“Players are not au fait with the laws”

As he reaches the compulsory retirement age for Premiership referees, Barnsley official Stephen Lodge spoke to Mike Ticher about the pressure and pleasures of modern refereeing, the impact of recent law changes and the new career of Neil Midgely 

What has been the single biggest change in refereeing since you came on to the League list in 1987?
There’s far more professionalism, both on and off the field. Far more time is spent on training. Expectations are a lot higher now, mainly because referees have become a household name since the advent of the Sky contract, which has raised the profile of everybody involved. A lot of supporters might disagree, but I think the standard at Premiership level is going up, largely thanks to the in-service training the referees receive and the fitness programmes which are structured for individuals by the FA at Lilleshall. Three or four weekends a year we’re taken away for meetings together where we look at videos and attempt to become somewhere near 100 per cent consistent with each other. The professionalism now is much greater.

Managers seem to feel the need to criticise referees more and more. How does that affect the way you relate to them?
Relationships do seem strained from time to time but they’re under pressure in the game in the same way referees are. At times there’s heated discussion from managers and coaching staff, but nine times out of ten it’s all forgotten an hour later when people have had time to cool down. In general I think the relationship between referees and other people in the game is probably as good as it’s ever been.

Is it harder to deal with players now that they are earning so much more money and the stakes seem ever higher?
With the advent of the Sky contract, which has brought players megabucks, the pressures on referees have certainly increased. Plus there’s live coverage of matches, with 16 cameras, which can prove a referee wrong on numerous occasions. The speed of the game means you’ve got an instant decision to make, but you’re not going to get them all right. There’s no player on the pitch who doesn’t make a mis­take in 90-plus minutes of the game. He will make errors and referees will make errors.

Refereeing with hindsight is a marvellous thing. If I watch a match on TV and I get five different camera angles at it, I can get the decision right too. But when you’re faced with making an instant decision it becomes far more difficult. And some­times you’re in a position where the best you can do is to make a guess. And hopefully your experience will help you.

Do you feel that many of the TV pundits criticise referees from a position of ignorance about the laws?
I wouldn’t want to stifle debate but one thing that does disappoint me is that the TV pundits take great delight in proving referees wrong, but half the time they don’t take the trouble to say, well, he’s only got one pair of eyes and one angle, we’ve got all these cameras around the ground, we’re at an advantage.

Would it help get your side of it across better if more referees explained their decisions to the media after the match?
There is no gag put on us, but I do think you have to be careful. You can go on TV and explain the law and why you’ve given a decision in a certain situation, but then you usually find there’s one or two trick questions in trying to get you to develop it. After the game there’s a 30-minute cooling-off period after which managers and coaches can request to come and see the referee – though he doesn’t have to accept that invitation – to discuss a situation that’s arisen from the game. Quite often when a manager wants to get straight into you after a game and you say “come back in half an hour” they don’t bother coming back.

Do current and former players know what they’re talking about in relation to the rules?
No. I suspect a lot of the players are not au fait with the laws of the game. They’re just coached on how to play. It would be wrong to insult them by saying they don’t know the general framework, but I’m not so sure that they’re well versed in the finer points of professional football law application.

We are moving closer to having professional, full-time referees. What difference will that make?
I don’t think it will improve the decision-making process, to be quite frank. Just because referees are “professionals” doesn’t mean that their detection rate, their consistency in making decisions will become 100 per cent accurate. But I think what will improve is that referees will be able to structure their working week around football. I work in local government here in Barnsley. Sometimes I might have a match in Ipswich on a Monday night, get home at three or four o’clock the next morning, then get up and go into work – and then possibly to have to go out training the same night as well. Clearly that can be physically quite demanding. So a professional referee would be able to structure his life and his job around refereeing and that would certainly benefit football in general.

Do you feel referees are more in the spotlight now because of the incessant TV coverage?
Certainly. I think referees these days are as much household names as the players. But that’s not through the referees’ choice. Personally I always liked to be anonymous and to be out of the way. I would hope to come off the field and nobody’s pointing the finger at me and saying “you’ve cost us this” and then hopefully in the following day’s newspapers you’ll not be mentioned. And if that is the case I think you’ve had a bloody good game to be quite honest.

When you were starting to referee, were there particular referees you particularly admired or tried to model yourself on?
I got on the League line in 1984 as a 31-year-old and I tended to look up to people like George Courtney, Keith Hackett and Neil Midgley, who were the top FIFA referees of that era. Those three people taught me a hell of a lot, which I was able to bring into my own personal outlook when I became a referee.

Neil was a bit of a joker – I think now he goes round entertaining people on cruise liners as an MC. And he’s a great after-dinner speaker. George Courtney now I think works for Middlesbrough in their community education scheme, but he’s also very high up in FIFA, he’s always travelling abroad lecturing referees. Keith Hackett, who lives locally in Sheffield, was actually my coach on the FA Premier League. Those three have all got totally different personalities, but you could learn different aspects from them all.

Of the recent law changes that have been introduced, which do you think have worked best?
The most successful has been the outlawing of the tackle from behind. When I was an up-and-coming referee, I used to watch the likes of the Leeds and Liverpool teams of old, and skilful forwards then were just absolutely taken out of the game. The defenders seemed to rule the roost, controlling forwards by foul means. Skilful forwards are far better protected now. Now it’s the defenders who have got to practise the art of tackling and challenges to perfection, which I think has benefited the entertainment level. While the number of cautions may still appear to be substantial, I think it’s just a hazard of the modern game. And I think players have mostly accepted it. If they go through a season without a suspension then they’ve done damn well these days.

