Monday, 19 November 2012

Football Refereeing: A Thankless Task?

by George Kimber-Sweatman

“I can see you, my son, in front of the television engrossed in the cartoons and in the football matches. We sit on the sofa together and you immediately ask me about the referee. You like watching the man who has to decide, instantly, on a penalty, an offside, a foul. And it’s on him – the man who couldn’t make it as a footballer – that the people on the terraces unload all the week’s resentment, all their anger in defeat.
 I’ve known several referees over the course of my career, and I’ve found a sadness in all of them, a sadness that’s never been revealed before: it comes from those difficult first years, for example, refereeing on pitches where there’s no protection, no security. Many of these referees bear scars on their faces from punches, bottles and stones thrown. It all makes you want to say enough is enough. Is it worth risking one’s life for a derisory sum of money, for no fame and for an often misspelled mention in the results in the local papers?
I’ll always feel for those youngsters – and they still exist today – who go off to referee in the trenches, their only protection their own courage. Without the referee, football wouldn’t have any sense – you can play without a goalkeeper or a centre-forward, but not without the man who runs and runs and runs without ever touching the ball. He never scores. He never ever receives heartfelt applause. A long round of applause. An applause to bring you out in goosebumps.” – Darwin Pastorin


All over the world, the sentiments expressed by Darwin Pastorin here are proven to be undeniably true every weekend. Without changing the strongly entrenched, engrained, pre-conceived ideas about referees held by the majority of the population, though, sadly it is extremely difficult to predict with any sense of optimism a happier, safer life for referees at the lower levels of football in the near future, nor a change in the aggressive, derogatory attitudes towards them. Although exceptionally frustrating and unjust, this is something that it seems we will have to accept for the foreseeable future.
But what of those who have risen above those who have tried to deter them, those who have climbed the ladder and reached their dream of officiating at the top level of football? Do they enjoy better treatment? Are they suitably protected and rewarded for the high levels of stress that they put themselves through in order to allow millions to indulge themselves in watching football matches brought to a successful conclusion?
In England, it depends on just how senior you are. Currently, there are 16 referees who are part of the Select Group, run by the company Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), and who will be focused on during this comparison. These sixteen men are the only ones who have a contract including an annual salary of between £50,000 and £100,000, which goes alongside their match fees of around £750-£1,000 and ample travel expenses. (Having contacted the PGMOL for exact figures, and been informed that they could not be released for political reasons, all monetary values included in this document are educated estimates of the real figures.)

  At this, the highest level, referees will be expected to take charge of one match of every round of games, regularly alongside a duty as fourth official on the remaining day of the weekend. In the Select Group, referees must be available virtually every match day as part of their retainer contracts and will be allocated matches with no consideration given to how far they will be required to travel to fulfil their officiating commitments. For example, Michael Oliver, a Select Group referee from Newcastle, could referee a match in Southampton on a Saturday and act as fourth official in Swansea on the Sunday, before making the long trip home – a journey of circa 850 miles in two days just for his Select Group commitments – officials can be abroad for 3 or 4 days at a time during the week for international matches if they are selected to be on the FIFA list of elite referees..

For approximately half of these Select Group referees, however, although undesirable, these journeys are manageable due to their retainer contracts being their only form of employment. For the other half of the group, who have secondary fulltime jobs, though, it can be much more difficult. These men require extremely understanding and accommodating people in the more senior positions of the companies and organisations that they work for – otherwise, they would have no hope of being able to successfully perform the delicate balancing act between two full-time careers. One good example of a top-flight referee in this situation is Jonathan Moss, who is the head teacher of a primary school of 540 pupils in Halifax during the week and who must rely on the goodwill and support of the governors of said school in West Yorkshire.

However, he believes that the two jobs do complement each other well; not only does he have the advantage of weekends without school work, but he finds that some of the skillsets required are transferable between the two occupations and dealing with the challenges that arise within them. He cites that “Being a teacher does help with my refereeing. I have to deal with irate parents and staff, sometimes on a daily basis, and that helps me to keep calm and probably holds me in good stead for when I’m dealing with players. Players will not always agree with me, like parents, but it’s how you manage those situations that counts.”
Another example of a referee taking advantage of transferable abilities is 2010 FIFA World Cup Final referee Howard Webb, who served for many years as a police sergeant in South Yorkshire. “Police officers make good football referees and referees make really good police officers due to the similarities in the qualities needed to do both roles,” said Howard. "Things are happening quickly in front of you – you have to stay calm, analyse lots of information and act decisively but be aware of personal safety and watch your back."

So, if in the right profession, a second career can benefit refereeing skills but undoubtedly, being in a difficult profession can have an adverse effect on refereeing due to the sheer time demands and the need to constantly play ‘catch-up’ when returning to work after a weekend or a few days away officiating. For these reasons, around half of the Select Group choose to devote their time fully to their refereeing careers and to their families in order to be the best that they can be on the field of play after decades of performing the delicate balancing act between conflicting work commitments on their path to officiating on the Premier League as referees.

Like footballers themselves, referees and match officials enjoy fantastic careers, but regrettably, they are relatively short compared to non-sporting professions. While players can begin playing at the top level during their mid-teenage years and usually retire by the time they reach their mid-thirties, officials must climb to the top through experience at each level of the footballing ladder. This means that, if lucky and talented enough to reach the Select Group of referees, they typically arrive in their early- to mid-thirties, before retiring at around the age of 50-53. However, there are certainly some exceptions to the norm and in the current Select Group, Michael Oliver sits proudly as the youngest ever man to referee a Premier League match, having been promoted at the tender age of 26 and can look forward to 25 years at the top if he continues to be successful and retains his level of desire.

