Where once television offered genuine debate about the laws, today it sheds heat and not light, believes Philip Cornwall, as he assesses how the official's job has changed

One thing in football never changes: we always want the impossible from referees. What has changed is the weight of criticism referees face for failing to achieve perfection.

The referee – far more than the players or managers – has been an instant object of criticism in football as long as anyone can remember (in my case worryingly close to 30 years now). New players, managers, are given a chance. But the referee is a target the second he walks on the pitch. In the 1970s there were fewer people than now incapable of finishing a sentence or even a clause with­out swearing. To pick up the choicer expressions you just needed to go to a game and hear what the ref was called.

By then, to the voices from the terraces had been added, with expletives deleted, the beginnings of de­tailed television analysis via the slow-motion replay. In his new book, Pierluigi Collina states this originated in 1967 on Italy’s Domenica Sportiva (Sporting Sunday); Jimmy Hill is credited (?) with bringing the innovation to this country. But back then you had a handful of games covered with very few cameras. There were refereeing controversies, of course. West Brom’s famous offside goal against Leeds in 1971. Everton’s disallowed winner in the 1977 FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool. And England’s third goal in 1966. Television even played a major role in changing the laws of the game, after the furore around Willie Young’s “professional foul” in the 1980 FA Cup final, when the referee could on­ly book, rather than dismiss, the Arsenal man for bring­ing down Paul Allen when the 17-year-old was closing in on goal.

Today, every Sky game has 20 cameras on it; every Premiership match has at least six. If the camera doesn’t provide conclusive evidence, a computer enhancement might, focusing in or reconstructing the angle – Sky launched the latter innovation by showing that Geoff Hurst’s 1966 shot had not crossed the line. That famous case would have been resolved in five minutes rather than 30 years. To Philip Don, the referees’ officer for the Premier League, the scrutiny has reached impossible levels. “The referee’s got a split second. One of the problems is that you see a lot of incidents on television but you never see them from the exact angle the referee had. That is where the unfairness came in.

“I spoke to Martin Tyler after doing the 1993 Tottenham v Arsenal FA Cup semi. Andy Linighan appeared to bring down Darren Anderton on the edge of the pen­alty area, or near the edge. I gave a corner. Martin said he looked at it from four different cameras and gave four different de­cisions.”

In theory, in the right hands, the system could be used both to point out mistakes but equally to point out how fundamentally difficult the job is and to raise stand­ards. And in places it is – just not on television. One of the problems with recruiting referees is the threats that they receive at the lowest level (“Parents are more trouble than they’re worth,” says Don), which means that even with seven full-time FA regional recruitment managers, the numbers leaving the job equal those coming in. One method of counteracting this has added benefits. “You have to serve your apprenticeship at park football and there is a lot of indiscipline. We’ve set up refereeing academies at Premiership clubs so youngsters can ref­eree in a protected environment. The clubs video some of the games and let the referees and their trainers have access. That’s never been done before.”

On every marginal decision, what the fans want is for it to go the way of their players. Managers, likewise, who cannot agree long afterwards what should have hap­pened. Arsenal are still protesting over the red card shown to Sol Campbell for his clash with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in April, which Alex Ferguson is adamant was a correct decision. What people demand is consistency and common sense, though the latter means a judgment call and therefore less chance of the former. What they want is a decision to go the same way as if it had been taken by someone with access to a particular camera, at a different angle to the referee, on a single frame.

While in the studios the game slows to a halt, on the pitch it becomes ever quicker, partly through law changes (the abolition of the back pass and the gentle trot to the halfway line), partly through the speed at which young men on modern diets race about, especially on the break. For Italia 90, referees needed to cover 2,400 metres in 12 minutes in order to be deemed fit enough to take part; the bar has been raised to 2,700m and the requirement will soon be 3,000m.

Speed is an especial problem in this country, where the game is traditionally fast paced. “The game is faster in this country than anywhere else. It is difficult for the referee when a player is travelling at speed and there is the slightest physical contact.” As Don explains, the Premiership referees wear heart monitors for training and for games and so it is possible to measure the effects of speed. “If you look at our top FIFA referees, such as Graham Poll and Graham Barber, their heart rates are 15 per cent higher in a Premier League game than in a Champions League match.”

The very fact that we know this is the case shows that there are attempts to improve refereeing stand­ards, starting with that very basic issue of fitness but with a much wider brief. Italia 90 was a watershed. “From FIFA’s point of view it was a disastrous World Cup,” believes Don, citing the errors made by referees running the line and the scale of misconduct. “FIFA then set out looking to change the laws and you had the setting up of panels of dedicated assistant ref­erees.” The offside law was altered and the tackle from behind outlawed in time for USA 94. In Don’s view, “the laws have changed for the better”.

But Don acknowledges that it is not just the laws that matter, but the interpretation. “There needs to be a level of consistency,” he says, and to that end the Premiership referees have met regularly for the past two seasons, far more so than before. “They are looking at video clips of acts of serious foul play and violent conduct. There is now coming a more common interpretation of what is a reckless challenge. When the Premier League started, the referees got together maybe two or three weekends a season. Now we meet from Wednesday afternoon to Friday afternoon every fortnight.”

The problem is, there will always be mistakes no matter how often the referees meet and the decisions we demand from them today are more financially significant ones than those of 25 years ago. We have no alternative to referees – even technology will still require judgments and could be used only at the very highest level – yet the working conditions we impose on them at every level, especially the bottom, militate against recruitment. The possibility of fast-tracking ex-pros – even if you think that they would make a difference – is made harder by the astronomical rise in players’ wages. After all, with the amount even a Division Two player can bank today, who would want the hassle?

A footballer has 11 opponents attempting to stop him doing his (legal) job. The referee has 22 on the pitch to cope with. This has always been true, but the vehemence and armoury of his opponents off the pitch have increased. Referees are only news when it goes wrong. As Don says: “What good to journalists is it saying the referee had a good game? That’s not going to sell newspapers.”

How to referee the Collina way
Pierluigi Collina must be the most familiar referee in the world, his alopecia adding to the high profile he would enjoy anyway from officiating the game’s top matches. It’s hard to imagine, even in these boom days of English language football publishing, anyone bothering to translate the autobiography of another foreign referee.

As the title, The Rules Of The Game, suggests, this is more a how to... than a conventional autobiography. So what tips does he have to offer the budding referee?

1. Be born between January 21 and February 19

“I like planning goals... but not in the very long term because I love the changes you cannot predict... I know that the siren call of change might just distract me. Although I am not an astrology enthusiast I know that these are typical of those, like me, born under the sign of Aquarius.”

2. Have good eyesight

“My classmate who’d had the initial idea of registering on the [refereeing] course found himself rejected because he wore glasses. Such is the irony of fate.”

3. Don’t be afraid to be noticed
“Refereeing isn’t about hide and seek.”

4. Familiarise yourself with your surroundings
“I try to have at least one training session in the stadium, especially if I’ve never been there before... I get to know the new surroundings, the different smells and sounds, so as to avoid being taken by surprise.”

5. Learn from your mistakes and don’t correct a wrong with another one
“Understand the reasons that led to you making a mistake. Forgetting them means not letting yourself be influenced by their memory.”

6. Have the courage of your convictions
“The best referee is the one who makes decisions even when it would be easier not to.”

From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month

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