Are there any that you don’t like?
I think they’ve been positive on the whole. The new ten-yard rule has been an experiment, just at the top level in this country. They’ve got permission to readjust that next season so that you can only advance a free-kick as far as the edge of the penalty area. We’ve all felt it’s caused great problems for us in trying to manage a situation where you move a free-kick from outside the box by ten yards so that it’s inside. It’s a hell of a job trying to get players back on to the line and maybe we haven’t been able to enforce it the way we should have been able to. It’s caused long long delays. I think there was a situation in Man Utd v Sunderland earlier in the season when it was a full two minutes before the referee could get play restarted. I was fourth official on the last day of the season at Everton and the ref did the same thing, on a backpass. The goalkeeper kicked the ball right up in the air, so he booked him for dissent and moved the kick forward ten yards. Which really was probably a disadvantage to the attacking side. And if you’ve got a free-kick specialist like Beckham in your team, he’s more lethal from a few yards outside the box than from inside. So I think the authorities have taken that on board and next year it’ll go no further than the edge of the area.

What is the effect of media attention on top referees on those lower down?
It’s a fair question, but I don’t think it puts them off. I speak to local refereeing societies throughout the year, and you’d be amazed at the number of young people who are still coming into the game. Young referees are fast-tracked far better than they were in my day. I started off as a 19-year-old and had an apprenticeship of 12 years moving through various leagues and then on to the League line and then into the middle. These days we’re getting lads on to the Football League refereeing list at 28, 29. I think there’s one in the north-east who’s in his mid-twenties who’s been on the League list for his first season this year. And with FIFA having a retirement age of 45 as an international referee, it’s important that people get an opportunity to get on to the top-class list as young as they possibly can.

Are there some players you will be happy never to referee again?
Not really. As a referee of course you’re aware that certain players can create prob­lems, but I think referees tend to work harder and closer with the perceived bad boys, if you want to call them that. I think you’ll find a referee will end up talking and encouraging and having a good dialogue with these types of players and try to have mutual respect for each other during the game. You’d be surprised at how much work referees do put in with players.

How do you feel about the use of video evidence to judge disciplinary matters?

Well, I don’t think anything’s really changed over the years. The FA have always had the right to look at video evidence. We can go as far back as Paul Davis of Arsenal, who got hammered for nine games [in 1988] for an off-the-ball incident, so they’ve always had that power. I think equally it goes the other way as well. If someone’s been dismissed and on reflection, after looking at the video, the referee feels he was totally wrong, he is encouraged to own up. So I think it works both ways.

This season you admitted a mistake over the Richard Prokas incident with Patrick Vieira. But the FA ruled they could take no further action. Does that system make any sense?
I was just honest in saying what I hadn’t seen at the time, but, like everybody else, I saw the incident on TV. I wasn’t sure what powers the FA had to look at incidents afterwards. All I could do was be honest and say what I thought at the time. If I’d have made no comment, maybe the FA would have been able to do something about it, but I think that’s all water under the bridge now. They have to have something in their rules to say what they can do and what they can’t do.

Do you think referees pay any attention to the tables of red and yellow cards printed in the papers?
Not really. It’s like a lucky dip . You can be given a game like the Manchester derby and think, well, that might end up with seven or eight yellow cards, or you might go to, say, Southampton v Coventry and think because it’s perceived to be a lower profile game – it’s not, because all games are the same in the Premier League – and think you’re going to get an easy ride. A referee could be unlucky and end up with five or six games where he’s got a pile of yellow cards and another one could end up with five games that look like they’re going to be high profile, high card games, and end up with nothing. So I don’t think any referees pay any attention to those league tables. To referee a game, whatever problems that game throws up, you’ve got to respond to it. If it means yellow cards, OK. But I don’t think referees go out deliberately trying to book players, or to avoid doing so.

odge on…

English v foreign refs
We always thought English referees were the best in the world and maybe we’re biased and still do think that. But if you look at some of the World Cups recently and at some of the referees coming from Third World countries, I’m amazed at the quality of some of these guys. I don’t think there’s any set of European referees who can stand out and say “we are the best”. You’ve got to earn the right to be the best and I think the difference between a lot of the referees from different countries around the world has narrowed.

having players as friends

You’ve no friends among the players. It’s a job of work that you’re doing, it’s a job of work they’re doing, you’re there as an arbitrator to try to see fair play for the duration of the game. I think you’ve got mutual respect for each other, but I don’t think really friendships, no. Because if you had you’d be accused of bias, and that’s one thing a referee can’t afford to be labelled with.

threats from fans
I’ve never had any phone calls, but I’ve had letters addressed to “Steve Lodge, Referee, South Yorkshire”. The postman always seems to know where I live and what comes to my house. But I’ve never felt physically abused coming out of a ground.

technological aids
We had the earpieces last year, as an experiment, and to be quite frank the clarity of the audio was poor. Sometimes it was impossible to hear what your assistant was saying, or which one was saying something to you. And it was so cumbersome, you were almost like a sumo wrestler, with this big belt round your midriff and this massive receiver round the back and wires all over the place. This year we’ve gone back to the electronic flag system, where the assistants have a button on their flagsticks and the referee’s got a monitor on his arm. The fourth official’s also got a cut-off flagstick, so he can attract the referee’s attention. That’s excellent and I think that’s all that’s needed.

his worst moment
I think the worst incident I ever had was last season when I tried to do my party piece with the ball, at Coventry. The most embarrassing moment I’ve ever had in football. I won’t go anywhere near the ball now. I felt like a worm on the floor. But what it did do, the game was a bit hot at the time, it was Coventry-Leicester, which is quite a tasty derby, and it just broke the ice. Despite my own total embarrassment it did help me control the game.

From WSC 173 July 2001. What was happening this month