Keith Hackett - Post-match interviews with officials will not help
Every round of Premier League fixtures creates a new set of controversial refereeing decisions for fans to pull apart.
During the festive season, this was no different.
From Nenad Milijas’ ridiculous red card at Arsenal, and Leon Osman tripping himself up for a penalty at Sunderland, to the let-off for Lampard at Wolves, and the embarrassment of Joey Barton’s dismissal, officials’ performances have rightly been called into question.
Total Football caught up with FA Premier Skills Ambassador and former official Keith Hackett, who discussed potential changes to the role of referees.
One feeling amongst supporters is that it would benefit the game if referees were to explain their decisions in post-match interviews, like players and managers.
The fact that referees do not, alienates them from the rest of the football community.
In Barton’s case, by referee Neil Swarbrick and assistant David Richardson not explaining why they allowed play to continue before sending him off in QPR’s 2-1 defeat to Norwich, supporters must simply guess that the officials made a mistake – and this is completely unsatisfactory.
Officials are just as much a part of the furniture of football as anyone else, so surely it is time their media role reflected this.
Keith said: “Referees are allowed to explain their decisions after the game but in the main chose not to.
“Calling for refs to do this is something I do not support - comments after the game could impair opportunity for a player to appeal his red card”, he added.
'Three invisible men'
On the subject of that, the anonymous powers-that-be - or the “three invisible men” as Neil Warnock called them recently - that listen to appeals also need a shake-up; no longer is it adequate for a legitimate appeal to be rejected in favour of protecting the official.
Again referring to Barton, the QPR man could have scored or injured someone before the ref had sent him off; by upholding the red card, the FA are defending a failure of the officials to apply the rules correctly.
As also happened with Milijas, the FA renders the referees untouchable: clearly fallible but more or less unaccountable.
But Keith makes a good point – an appeal could be affected by comments after games, so what about an increased media role during games?
Referees wear headsets and microphones which enable communication with assistants during games, like rugby.
Unlike rugby however, consultations and decisions are neither audible to the stadium crowd nor the television audience.
'Good, relibale communication'
Keith said: “I spent a lot of time ensuring that we introduced good, reliable communication sets and they have been a real benefit in the decision-making process.
“I do like the rugby union arrangement where the spectators can listen and hear the terrific management skills that the officials use”, he added.
In rugby, officials appear more human when they discipline players – more Jack Taylor than Michael Oliver.
Admittedly, the culture of football is very different from the culture of rugby, but it is by no means an insurmountable obstacle to change that.
Has the move towards professionalism in the British game created a situation whereby officials are less able to use personal approaches in refereeing a game?
Keith said: “In my tenure of office, I encouraged referees to make use of their man-management skills ensuring that referees adopted a pro-active approach.
“We use sports psychologists to improve body language and their interpersonal skills”, he added.
But do today’s officials have the same rapport with players that they used to?
“I can name several of today’s referees who enjoy a strong rapport with players on the field of play – however they must remain impartial and operate with high levels of integrity”, said Keith.
Through outlets like Sky and Talksport, ex-referees like Jeff Winter, Graham Poll and Dermot Gallagher have established themselves as respected, impartial authorities on the laws of the game.
Surely this in itself is an argument for incorporating current referees into this sort of role.
Last year, Everton’s David Moyes criticized Martin Atkinson for not apologising after blowing early against Manchester United.
When do players apologise for missing an open goal?
Was he was right to expect an apology?
Keith said: “How often do we see players apologising for missing an open goal?”
A fair point, but the ratio of open goal misses to referee blunders reflects terribly on the performance of the officials in comparison to strikers.
Interestingly, Atkinson has been picked to referee Everton’s trip to White Hart Lane on Wednesday – his first Toffees match since this season’s Merseyside derby, during which Jack Rodwell was mistakenly (disgracefully) sent off.
Personally, I think Atkinson’s actions in his previous two Everton matches have compromised the essential degree of objectivity required for officiating, and so watch this space on that one.
As with Atkinson after Rodwell’s rescinded red, on the rare occasions that the FA seriously calls an official’s performance into question, the official is mostly dropped from a set of fixtures or given a lower league game.
But is this fair on lower league teams?
'Opportunity to recover their form'
Keith said: “Referees can be suspended by the FA for failing to apply the laws of the game in a correct manner.
“Referees who achieve the Select Group were promoted after spending some years officiating on the Football League game, and therefore either a weekend off or receiving an appointment to a Football League will enable them an opportunity to recover their form”.
The FA frequently run campaigns such as ‘Respect’ which aim to enhance relations between players, managers, fans and officials, but how effective are they in achieving these aims?
Keith said: “Very important – they have helped reduce the trend of referees leaving the game”.
The statistics back this up - the total number of referees is up 5% from 2010, dissent is down 16% from 2008, and incidents such as surrounding officials were also down.
But despite this, and having considered all angles of this issue, I believe the salient fact is as follows.
Perfect refereeing is impossible
The natural fallibility of referees coupled with the unavoidable bias of every single football supporter creates a situation whereby perfect refereeing is impossible.
Every referee will make a mistake here and there, and every fan of the involved club will beat them with that stick forever.
There is too much expected of referees; they tackle a superhuman task with inevitable human error.
To combat that, humanising them through the media and incorporating them further into the football community can only make it easier for referees to be understood and for fans to understand.
By Chris Smith