As is often said, there are fine margins between success and failure in the Premier League. In the world of multi-billion pound television deals, survival carries a huge financial weight. With more teams than ever before fighting for Champions League football, those lines are becoming all the more important.
It is small wonder, then, that any refereeing mistake is pounced upon and berated by fans and pundits alike: fans merely expressing their frustration at marginal calls against them, and pundits utilising video footage to get the best possible angle of any incident.
It is when more obvious mistakes occur, and on a more frequent basis, that levels of refereeing come into question as they have done recently. On 21 February, Martin Atkinson’s decision to leave Ashley Barnes unpunished for what was a horrible tackle on Nemanja Matic (while rightfully sending the Serb off for his retaliation) caused a few people to question the standard of refereeing in the Premier League. Most notably, Jose Mourinho has accused officials of a ‘campaign’ against Chelsea and claimed that Atkinson got four key decisions wrong in his team’s 1-1 draw with Burnley.
Fast forward 24 hours and the list seemingly grows. Kevin Friend attracted criticism for his decision not to give what looked like three penalties in Southampton’s loss to Liverpool, while also failing to see Simon Mignolet handle outside of the area.
In the match between Sunderland and Manchester United, Roger East sent off the wrong player in Wes Brown after John O’Shea conceded a penalty. The decision which led to Brown’s red card being rescinded compelled Howard Webb, the new technical director of the Professional Games Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), to speak out in defence of referees.
Premier League referees haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory, it has to be said. However, to call into question the levels of refereeing across the Premier League as a result seems a bit premature. Howard Webb himself was deemed capable to officiate the 2010 World Cup Final; his failure to spot Nigel de Jong karate-kick Xabi Alonso in the chest was unfathomable to many.
When a call that could go either way has to be watched and decided upon in real time, and is then meticulously commented upon by pundits, it is no wonder referees feel less inclined to make such decisions
We find ourselves in an age where the calls of referees are under greater scrutiny than ever before, with replays almost immediately after incidents during television broadcasts, and dedicated pundits ready to cast judgement on any decision that isn’t necessarily black and white. Penalty decisions, in addition, carry an additional weight which cannot be overlooked.
The so-called ‘double-jeopardy’ rule is more of a triple jeopardy. A player who commits a foul in the penalty area, stopping what is deemed a goal-scoring opportunity, concedes a penalty, is sent off and also receives a three-match ban. Forget the particular game in question; such a call can have wider repercussions across the season. It is easy to see why some referees, where minimal contact has been made and an attacker goes down, choose to wave play on. The line between what is deemed a free-kick and a penalty is getting larger because of this. When a call that could go either way has to be watched and decided upon in real time, and is then meticulously commented upon by pundits, it is no wonder if referees do feel less inclined to make such decisions.
Would a video referee be consulted about every offside, every foul, and every possible penalty? Such a stop-start system would arguably be a hindrance rather than a help
There have been calls for the introduction of video referees – the likes of whom you see in rugby – whereby a disputed incident can go up to an official with a televised view who can adjudge accordingly. However, with so many dubious incidents difficult to call, this certainly would not eradicate the whole problem.
The question of where to draw the line would come into play as well. Would a video referee be consulted about every offside, every foul, and every possible penalty? Such a stop-start system would take a lot of fluidity from the game, waste more time and arguably be a hindrance rather than a help.
For the time being, however, referees are the sole judges of decisions made on the pitch. Sometimes they get it wrong and will need to address that. What could be done to help them, however, is a different system also utilised in rugby.
Players crowding around a referee to contest a call, argue their case or try to influence a decision (often in a fairly heated manner) is not something fans like to see. Captains should be the only players allowed to speak with the referee and it should be his job to relay that information to his players. At the very least, while explaining why a player has been booked, for instance, the captain should be present at all times, with no other player needing to get involved. Anyone who tries to influence the referee otherwise should run the risk of being booked.
It is easy for us to comment and judge about the levels of refereeing with the benefit of hindsight, multiple television angles and certain elements of bias, depending on who you support. What it unquestionable, though, is that few want to be the one in yellow having to make the calls on Saturday afternoons. Would you?
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