“We control people”

Alan Wilkie, the man who sent off Eric Cantona at Selhurst Park, has just written the story of his career. He says referees are getting better, whatever the TV pundits may have you believe. Andy Lyons digs deeper

Do you believe that relations between referees and players have got worse in recent times?
I think the greater number of dismissals in the modern game is due to the emphasis on applying the laws cor­rectly, without recourse to, and I’ll use a media term, “common sense”. Per­sonally, I don’t think the relationship has deteriorated, or certainly not to a point where it can’t be reinvigorated, but there are so many ancillary problems sur­rounding referees and players at the moment. Some overseas players, for example, have a different approach to the officials. I’m not saying that it’s a worse approach, but it can be different.

Has the introduction of professional referees made any difference to the way they perform or the way they are perceived?
If you go back to 1992 when the Premier League was first instigated, it was decided to develop an elite group of referees who wanted to pursue excellence as vigorously as the governing body. All the way through they’ve tried to make the select group as professional as possible, without making them full-time. It wasn’t in response to the Premier League’s cry for professional referees, it has been their own thought process from the word go. Of course, now it’s become a stick to beat them with – how can professionals make a mistake? But in fact there are a number of things that referees do better now than they did in my time. They are capable of going through more structured training sessions than we could, they have more information passed on to them, fitness levels have increased beyond belief. The greatest difference I’ve noticed is that there is more consistency now, though it may not be visible to those who aren’t looking for it.

When a referee is demoted from the Premier League list does that not undermine him, suggesting that he’s failed by having to go back to League games?
In the days before the Premier League when we had the Select List, it was probably less obvious when some­one was not doing so well – they just didn’t get games in the old First Division. But I’m greatly in favour of move­ment up and down the divisions for referees. Players move around and if managers aren’t doing their job they get sacked. So if there is ignominy in be­ing dropped from the Premier League list, who’s to blame? Paul Danson was removed but he’s still going strong. He’s one of the better Football League referees and took one of the play-off finals last season.

This season we have seen at least one referee going on TV to discuss a decision. Is that something that should be encouraged more?
The referee is in sole control of whether he chooses to go on radio or TV to talk about the game. There is a de­legate at every Premier League game who can offer advice, but it is the referee’s prerogative. But in the interests of being open and accountable the Premier League do encourage referees, if they wish, to go and explain decisions. They’re encouraged to speak on matters of fact, but not to get into a debate where they’ll say: “Well, in my opinion, blah de blah…” You have to consider what you’re saying in front of a live audience of several millions, but actually I think we should have a lot more opinions offered. Someone should be able to give a referee’s perspective on every televised game. Referees are taught how to respond in interviews now. I did some media training back in 1997 when a presenter from Sky TV asked me a certain set of catch questions. So, fine, you’re taught that, but then the media people coach their interviewers to ask a different set of questions in the same circumstances. But I’ve no doubt they’ll carry on with the training.

Do you feel that constant TV replays, as with the Peter Enckelman incident, are undermining referees by highlighting their mistakes?
It’s always been the case. If you go back to when Sky first started in 1992, they’re putting in a boatload of money, so they need to have access and they need to be able to sell the product. So they’re going to do whatever they can to generate interest and maybe make a controversy where perhaps there hasn’t been one. But the pressure placed on referees is intolerable at times. It’s all right for them to say: “Well, we’ve watched this 35 times and there’s no doubt the referee made a mis­take because the ball brushed that hair…” Then they’ll al­ways say: “Of course the referee doesn’t have the ad­vantage of seeing it again.” The punter doesn’t want to know that. He just wants to know if the referee’s made a mistake.

How good is the knowledge of players and managers about the rules? Are there any areas that they are noticeably not good at?
Sometimes it’s surprising the knowledge that they do have. I was at a Third Division game recently when a manager asked to see the assistant referee. He said: “I wanted to ask you about two or three offside dec­is­ions – there wasn’t any daylight between the play­ers.” Now, “daylight” has become a phrase that gets used inaccurately, but he was at least aware of the requirements of the law. There are meetings between managers and referees and this was where the in­famous “There must be air between the second rear­most defender and the attacker” came from. I don’t for one second believe that [the referees’ co-ordinator] Philip Don or any of his staff would have said that there has to be “air”. They would have said that the attacker must be clearly ahead of the second defender to be given offside and then just to emphasise the point, there has to be daylight be­tween them. It’s taken out of context and know everybody thinks that “air” has been written into the law and of course it hasn’t. However, in a large number of cases the managers suffer from what I call selective myopia – they don’t want to show their knowledge of the law if it’s worked against their own team.

