Talking Point

Referee causes controversy (again)

Nolan’s goal against Man U that wasn’t given. A red card against Carlton Cole that had to be rescinded later. Penalties being given with TV replays clearly showing it was a dive that would make Tom Daley envious. Let’s get it out of the way early: Referees don’t have an easy job and it is also an incredibly thankless task. People just expect them to get every decision right. Which simply isn’t possible. With so much going on during games with 22 players on the pitch and the pace of the game it is impossible for the referee to be in a perfect position at all times to judge incidents. Also opposing players, managers and fans will obviously disagree if a certain incident has been dealt with correctly by the referee.

I keep hearing this one argument whenever technical support for referees is being discussed: We apparently need controversial decisions in the game to keep the post match discussions going, in the pub, from the pundits in the TV studios, in newspaper articles and so forth.But then I keep thinking with the money involved in the game these days there is too much at stake to get things wrong from the refereeing side of things. A legitimate penalty not given at a crucial point in the game ? Points lost, manager gone after a bad run of results. A player staying on the pitch despite lashing out at his opponent because referee and linesmen didn’t spot it ? More points lost, crucial points that could ultimately decide about European football or not. Staying in the Premier League or going down.
Managers’ and players’ career on the line, jobs at clubs, ultimately even the very existence of certain clubs.

Referees will never get every single decision right, even with technical support. It’s called the human factor. Different referees have a different way of running things, some are quick to brandish yellow and red cards, others love to let the game run along without having too many stoppages. But with so much at stake they should get the big decisions right. Penalty decisions, goals flagged off for offside when in fact the attacker was level with the defender, red card incidents. And there is a way to get at least most of the big decisions right: By introducing challenges by the respective managers that trigger the use of instant replays to support the refereeing crew with a decision.
It happens in American Sports like NFL Football, NHL Ice Hockey and since the beginning of this season in MLB Baseball too.
It’s dead easy: The manager throws his flag, the referees come together, the decision is then either being re-evaluated by the referee himself or a panel sitting in New York or Toronto to have a look at the replays of the incident.

In a matter of a minute, sometimes just seconds, the decision arrives: Ruling on the field upheld or changed. One can discuss of course how many challenges might be ideal to eradicate most refereeing mistakes, but at the same time won’t slow down the game too much. The latter usually isn’t a problem as there are delays anyway.
While the players swarm around the referee to present their case the TV company fires away with instant replays showing the incident from three or four different perspectives and at different speeds. During these shenanigans it would be easy for a fourth or fifth official to review the incident in ample time and then either go with the decision on the pitch or overrule it. That doesn’t undermine the authority of the referee, it merely helps him to get crucial decisions right and eventually takes pressure off him.

All too often you hear referees claiming after a game they would have decided differently if they had been in a position to see the instant replay during the game.
So I’d like to see that technical support arriving in football soon. Of course it won’t be an easy ride. Football purists won’t like the change.
It was the same when MLB introduced the challenge procedure this season in Baseball: Commentators were sceptical at first bit after just one season everybody involved in the game is happy: Managers, players, umpires (as they are called in Baseball). It simply takes away the most glaring wrong decisions from the equation.
Games are now rarely lost because of a wrong call by an official – and we all know how a bad refereeing decision can sometimes turn the momentum for a team or even derail an entire season.

One final note to the football purists: Even with one challenge allowed per half for each manager there will still be enough (controversial) things left to discuss after the game. Also football has always evolved with new rules being introduced, making the game better to watch. More substitute players being allowed, changing of the backpass rule, introduction of goalline technology, the notorious vanishing spray. It all takes a bit of getting used to. After a while though we ask ourselves how on earth we actually used to watch football without it for all those years.

After a game I’d rather like to talk about a brilliant goal or piece of skill than the bloody referee cheating us out of the game by not giving one of our goals, sending off one of our players for alleged handball that wasn’t or by gifting a dodgy penalty to the opposition. Let’s get more decisions right on the pitch. Let’s give the referees some much needed technical support and help. Because it’s not an easy job you know…