week in week out, it’s totally avoidable.

When you analyse these guidelines, you have to say they help. Offside seems to have a new set of guidelines every summer, Mike Riley will call it a rule “change” but the offside rule hasn’t changed in recent years. Players who attempt to play the ball, therefore attracting attention from the opposition, should be considered offside – no one can say this doesn’t help referees even if they should’ve known that in the first place. This summer it was announced that there would be a clampdown on dissent, no new guidelines were suggested for referees, they were simply told to book a player for dissent instead of completely ignoring the offence. How can we know referees are ignoring a rule and not deal with it until the summer?

I’m not just indiscriminately attacking match officials and their bosses, you’ll be surprised to know that erroneous decisions don’t bother me at all (once I’ve settled myself down) – we all make mistakes. My concern is referees consistently ignoring the rules of the game when they see fit and everyone pretending it doesn’t happen. Reckless tackle in the first 5 minutes? I’ll let you off with that one. Blatant second yellow card offence? I’ll have a 30 second chat instead – hey, the camera will be on me so that boosts my profile. Howard Webb was one of the best officials I’ve seen in my time watching football, he was consistent, fair and had a presence about him – yet even he admitted recently that Wayne Rooney swore at him regularly without punishment. I do concede that he’s working as a pundit these days so he’ll be embellishing, we can all lip read certain words though. How can this continue to happen? We know it happens and then, when referees retire, they admit it. Shocking.

It’s easy to criticise but the boys in black need a lot more help. FIFA were dragged kicking and screaming into the age of goal line technology – I’m sure we all agree that one simple change made top class football better. We need more. It won’t be easy to decide where to use technology and how to implement it, the nature of football makes those decisions incredibly difficult, but surely there is plenty low hanging fruit (offside goals for example). If the match officials receive help in these areas, perhaps pundits will stop over analysing human error and start to focus on the fact rules are ignored. This is vital, what could be more fundamental than the rule enforcers following the rules? Next time you watch a game, try to distinguish between refereeing mistakes and concentrate on when they deliberately choose to ignore something – you’ll be surprised how often it happens.

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