Referees have been the butt of football’s ire for as long as the game has been played, but are standards so bad and if so what will it take to improve them?
It is an oft-told story that throughout the entirety of his career, the legendary BBC television commentator Barry Davies would refuse to answer any questions about which team he supported as a child, lest divulging that information colour anyone’s opinion of his neutrality. Only after he retired did he publicly confirm any of these details. It was Spurs, for those of you who were wondering.
That anybody would go to such lengths now seems quaint. In a world increasingly driven by opinions and counter-factuals, the days of those who work in the media desperately trying to protect their own neutrality feel like a very long time ago indeed.
In 2022, pundits are chosen for specifically for the teams that they represented as players. Spurs in the Champions League? Must be Glenn Hoddle on duty. Manchester United on Sky? Wheel out Gary and Roy. Perhaps they’ll have a fight. Gary Lineker may have been expected to keep his mouth shut on a lot of issues, but on Match of the Day he’s given free rein to be as partisan towards Leicester City as he wishes.
Is there a line over this sort of bias? The modern journalist is almost invited to straddle the divide between observer and fan, and nowhere does this seem more keenly felt than in the local press. It is expected within a community that its local newspaper will support the area. Indeed, when there is talk of the threat to local news reporting, one of the first lines of defence is the argument that local media are defenders and champions of their locality, and that they provide a service that is simply impossible to replicate from the outside.
But what happens to that idea that the local press should ‘support’ their local football club in an age when the game is growing increasingly partisan? To what extent should they reflect the views of increasingly angry fans? Might they even start challenging them? Over the course of this season, there has been a growing phenomenon in some parts of the regional press to be consistently putting refereeing in the spotlight, in what may be considered to be somewhat partial terms.
None of this means that the Premier League doesn’t have a case to answer about refereeing inconsistencies over the course of this season, and their relative quiet on the matter doesn’t help their case in the public sphere. But the point isn’t even really whether the decisions are right or wrong. What is notable about so much of the partisan coverage of these issues is that there is no attempt to present themselves as beneficiaries of decisions. To pull just one example, none of the ‘Ten controversial Leeds VAR calls this season’ recently published by the Yorkshire Evening Post, for example, related to decisions that had gone their way.
It is understandable that fans should be angry when decisions don’t go their way, but what purpose, exactly, is served by a newspaper publishing a list like this? Presuming that no-one is keen to reminisce, it starts to look like rabble-rousing, getting people angry for the clicks. And to a point, that’s fine. It’s okay to take a provocative tone, and it’s certainly okay to question the Premier League and their decision-making. But this sort of criticism also comes with ramifications, and these apply to the entirety of the game’s discourse about match officials.
The grassroots level of the game is already in crisis because people simply do not want to referee anymore, so toxic has the behaviour towards them become. And while it may seem unrelated, our entire culture of lumping blame onto referees for absolutely everything and the increasingly vituperative language being used is having knock-on effects which are felt throughout the entire game.
We see something similar in some sections of the national media, in which every mistake, every bad decision and every moment of madness has to be held under a microscope and pored over until everyone has reached the same conclusion that they held in the first place. Well okay, hold up there a second, fellas. Because if pontificating about refereeing decisions is going to become the single matter that is more important than any other affecting the game, isn’t it time to start offering a few actual, concrete solutions to this ‘crisis’?
It’s difficult to avoid coming back, yet again, to the question of whether standards of refereeing actually even are worse than ever. The short answer to that question is that people have always believed that standards were uniquely low in their era. The game is certainly faster now and players are better taught in the body language of deception, but while that may make the modern game more difficult to referee, there’s little to suggest that referees are either getting a lot of decisions wrong or that they’re getting more decisions wrong than before.
But even if we assume that refereeing standards are worse than they were, what can be done to fix this? Well, there still doesn’t seem to be any official appetite to get rid of VAR, no matter how many may want that. It’s not completely inconceivable that the Premier League could be persuaded to abandon it, if it were found that it was damaging the league’s reputation to a greater extent than other leagues or impacting viewing figures or attendances, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.
The long-term solutions are obvious. A process of automation has already begun with VAR, starting with the easy stuff. Goal-line technology was served up as a little hors d’oeuvres, something both palatable and easy to understand. Either the ball’s in the goal or not, and the whole of the ball has to be over the line to count. No-one ever argued about goal-line technology.
VAR was the next logical step in that process. If technology can be adapted still further for football and if nothing quells the growing discontent over refereeing standards, it’s not difficult to imagine a point at which it could be decided to dispense with referees and their assistants altogether. Then at least we may get the consistency that seems to be so desired.
It certainly seems more likely that any general assent ever being reached over what constitutes ‘common sense’, which is code for ‘everyone should agree with what I think’. And this has been an issue that has extended into VAR. There’s still a human being watching the video, and this is at odds the inherent trade-off made over VAR of a new level of objectivity in decision-making.
Conspiracy and incompetence are two very different things. Now, there is a growing number who will push the former of these, usually against specific referees and specific clubs, but it should be repeated that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of a conspiracy for or against any Premier League club either institutionally or on the basis of any one official.
So that leaves incompetence, and this is where we run into a problem. Because even if we assume that modern referees don’t know what they’re doing, they’re still presumed to be the best that we’ve got. So while summarily sacking them all might be fun for a couple of seconds while looking out of the window, were it to actually happen it would almost certainly lead to a further deterioration in quality of officiating. We need more referees, if anything, not less. A bigger pool to choose from may significantly improve the likelihood of standards improving.
If the current generation of referees are ‘incompetent’, then who replaces them? Do we buy in from abroad? Well, it doesn’t seem particularly ethical to start denying other leagues their best officials when this country should really be bringing through its own. If there are leagues in which there aren’t disputes over refereeing decisions and about the implementation of VAR, then perhaps some sort of fact-finding mission should be arranged to find out what they’re doing so right.
It has also been suggested that more ex-pros should be hired as referees, to which the obvious reply is, well, what’s stopping them? Some might argue that the low levels of pay might not appeal, which then raises the question of whether referees should be paid more, and plenty more besides.
In short, it’s a rabbit warren of complex questions to which there are very few easy answers, but it does feel as though it should be discussed beyond merely throwing our hands in the air and screaming. Considering the general sense of anger there seems to be in the world, it sometimes feels as though it could yet become an issue of ensuring the safety of those who do officiate matches.
Because the volume cannot continue to increase at the level at which it has these last few years. The media should pay greater attention to try to temper language in febrile times. And if the problems really do run as deep as an increasing number are claiming, then changes need to be made in way that can win back the trust of those who are losing it.
Impartiality increasingly feels as though it belongs to a bygone age, but that doesn’t mean that football has to continue a drift that can at times sound like conspiracy theorising.
The first thing we should do if we wish to improve refereeing standards is act in better faith, and allow for the fact that genuine mistakes can happen. If that could be acknowledged and embraced as part of the game, then who knows, perhaps we could then also get on with the job of dismantling VAR, too?
The first step on this road could be people – whether in the media or not – calling out bad VAR decisions which benefit their team as well as their opponents. If VAR is staying, the laws of the game need a thorough review to align them with this new technology, because a lot of the time it feels as though it’s been crowbarred into a football culture that wasn’t prepared for it, and perhaps still isn’t.
The game’s preoccupation with objectivity is doing it substantially more harm than it could ever do good, and it does increasingly feel as though the key to things improving is reconciling that gap between the objectivity we require from others while being completely subjective ourselves.
If refereeing does end up being objectively carried out by machines and with all nuance stripped out of it, it will be because the culture of the game itself has made this level of coldness the only viable option.