Over the course of this elongated season, there have been some historic and captivating storylines in English football. Liverpool and Leeds broke their respective 30 and 16-year hoodoos, while Wycombe were promoted to the second tier for the first time in their 137-year history.
There is still plenty left to be decided in the top two tiers of the English football pyramid, with Wednesday night’s Championship climax — and subsequent confirmation of the league’s runners-up, play-off participants and relegated clubs — coinciding with the Premier League trophy being lifted at Anfield for the very first time. There remains the potential for a final day Champions League qualification showdown at the King Power stadium, while we will also find out who joins Norwich in being relegated to the Championship. Sheffield United could make their own piece of history, qualifying for a major European competition for the first time in their 130-year existence.
But since football awoke from its slumber, there has been a stark reminder of an aspect of the English game that has been perennially declining, with 2019-20 providing the nadir. With fans absent from stadiums and the pressure of the season run-in ramped up, there has been heightened scrutiny of match officials. Largely, they have faltered, with wholesale changes to the make-up of the ‘elite’ refereeing group in this country being mooted. So, why exactly has the standard of English refereeing become so poor?
There are a variety of complexities requiring consideration, all of which add to the mystical alienation of referees that is entrenched in English footballing culture and in turn, an obvious downslide in their general performances. The first, and perhaps most simple reason, is that they are not paid enough. The numbers are lower than you might think, even with preconceptions about the vast disparity in wages between match officials and the elite level players they share the pitch with.
According to Goal, “At the top end, Premier League referees are salaried so they get paid a regular wage with match fees on top of that. Referees in the top-flight of England can earn as much as £70,000 per year. They are paid a basic yearly retainer of between £38,500 and £42,000 based on experience, and then are paid £1,150 per match on top of that.”
This range for top-flight English referee’s salaries is slightly higher than the average for full-time workers in the UK (around £35,000) and, for context, the upper limit of a base annual wage of £42,000 is similar to that of a train driver or firefighter.
For a more direct, relative comparison, it is instructive to look at how the match fees paid to professional football referees in this country weigh up against those of officials elsewhere in the continent’s top-flights. Whereas Premier League referees earn £1,150 per game (plus a retainer amount), officials in the top divisions in France, Italy and Germany all earn more. In Spain’s La Liga, referees are paid the highest match rate, earning €6,000 (around £5,200) a game.
And while the system of payment is slightly different — with officials in other top European leagues paid on a game-by-game basis, as opposed to the yearly retainer and additional pay per-match in England — the gap is still a considerable one. The wage is not befitting of the job, particularly considering the scrutiny and high-pressure nature of it as referees are historically made the fall guy and, rightly or wrongly, blamed by coaches, players and fans alike for bad results.
That brings us onto the normalized level of vitriol levelled at our officials, to the point where it has simply become “part of the game”. There is a history of abuse towards referees and so, perhaps naturally, there is also an occasional willingness on their part to rail against their standing in the cultural footballing conscience. But this can cloud their judgement. The sentiment behind the old-school “the referee’s a wanker” has long been a staple on the hymn sheet of football fans at all levels.
And yet, while it is undoubtedly not an easy job to do, it has become increasingly common when watching a game to be side-tracked by the almost depressing state of some of those entrusted with overseeing the action. It seems wrong that the level of refereeing is not of the highest possible quality, when they are refereeing matches contested by some of the game’s best players and managers who are currently playing on these shores. Since the season’s restart, they have not had the excuse of abuse from fans, and the poor standard of refereeing has been further exposed than normal.
So, too, have the laws of the game once more presented more problems than solutions for those charged with enforcing them. The waters are quite muddy generally in the terms of the laws and the way they are interpreted; we are too quick to blame VAR and decisions referees make, but often they are merely applying the rules in the way in which they understand them. The grey area on a lot of influential rules is a fundamental problem — namely offsides and handballs, which have been the two most contentious types of decisions over the course of the Premier League’s first season utilising the system. In fact, the seven gameweeks since the restart have been a microcosm of a fairly unsuccessful campaign as a whole in this regard.
That being said, this is not a defence of VAR (which has proved problematic on an almost weekly basis this season) or of the general standard of English refereeing. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
I, undoubtedly like many others, am holding my hands up to the fact that my opinion of VAR has changed a number of times over the course of this campaign. But now more than ever, it is becoming clearer that the teams of officials with the technology at their disposal are the problem, rather than the technology itself.
It often feels like referees rely on the technology now at their disposal as a safety blanket; as such they are either extremely cautious or bold with calls. Of course, when there is a decision overturned for the right reason, to reverse an original error, the technology has served its purpose. That purpose, however, is not to allow officials to guess or err on the side of caution with the knowledge that the VAR — who can watch incidents numerous times, slowed down on a monitor before the on-pitch referee is given the same option — will bail them out. To the absolute letter of the laws that is, of course.
There is often criticism of VAR the technology, rather than the fact that regardless of the standards by which it is used, it is being done so by referees. Once more, when fans go into meltdown about how “VAR is ruining the game” or similar lines of argument, what they are usually bringing into question is the ability of the referees to be up to the required standard and to apply it in the way that it was originally intended to be done so. Too often they are not, and so those in the middle and, perhaps even more so watching on from VAR headquarters at Stockley Park, should be the focus of pointed fingers when decisions are still made incorrectly.
