Tag Archives: Refereeing

Video referees – another nail in the coffin of the people’s game?

“A trial of the use of video assistant referees for ‘game-changing decisions’ in football will begin no later than the 2017-18 season.” The opening sentence of the BBC’s report of the International Football Association Board meeting held in Cardiff in March 2016. Newly installed FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, is quoted as saying : “We cannot close our eyes to the future but it doesn’t mean to say it will work. The flow of the game is crucial. We cannot put that in danger. That is why we have to be open to test.”

As a grass-roots football referee and somebody who has followed, played, coached and been involved in the ‘beautiful game’ for as long as I can remember, you would be forgiven for thinking that I would welcome trials of technological tools that have the stated aim of improving decision-making during matches. In fact, it is something that I am very uneasy about, for two main reasons.

Firstly, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the use of video technology in both rugby union and cricket is ruining those sports as spectator events, undermining the credibility of the on-field officials, and contributing very little to the conclusive determination of often marginal decisions. In cricket, for example, it seems that every run out or stumping decision now gets automatically referred to the third umpire, disrupting the flow of the game and shifting attention from the umpire and players to the TV director and the gadgetry that allows for multiple repeats from all angles and zoom-in close-ups. And even with all of that, it’s still often unclear whether a ‘catch’ has been taking cleanly or if the ball has brushed the ground before nestling into the palm of the fielder. Watching coverage of the current T20 World Cup from India has become incredibly frustrating as the tension during a tight and compelling run chase is allowed to seep away while fourteen replays confirm that the on-field umpire’s initial feeling was correct!

Similarly, in rugby union, the award of a try is delayed while the TV referee checks for foul play on the fringe of a ruck half a minute before the crucial break was made; or seeks to determine with the help of six angles and a slow-motion replay whether the critical pass was fractionally forward. An eighty minute rugby match now typically takes at least twenty minutes longer than that to complete through a combination of delays for injuries, multiple substitutions, and waiting for TV referee advice to the on-field official. And often, with the ball buried somewhere in a pile of bodies, despite all the angles available to the TV director, it’s still not possible to say conclusively whether it’s been legally grounded beyond the try line or not.

And has the use of video technology in rugby or cricket meant that all decisions are now 100% correct? Have the players and supporters of these sports stopped once and for all the heated discussions about whether a player was out or not, or whether that last-minute penalty should have been awarded? I’ll leave it to you to decide on that.

My second objection is much more philosophical, and builds on the comments of two current English Premiership managers when they were asked about the use of video technology in football earlier in the year. Roberto Martinez was quoted as saying : “We should allow the referees to make their own decisions and manage the game. Clearly if they cannot see an incident that is something they need help with. Mistaken identity for example. Those sorts of decisions I always felt video technology could be helpful, but I wouldn’t like to take the human error away from the game. Human error is part of football. It is a game of errors and how you react to these errors as a player and a referee should be exactly the same.” Mauricio Pochettino was even more emphatic : “More technology? I doubt whether it is good for football. The good thing in football is that we can speak after the game a lot about whether it was a red card or yellow card or was it offside or not offside. I think football needs to keep things important such as the human decision. I think football needs to keep its sense of the past.”

It’s interesting that both Martinez and Pochettino are foreign managers who have grown up in countries (Spain and Argentina respectively) where football’s contribution to regional and national identity and culture is at least as significant as it has been in the UK. Pochettino and Martinez emphasise the importance of the human element (including the potential for human error) as one of a recipe of ingredients that makes football the compelling drama that attracts crowds of spectators to grounds all over the world and at all levels of the game.

I would go one step further than this, suggesting that its the direct connection between the game played by the very top players at the FIFA World Cup finals, and that played by enthusiastic amateurs on their local park on a Sunday morning, that gives football it’s universal appeal. In essence, its 22 players on a rectangular pitch, with universal markings, standard sized goal-posts, a round ball, and a referee with two assistants. Wherever you go in the world, those fundamental elements  are what define football – whether on the municipal parks pitches of major UK cities, the memorial grounds of rural communities, the dust pitches of Morocco, or the covered 3G arenas of Iceland. Even children having a kick-about on a patch of scrub land can throw down a couple of jumpers for goal-posts and let their imaginations transport them to the Etihad, the Maracana, or the Camp Nou. Football is, to this extent at least, still essentially a socialist sport – accessible to all irrespective of class, gender, ability, age, or ethnicity. The introduction of technology-enhanced refereeing threatens the universality of the footballing experience, breaking the connection between the version of the game played at the elite level and that played at the grass-roots. I may be a romantic, but that seems to me to be a high price to pay to ‘correct’ the handful of dodgy decisions that can truly be described as significant in the context of any given season or tournament.

Advertisements

Bluebirds, Black & Greens, and a Howling Gale

Saturday 26th December 2015. Boxing Day. Time for another odyssey to a previously unvisited ground to catch some seasonal football. Only this time it was different. My travelling companion was Charlotte, and we were off on the trip to Pembrokeshire to watch the Welsh Premier League fixture between Haverfordwest County and Aberystwyth Town. Before friends and family start to worry, let me put your minds at rest. We hadn’t completely taken leave of our senses. This was the first opportunity that we had had to go and see Dan on Assistant Refereeing duties following his promotion to the Welsh Premier assistants list at the start of the season.

hwest6

Dan looking focused at the kick off

Haverfordwest is the county town of Pembrokeshire and is dominated by the castle that towers above the town and the River Cleddau that runs through the centre of it. The original castle was established in 1120, but most of what now remains can be traced back to alteration works undertaken by successive Earls of Pembroke in the late 1200s. The town has long been an administrative and trading centre for south west Wales, and it boasted the second largest port in the country until the arrival of the railway in 1853.