One of jobs of the assessor is to award marks for fair play, including the behaviour of benches. Are managers worse behaved than they once were?
At times they could act a little more responsibly but in the main, and this is something that’s surprised me, I’m able to give them a good mark. I speak to the fourth official and we con­fer on what I’ve seen and what he’s had to endure, but the fourth officials generally tend to say they haven’t really had a problem. The media will pick up the odd occasion where a manager is out there on the touchline, disagreeing with a penalty decision, but that’s a rarity. Of course, managers will always be aware who the referee is for that day’s game and how he performed the last time he took one of their matches. Most referess will have traits that can be identified – “That’s what he doesn’t like, that’s how he wants things done.” Similarly, I know what players are like, how they’ll react in certain situations. We’re dealing with behavioural patterns. As referees, we need to know how to control people.

Has the introduction of the “technical area” encouraged managers to get into rows with opposing players or officials? Is it more trouble than it’s worth?
From an official’s perspective I’d agree with that, though obviously the managers are all in favour of it as they can get closer to the game. But it only seems to be a problem in this country. Abroad, the behaviour of the people in the technical area is invariably more re­strained, they’re further away from each other and the fourth official is more isolated. Here the technical ar­eas are much smaller and so is the space between the dug­outs – look at Highbury, where everyone is sitting on top of each other. Old Trafford, though, is trem­endous from that point of view – they’re elevated and separated by brick walls. That’s a wonderful ground to be a fourth official at.

In your book you mention Vinnie Jones asking you to help him get through a game without a booking. Is this something referees routinely do with certain players?
There were certain committed players, shall we say, who I’d always try to interact with before the game – the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Neil Lennon, Robbie Sav­age. I’d go over and warm up where they were, have a dialogue, maybe crack a joke, whatever it took to get them used to the idea that we’d probably have to talk to each other during the match. Didn’t always work, of course – just ask Dennis Wise. Now that sounds as though I was targeting people to look after. But I was just thinking about the problem people. The others who were easier to deal with would be treat­ed the same way if a problem came up.

Some managers seem inclined to bear a grudge against refs whom they blame for defeats. Do referees just always have problems with some managers?
Well, you never get forgiven for what they see as mis­takes. I had that experience with George Graham and Gra­ham Taylor, for instance. It might sur­prise people, but Alex Ferguson doesn’t fall into that cat­egory. He’s more honest behind the scenes and away from the media than he might be given credit for. It surprised me when I read in his book that he disagreed with the dismissal of Cantona at that Palace match. That’s not exactly what he said directly after the game.

One of the effects of that incident has been to increase the use of security to escort refs and dismissed players off the pitch. How big a problem had that become?
It hadn’t really been an issue before, it was more of a response to a particular situation. The initial problem, before Cantona’s dive into the crowd, was that the tun­nel at Selhurst Park is in the corner on the far side of the field from where he’d been dismissed. So he had something like 60 yards to walk. At that time the policy about dismissals was “get him off the field im­med­iately” and then he can walk down the track – hence Cantona being so close to the spectators as he walked away. The stewards had never had do deal with some­thing like this, before so it wasn’t a criticism of them. But afterwards we had to think through all the aspects of what could go wrong in that situation. Shortly after the in­cident, another ref­eree, Robbie Hart, was taking a Wim­bledon match at Selhurst Park and dismissed Alan Kimble in the furthest corner. He had to escort Kimble about 60 yards from the corner all the way over to the tunnel, which must have seemed comical at the time. The new approach, using stewards to es­cort players, was incorporated into the FA’s blueprint.

In your refereeing career you only once rescinded a yellow card. Is there too much of it now?
A referee will know in his heart of hearts if he’s got it right. The one yellow card I rescinded, I knew as soon as I’d given it, but once you do it you can’t change your mind. When I was refereeing, at a televised match there would be 17 or whatever cameras, but only two at non-televised game, so they’d miss incidents, things you’d seen and take action over. Now, even at a game that isn’t been covered specifically for the TV, there will be a lot more cameras, so it will never be a matter of just your opinion. The camera will always pick it up, hence a lot more decisions are being rescinded.

Do you agree with the practice of psychologists teaching referees techniques such as “blocking” to reduce pressure from hostile crowds?
In my opinion, it’s a load of rubbish. If you get to the top as a referee, then you’re a strong character and you’re able to handle things that come your way. If you’re not able to handle you own thoughts by the time you get to appear in front of big crowds, you should pack it in. I had to go through this training, but I’d switched off so I can’t even tell you what they said. The only influence fans ever had on me was that the louder they shouted, the more I believed I was per­forming my duties correctly. Public order issues, awarding a crucial goal that might trigger off crowd trouble, never come into it. Later you might think “Oh, what have I done”, but the pace of the game is such that you have to react in a second, you see an incident and respond.
Steve Baines is the only former professional player who is a League referee. Why aren’t there more?
And there won’t be any from next season, because he’s retiring. There aren’t others because they know what we have to put up with. A number of them wouldn’t be prepared to go through the length of the apprenticeship. There’s no “fast-tracking” as such. The quickest you can get on the League list from scratch is six years. The pro­motion system is being reviewed now and I think it’s about time talent was identified quicker, with better quality assessment of lower level referees.

From WSC 189 November 2002. What was happening this month