The man in the middle – this season as a referee!

With the football season stopped in the most unforeseen circumstances, it’s not just players and coaching staff alike that have seen their campaign’s cut short. Match officials will also be pondering when their next match will be in what has been a pivotal year for the man in the middle as we talk to a step 3/4 official on all things officiating.

Thank you for taking part in this interview, how would you assess your season as a whole so far? Have you got any key targets you want to achieve being an upcoming official?

I’ve been pleased with my season overall. This was my first season operating as a Level 3 match official which means Refereeing Step 3 & 4 teams, assisting Step 2 teams (National League North & South) and Fourth Official for Step 1 sides (National League & PL2). The jump in standard and expectation of everyone at this level of the game is a lot greater, but this is the challenge you want as an upcoming official as the expectations only get greater the higher up the pyramid you go. I’m pleased with positive comments that I’ve had from observers, but especially those in which they have identified as development areas as it gives me aspects of my game which I can focus on to make me a better official. Additionally, at this level of the game almost every match is filmed which is a useful asset to have as you can be ultra-critical on yourself because at the end of the day the camera doesn’t lie! It’s also satisfying when you get heavily criticised for a decision which is then seen to be correct on film!

With football crashing to a halt, where do you stand on the resumption of play down the line (do we need to finish the season and possibly how)? Are the non-league sides in the same boat as the top of the pyramid?

This is the million-dollar question which I don’t think has an answer that will satisfy everyone unfortunately. Everyone in the football pyramid is in the same situation here whether that be Liverpool at the top of the Premier League to South Shields at the top of the Northern Premier League. In the last couple of days the FA announced that leagues from Step 3 and below would be void. Personally, I think this is the correct decision and one that needs to be made throughout the pyramid. At the start of the season teams know they will be playing a set number of games, to promote or relegate teams with so many games left in a season seems extremely unfair to me. It is true that many teams, such as the two I have named above will lose out hugely, but we’ve seen how many twists and turns a season can have in the final three months. For me the only way is to void the season.

We might as well get it out the way, do you think VAR has been a success this season? Are you a fan of it?

Another very controversial topic! Personally I don’t think it has been a success this season and for a few reasons. The main area that fans and pundits don’t like is goals being disallowed due to the toe of a player being offside. When the system was brought in, we were told it was for ‘clear and obvious’ decisions. We are now talking about changing the law of offside to incorporate VAR. Offside is the one decision I don’t understand why people are complaining about. It is factual like goal line technology is. Yes, there is the debate about the cameras not being completely accurate, but this is the same system being used for all sides in every game. In my opinion, changing the law to something like Arsene Wenger has proposed will result in attackers gaining a massive advantage, whilst still resulting in having the same fractional offside decisions. It will also make it harder for assistant referees that don’t operate in leagues with VAR as they will see a player that is in an offside position that may not actually be offside if Wenger’s rule was implemented.

Additionally, human error will always play a part. There have been instances this season when 99% of the audience at home will think a penalty or red card should be given but the official on duty at Stockley Park thinks otherwise. Yes, the pitch side monitors are there, but there is the argument that using these slow the game down to a large extent.

A study was done in 2018 which concluded that referees make on average 245 decisions per game, with 5 errors – this equates to a 98% accuracy score. Is the need to get better really that great to warrant VAR coming in and cause the issues it has? Goal line technology is factual, and a decision is reached almost instantly which satisfies all supporters. In its current format, I don’t see how VAR can do that so I believe it should be scrapped. However, VAR is here to stay so it’s important the problems that have arisen this season are ironed out as best as possible.

Going into non-league, what is your perception of enforcing dissent through sin bins this season? Could this work higher up in the game?

The cut off for using sin bins is Step 5 and below so I haven’t had the chance to use them yet, but I have spoken to colleagues who have. The consensus is that it has been a positive for the game as it is self-managed by the players. Players do not want to be down to 10 men for any period so threatening 10 minutes of that means the players usually get on top of the most vocal players.

I think it could work higher up the game. Dissent is something that stems from the top which kids then see on television and think is acceptable. By the letter of the law, the referee can caution/send off a player for offensive language but is then perceived to be ruining the game. Sin Bins would eradicate this as those who are guilty of it are punished and are unlikely to commit the same offence again. I think the issue of dissent would dramatically reduce if in a high-profile televised game, a player was sent to the sin bin and their team then conceded a winning goal during this time. It is unlikely other players would commit the same offence, which in turn would drip down to non-league and youth football.

Passion is at the forefront of lower league football and tempers can flare very easily, as a referee growing in the game, how do you look to take control of 22 players and coaching staff?

As a referee you are always assessing the tempo of the game. Usually, the match control of the referee can be under threat when the tempo is high. It is vital that during these times you show presence and follow procedures in which to keep your match control. This can vary from giving ‘soft’ free kicks for offences that you may not have given 30 minutes prior when the tempo was low, to sending a player off for serious foul play.

Also building a rapport with players during the match is a useful tool when trying to keep control. If a player is aware that the referee is very close to him, he may not commit an offence as he knows that it will not go unseen. Ensuring you have good communication with the captain can help when trying to get a message to other players. They know their players better than the referee will so this can be useful when trying to calm a player down.

What advice would you give anyone who is looking to make their way as an official?

Take all the advice that is given to you! As an official you never stop learning – even the Premier League officials have coaches and analyse their performances. In that aspect, officiating is no different to playing.

The second one is expect setbacks. The vast majority of officials will not get every key match decision correct during a season. The important thing is to learn why you made the incorrect decision and see how you can adapt to ensure you are in the best place to make the correct decision next time.

What rule changes can we look for coming up in the future?

IFAB – Footballs law makers held their AGM in February and announced some laws they were looking at amending. These were obviously announced before the Coronavirus pandemic hit so may be pushed back. The first one is trialling concussion substitutions which was initially going to be implemented within the Men’s and Women’s Olympic tournaments.

Other measures include the following:

Looking at measures within the Laws of the Game to tackle mobbing of match officials
Changes relating to Law 10 (yellow cards are not carried forward into kicks from the penalty mark)
Law 12 (handball, to differentiate more clearly between the arm and shoulder)

Are there any frustrations that you have with spectators when they are observing the game? What can we look out for more to appreciate the job you have?

When you are on the pitch, spectators often become white noise because you are completely focused on the game. There will always be a natural element of bias towards someone’s team so when a decision goes against them it is expected they are going to show their disapproval!
In terms of appreciating the job, I think it’s important to understand why a referee has given a decision. The angle of a referee will be completely different to that of the benches and the spectators. At the end of the day, the referee believes they are correct all the time because they are judging decisions on what they have seen at the time. Match officials are like players in the sense that they are always open to criticism and that will never change – and I’m not saying it should! I do think however, spectators should understand that officials are not giving decisions because they have a grievance against their team, but because of what they have seen in the one chance that they get to see the incident.

What are your thoughts on these comments? Let us know in the comments below!

featured image credit sky sports