But what do officials typically do upon retirement at the current time, when men in Britain are expected to work until the retirement age which sits in their late-sixties? Well, those who are currently employed outside of the PGMOL in their secondary jobs will most likely continue with them until they reach retirement age. However, for those who are solely contracted to the Select Group, it is more difficult to predict the future. Ray Olivier of PGMOL was able to share the following information regarding provisions for the futures of Select Group officials: “We do have a policy to support academic qualifications and lifelong learning which the SG Referees may wish to undertake. This will prepare them for roles both inside and outside refereeing. Currently, we have 15 studying for a postgraduate certificate in Personal & Professional Development with the University of Gloucestershire.”

A common post-retirement route for referees is the transition into assessing younger generations of officials on the Football League and Premier League (although, as of the 2012-13 season, all assessment of performances on the Premier League will be conducted through video analysis, rather than having an assessor watching from the stands). These assessors are perfectly-placed to empathise with and understand the pressures and difficulties that the officials being assessed are having to deal with and, as such, are quite commonly employed to share their experiences with younger officials in an effort to help them learn and grow into better referees. A few lucky ex-referees continue to be involved with PGMOL. For example, the aforementioned Ray Olivier, who now works as Senior Training & Development Manager and coaches the current Select Group and also ex-FIFA referee Mike Riley, who is now Manager of PGMOL. The most high-profile referees can also go on to become involved in the world’s most powerful footballing organisations (such as David Elleray in his work for the Referees’ Association, The FA, FIFA and UEFA), or to become refereeing pundits for media outlets. Dermot Gallagher does so in a supportive manner through his work discussing controversial decisions with Sky Sports News, whereas Graham Poll does so in a more scathing, critical way through his column in the Daily Mail. So, for those who wish to, it is very possible to continue to be involved in the world of professional match officials, even if opportunities to do so are limited to some extent by numbers.

In England, we are lucky enough to have arguably the best group of match officials in world football working in the Select Group and these men, in turn, are lucky to be a part of the PGMOL who make every possible effort to enable them to perform at their very best every time they take to the field of play. Are our referees amongst the best because of the investment from The FA into their development earlier in their careers? Or are they just a naturally talented group? In reality, it is probably a mixture of the two factors and the work and commitment shown by the referees themselves and those supporting them. They are well-supported despite the huge demands placed on their time and their bodies physically and mentally, but more often than not, they are less well-represented in the national press.

During the 2011-2012 Barclays Premier League season, referees and other match officials were often in the glare of the media spotlight. Rarely would a weekend of matches pass without a decision being debated in front of the nation on Match of the Day or in the newspapers the next morning. Sadly, the trend in England is that if an official makes a mistake, he or she can expect to be grabbing the headlines and unwanted attention in the following few days, whereas exceptionally good decisions, or even mistake-free performances go unnoticed by the media and, therefore, the vast majority of the general public.

However, it would be unfair to suggest that referees never receive credit in the media. For example, at the end of this summer’s European Championships, the BBC pundits took the time to make a special mention of the high quality level of officiating during the tournament – something very rare. Occasionally, during live coverage of matches on Sky Sports, commentators make positive comments on what they perceive to be exceptional refereeing but again, it is very rare. More common is criticism from commentators and pundits who obviously do not know the Laws of the Game and, for want of a better phrase, make them up to suit their arguments against the officials during a match for what they believe to be an incorrect decision. The expectation seems to be (from media and public alike) that match officials produce perfect, mistake-free performances every time they take to the field. However, too few people understand how impossible that is. Fans readily accept mistakes from players, whose errors are almost definitely much more frequent than those of their counterparts in black, but launch personal abuse at an official who makes one mistake. A good example of this was during the European Championships of 2008, when Howard Webb made the decision to award a last minute penalty to Austria against Poland. In the hours after the match, Polish supporters uploaded abusive videos of him to Youtube, depicting him as Hitler and Howard and his family received death threats. Polish nationals living in Rotherham even decided to visit his parents’ house nearby and abuse them. Remarkably, this abuse came as a result of a correct decision! However, it is a fantastic example of the over the top pressure that officials are under at the highest level – with even their families at risk. It is almost inevitable that they will receive some verbal abuse during a match from the fans in the stands and they would be the first to accept that, but it is when the abuse gets personal that it becomes more serious and totally unacceptable.

Overall, though, match officials in England are relatively well treated when it comes to a lack of personal abuse. They receive an unfair representation in the press and, as such, they are not hugely popular with the typical football fan, but as long as the abuse is of their decisions (whether correct or incorrect) and not personal against the referees or their families, then it is bearable. Obviously, it would be much better for the health of British refereeing if officials were painted in a more positive light and perceptions of them changed so that more young people tried refereeing for themselves. That would hopefully help them to discover a hidden talent that could take them to the top and perhaps give them opportunities to achieve their footballing dreams. But, as it is, there are only around 32,000 registered referees in England – perhaps by positively altering the perceptions, we can positively influence the future of refereeing and, therefore, football in England.

This article was originally written as a PGS Extend essay. Part Two, examining the refereeing situation in France, can be read here.

Read also Neil Chhabda's article, The Referee Conundrum (and the solution)

1 comment:

  1. i think arsenal will win because they are pulling ahead


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