After a season of chaos, an opinion piece about the state of refereeing in the England and the lack of clarity and leadership from the F.A.

After the plethora of bad, some downright awful, decisions made by match officials over the Easter Weekend, many football fans were left wondering if April Fools’ Day had been delayed by a week in this year’s calendar, and if so, was the joke on us? Obviously, this was not the case and, after almost a full season which has contained more than its fair share of unfathomable refereeing decisions, with some, much less than transparent, retrospective action taken or not taken by the F.A., the state of officiating in the so called “best league in the world”, is no laughing matter.

Howard Webb

                                                Webb image by thetelf

 This 2011/12 season will be remembered for a series of refereeing howlers, Martin Atkinson’s dismissal of Jack Rodwell in the Merseyside Derby, or the decision not to dismiss Frank Lampard for his horror challenge at Molineux in December, are  examples (Lampard went on to score a late winner in that game).  It will also be remembered for Mick McCarthy’s, video replay, press conference, in which he practically begged for clarification from the F.A. on the rules of tackling, and an explanation as to why Ronald Zubar was sent off against Arsenal. None came, and Zubar’s ban was upheld.

 The F.A.’s disciplinary procedure has also come into question several times. Why for example was Balotelli charged for an “attempted” stamp on Scott Parker, when Joleon Lescott’s “actual”  forearm smash, on Younes Kaboul, from the same game went unpunished? Why did the F.A. convict Luis Suarez for racist abuse on the back of no video evidence and conflicting, inconsistent testimony evidence, when they failed to take any action over John Terry’s racist outburst which was caught quite clearly on camera? Why was Shaun Derry’s red card not rescinded when it plainly should never have been issued? The play should have been halted and a free-kick given to Q.P.R.. Why does the F.A. convict in 99.5% of cases that it brings, when this is far from the norm in any other sporting body?

Football is the most popular sport in the world, certainly the most popular sport in England, it is watched by millions each week, and dominates the lives of many of its fans, however it lags miles behind its rivals in terms of open-ness and clarity of decisions both on the pitch, and from the governing body.

 The Easter cock-ups, if that’s what they were, were so obvious, and the mistakes this year have been so frequent and so vital in terms of the results that they have affected, that many, both within and without the game, have begun to question whether these blunders are by accident or design. The biggest reason for this development is the fact that referees do not explain their decisions adequately. They are not miked up, as in Rugby, so we, the fans, cannot hear why a decision has been given at the time, nor do referees come in front of the cameras to explain their behaviour after the game, so we remain in the dark. Worst of all, managers, players, in fact nobody within a club can criticise or openly question a referee’s decision without fear of being charged by the F.A. .

 This culture of repression is in keeping with the opaque way in which the F.A. conducts its business, and it leads to suspicion and mistrust. Martin Atkinson, Mike Jones, Howard Webb, Kevin Friend, Michael Oliver, Lee Mason and others have all made terrible calls this season, and in Atkinson’s, Oliver’s and Webb’s cases, there have been numerous poor calls, or big incidents which were totally missed, Balotelli’s horror challenge on Song immediately springs to mind. These are referees who don’t give cards when they should, and do when they shouldn’t, or give penalties for nothing and don’t award them for clear fouls. Instead of being grilled about or forced to explain these numerous errors, they are hidden away and protected, free to make their next faux pas, leading people to ask why? Honest mistakes are just that, and if people are clear about why a particular call was made, then wrong or right, it creates trust, without this clarity people naturally decide for themselves, it’s this lack of accountability and wall of silence which create the perfect scenario for corruption to thrive.

 This week, Premier League managers Roberto Martinez and Mark Hughes, and Championship manager Gustavo Poyet, have all called for a comprehensive review of refereeing standards in the Premier League and in English football as a whole. Fulham Chairman Mohammed Al Fayed has gone one further accusing the Premier League and F.A. of being in “a coma” on the subject for “years”, and asking for a review into how referees are allocated games. Hughes’ comments on the matter sum up the mood amongst managers right now, and they make pretty damning hearing for the F.A., whose job it is to ensure that referees apply the rules correctly. He told BBC Sport:

"You should have confidence that referees will get key decisions right. Just lately a lot of managers have lost faith in them."

Also this week in the wake of the horrendous errors at the weekend, former British World Cup Referee Clive Thomas, who refereed at the 1974 & 78 World Cups, and the 1976 European Championships had some brutal words for today’s officials. Again speaking to BBC Sport, Thomas remarked:

 "We haven't got our act together at all.I don't see that the referees of today are even in the right positions to give right decisions. That concerns me. Referees today are concerned, it seems, far more about what the assessors think of them, and are not thinking how to referee a game. “

  When asked about the afore-mentioned horror tackle by Balotelli, missed by Atkinson, and dodged expertly by the F.A. this week, Thomas added:

 "That tackle was a disgrace. The studs were up and went on the player's leg. He should have been sent off then but he wasn't. The referee was right there. If he didn't see it, why didn't he see it? That would be my concern if I was the referee.”

There are those out there , Alex Ferguson for example, who will say that mistakes always happen, this year’s no worse, and these things even-out over the season. I disagree, big decisions should be correct, at least 99% of the time, two wrongs don’t make a right, not even in football. Referees should be given as much help as possible, and the governing body should have the guts and the will to treat every player in the same manner, without bias towards certain players and clubs, impose punishments where they are due, and not hide behind those famous FIFA directives.  Would FIFA have taken drastic action against the F.A. had they chosen to act correctly against Balotelli? I would venture to say, absolutely not! Disciplinary matters should be heard openly instead of behind closed doors, and all conflicts of interest must be removed from the process.

The F.A. must finally step up and take responsibility for the mess it has allowed English football to slide into, the organisation must become much more open, women and minorities must be encouraged into key posts, and it must be held accountable for the decisions it makes. The rules of tackling and what constitutes a penalty and, the nuances of the offside rule, must be thoroughly explained to all managers and all referees, and then relayed directly to the players.

Forums should be set up whereby players, referees, managers, and even some supporters’ representatives can engage in discourse and receive clarification on issues which arise during the season, and referees themselves should be allowed and encouraged to go before the cameras to explain decisions after match, should they be required to do so. If the F.A. steps into the 21st Century, and ushers in these kinds of reforms, then we football fans can truly hold our heads up high and say that football is the peoples game, and that the Premier League is the best league in the world. Until they do, fans of other sports can rightly point to these farcical situations and laugh at our bold assertions.