It is apparent that the overall standard of refereeing has decreased, particularly in the Premier League; in a manner curiously juxtaposing the development of the level of players competing in it since its inception in 1992. But it is not just the English top-flight that has suffered. In the Championship in recent weeks there have been some questionable decisions, given more exposure because of the microscopic nature of the glare of football fans with games gracing our screens almost every night for the past few weeks. Consistency and precision of decisions are not the only things lacking.
In an interview with The Set Pieces, Keith Hackett, a referee for more than 30 years (18 of which were shared professionally between the Football League and Premier League),made the point that quite often, they aren’t in the right position at the right time.
The title of the piece with the former PGMOL ((Professional Game Match Officials Limited) boss summarizes what is surely a widespread feeling about the condition of refereeing in English football now, compared with both when Hackett was a referee but more pertinently with the level of contemporary refereeing elsewhere in Europe: “The current standard of refereeing in the Premier League is low…some ought to hang up their whistle”.
Jon Moss leads this group of those who are simply not good enough, having been responsible for a succession of mistakes in recent times, both on the pitch and in Stockley Park’s Video Operations Room. Hackett also identifies Lee Mason — who oversaw his 16th Premier League game of the season this week as Manchester City saw off Bournemouth — as one of those who may be past his sell-by date.
Fitness is also an issue, with it reported in February that Premier League referees Andy Madley and David Coote had failed fitness tests to remain members of the FIFA international list. Despite there being hints at a lack of physical capacity in comparison to those representing other countries, the news came less than two years after no English (or British) referees were involved at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Damningly, it was the first time this had happened for 80 years, and other countries such as Turkey and the Netherlands were represented by teams of officials in spite of the fact that their nations hadn’t qualified.
In fact, the recent lack of representation at major tournaments is indicative of the regression of English refereeing over a sustained period. 2018 came as no real surprise; further examination of representation or in the latter stages makes for grim reading.
Since the English trio of Howard Webb, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey officiated the 2010 World Cup final, English refereeing teams have made up part of the teams assigned to matches in just three of the 18 games from the semi-final stage onwards at the five remaining major international tournaments held in the 2010s. This period includes the European Championships in 2012 and 2016, the World Cup in 2014 and 2018, and the Nations League finals in 2019. Again, for comparison, or rather by means of contrast, Italian officials (who are paid a match fee alone almost three time that of their English counterparts) played a part in the extended team taking charge of six games in that same timeframe.
While some of these games included Italian VAR officials — before English referees were using the technology in our domestic leagues — the meritocratic nature of match attributions at these tournaments surely speaks for itself. As the standard of refereeing elsewhere has improved, the opposite can be said regarding the regression of match officiating in England.
So often, one of the most problematic aspects of a referee’s performance is the extent to which they become the focal point of the game. This defeats their purpose entirely and the old adage rings truer now more than ever — a referee has had a good game if you forget they are there. When they are eager to brandish cards or hold unnecessary conversations with players about their thought process surrounding a decision, they detract from the spectacle itself. This can seem a uniquely English thing, compared with the uncompromising nature of continental arbiters.
Our referees’ judgement of what is and isn’t a foul can border on worryingly inept. In this regard, it is inarguable that not having played the game and having an innate positional sense as certain situations develop detracts from an official’s ability to find themselves in the best possible vantage point to make split-second decisions. The pace of the English game has soared, as Hackett also references, admittedly making it harder to keep up with play.
A couple of controversial incidents occurred in the Premier League game between Crystal Palace and Manchester United on Thursday night. In the wake of the match at Selhurst Park, Dermot Gallagher spoke to Sky Sports the following morning.
Gallagher is Irish but refereed in the English Premier League for 15 years, and having retired in 2007, regularly appears on Sky Sports’ ‘Ref Watch’ to give his opinions on current officials and selected calls.
“It’s not a clear and obvious error”, he quipped, referring to Graham Scott’s decision not to award a penalty when Victor Lindelöf felled Wilfred Zaha in the penalty area just moments before Marcus Rashford opened the scoring at the other end.
This statement, coupled with Gallagher’s overall demeanour during the interview, is indicative of the larger problem regarding referees, which again seems a uniquely English problem. Some of them are accused of speaking with a chip on their shoulder and with affront at any suggestion that they may have got a decision wrong, while Gallagher epitomised the stance of former referees incessantly defending their colleagues. The “I can see why he’s given it” comments making up part of game coverage and things like Ref Watch only serve to perpetuate the problem.
Therefore, moving forward, would it not benefit the game to provide more incentive to referees? Starting with more suitable pay, making the role a respectable one in the game would be a start, with those not good enough to make it professionally as a player provided with another avenue to pursue. The game also benefits. As referees are paid more, the standard would likely improve and the stigma and culture of abuse surrounding them may ease. One thing would likely lead to the other.
Ex-players should also be given motivation to get into refereeing once they retire from playing, not only to aid the overall standard but, over time, level it out to a greater mean. Initially, and perhaps more feasibly, former pros could be there aiding the decision of referees hidden away at Stockley Park.
Very few football fans grow up wanting to become a referee. And while that is unlikely to change overnight because of the historic connotations with the role, the low pay and the spotlight placed upon them, change can and must happen over time for the good of the game. The time for that change and accepting the need for solutions is surely now, with football and the wider world having to adjust and adapt accordingly.
In light of recent events, a new era of refereeing in this country, considering all of the relevant factors, must be high on the list of football’s priorities moving forward.