To return to out trip. We left Cardiff at 12.15pm and made our way, under leaden skies, along the M4 and A40, the 100 miles to Haverfordwest’s Conygar Bridge Meadow Stadium. Pembrokeshire had seemingly escaped the heaviest of the rain that had affected so much of the rest of the UK over Christmas, and the pitch was heavy, but not nearly as wet as I’d imagined it might be. The wind, however – well, that was a different matter altogether.

hwest4

Checking the nets – they were a useful safety precaution to prevent players being blown to Carmarthen!

Whilst Haverfordwest might not be the most westerly point in mainland Wales, you can certainly see it from there. And when the weather aligns such that the wind comes in from the south west – well, let’s just say that it’s got a three thousand mile long ocean run up, and it tends to make full use of it! On this particular day, it was what my grandfather would have described as a particularly lazy wind – not bothering to take the time to go around you, it blew straight through you instead.

hwest7

The match day programme

The orientation of the pitch at Haverfordwest is such that the prevailing wind effectively blows in over the club house behind the goal at one end of the ground, sweeps the full length of the pitch, and then disappears off in the direction of Carmarthen beyond the other end. As Dan was the junior assistant (and therefore on the line opposite the main grandstand with its wind-protecting sides), we sat instead in the smaller and more open stand on the other side of the ground. We had hoped for some respite from the howling gale by sitting alongside the media box near the half way line, but this proved to be wishful thinking.

The match itself was very badly affected by the conditions. The pitch cut up quite badly from the outset, making it difficult to play any sort of passing game, and severely hampering attempts to get the ball down on the floor to counteract the wind. Haverfordwest played into the wind in the first forty-five minutes, and the ball spent long periods of time in their half. On the few occasions when the ball did make it into the hands of the Aberystwyth keeper at the other end, he was able to use the elements to send it 70 or 80 metres back down field with the easiest of swings of his right boot – a tactic that (in all honesty) neither side employed nearly enough in the circumstances. This was not a day for tiki-taka football.

Neither side was on the greatest run of form coming into the match, and this lack of confidence, coupled with the heavy pitch and strong wind, meant that this was never going to be a classic. Chances in the first half were restricted to a well-taken free kick by Aberystwyth’s Venables that cannoned back off the post; and a rasping drive from Haverfordwest’s Borrelli that was smartly tipped over the cross bar by the Aber keeper. There were a couple of half-hearted penalty appeals from Aber, but neither looked like they had much going for them from my viewpoint in the stand, and half-time arrived at nil-nil.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first. Aberystwyth probably played the best football, and in Venables they certainly had the best player on the pitch. He looked calm and assured in possession and seemed to create time and space even when receiving the ball in what was often a congested midfield area. For all Aber’s possession though, they seemed unlikely to break down a resolute and determined Bluebirds defence until an attempted cross from young substitute Nicky Palmer swirled over the head of the Haverfordwest keeper and dipped dramatically in the face of the wind, to nestle in the far corner of the net. A total fluke, but ultimately the decisive moment in the match. Aber held on to win by the single goal, extending Haverfordwest’s winless streak to eleven games and leaving them rooted to the foot of the Welsh Premier League table.

This was a relatively easy game for the match officials, with very few flashpoints and no real controversy – just what you want on the day after Christmas. It was great seeing Dan in action on a Welsh Premier game for the first time, and both parents made the trip back to Cardiff feeling very proud!

hwest5

“Round you go, fellas” – the teams change ends following the coin toss at the start of the game

Who’d be a Ref? Well – me, actually

I’ve been involved in football almost for as long as I can remember – initially watching my dad playing and then, from about the age of 7 playing competitively myself first for the Cubs, and then for progressive school teams. Once my own son came along, I became involved in coaching his junior football teams and then – when he got to 16 and was thinking about where he wanted to go next with his football, we made a joint, life-changing decision : we both did a referees’ course with the South Wales Football Association. Dan is much fitter than me (naturally enough), and has started his refereeing career at a young enough age to progress to the very top if he wants to. However, no matter how good he gets, and how far he progresses up the ladder, he’ll always have to live with the fact that I got more than him in the end of course exam!

When I tell people that I referee local football to relax on the weekend, the reaction invariably goes something like this : “You must be mad! Why would you want to put yourself through that?” There are lots of horror stories out there about the abuse that referees occasionally suffer at the hands of players or spectators, and of course, such incidents are totally unacceptable. However, they are incredibly rare. And most of the time, refereeing is great fun.

My match this afternoon was a good example. A regional cup game between a Cardiff-based team and one from the Bridgend area. It was played in a fantastic atmosphere – full-blooded, committed but mostly fair, and in what used to be called the Corinthian spirit. The final score was 3-1 and both teams congratulated/commiserated with each other before heading off to the pub for post-match sausage and chips. There are much worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon!