Premier League referee reforms a good start but leave out two crucial components

A few weeks ago I took my daughter to see the Sounders play NYCFC. It was a beautiful day in Seattle, which was ruined by Frank Lampard’s hand ball. Seattle failed to clear a corner and NYCFC pumped the ball back in to Frank Lampard. Lampard seemed to chest the ball into the goal but immediately all of the Sounders defenders pointed to hand ball. Angry at the injustice, the Sounders players swarmed around the referee, begging for him to look up at the big screen where the stadium was showing replays of the goal. On that replay beaming down on all of us you could clearly see that the ball had struck Lampard in the hand.

The referee, to his credit, waved the players away, then went over to the linesman and had a discussion. Then awarded the goal.

I don’t think the referee used the video replay to make his decision but if he had, the goal would have stood anyway, because on second look, the handball was clearly not intentional. Lampard was getting his hand out of the way, tucking it in to his body when the ball strikes his hand. And as you know, having studied the Laws of the Game, handball MUST be intentional.

One of the things I like best about Major League Soccer is the fact that they are open about their referee decisions. On their official web site they have a weekly breakdown of the most controversial calls. We can argue about the style of production on that breakdown (it’s very “smashmouth”) and we can argue about the fact that not all the calls are shown nor did I agree with everything the commentator had to say. But the very fact that the video exists is pretty incredible. I can’t imagine the FA or the Premier League hosting a weekly breakdown of good and bad calls by referees: they hardly have time, they are too busy policing accounts like my Vine and preventing people like me from showing their referees making bad calls.

Still, I don’t envy Premier League referees. My daughter, looking down on the referee getting barracked by the Sounders players said to me “who would want to be a referee?” Who indeed? And even worse, who would want to be a referee in the Premier League?

Premier League referees have to walk a tightrope between tradition and modernity. Tradition in English football dictates that crunching tackles are the norm. Fans in the stands demand blood and guts from their players. They want to see Flamini go flying in and take out Nani doing the Seal Dribble — it’s a reckless challenge but no one batted an eye.

But modernity dictates that we need to be rewarding technically gifted players rather than rewarding simple brute aggression. And over the almost 20 years I’ve spent watching English football, the level of aggression has softened considerably. It’s still there: it was only 8 years ago that Steve Bruce claimed that Martin Taylor’s tackle on Eduardo wasn’t even a booking and only a few years ago many argued that Shawcross’ tackle on Ramsey didn’t deserve a red card. That attitude has changed in the last five years.

Premier League officials have to make a decision in the blink of an eye, balance between the love of fight and the need for beauty and speed, they need to apply the laws of the game without any apparent bias, and they need to control play without ruining the game with too many calls. And they have to be 100% perfect. Because we now live in a world where the referees don’t get the benefit of video replay but the rest of the world does and one bad call will be replayed endlessly in the internet.

So, I support the League’s new rules to prevent dissent on the beleaguered referees. I would love to see half of a team sent off when they surround the referee next season. And I would love to see Mourinho or Pardew sent off when one of them makes one of his in-your-face runs out of his technical area to celebrate a goal.

But just respecting the referees decisions on the pitch is only 1/3 of the solution. The League needs to be more open about referees making errors. We all watch the games on TV and endlessly dissect every moment of every game. So, transparency is already happening and instead of trying to sweep their bad decisions under the rug, the League needs to be open about it, more like MLS does with their weekly wrap up of controversies. Give the fans a breakdown of why it was a good or bad decision! Help the fans learn how the referees are applying the laws of the game so that we can all be on the same page about how the game is managed.

And the third leg of referee reform has to be adding video replay. Technology has already been brought into the game with the goal sensor system. The next logical step is to bring on video replay for all penalty calls and to allow managers to demand a video replay call at least once a game. After all, we fans are already video reffing these games. Maybe it’s time we let the professionals have a crack at it as well.




  1. Good article Tim. Also, can we please have the referees’ mics audible to the public? Like in Rugby. Where everything the ref says is final, no one dare argue. But we can all hear the referee take the time to explain his calls to the players and issue warnings, and his interactions with his fellow refs.

    Beyond that, the structure of the PGMO must change and be made more transparent and accountable. Who they promote and punish, based on what criteria, low number of refs who still seemingly aren’t treated as equals (high profile games only go to a few), and of course, why there is so little geographical diversity of refs’ hometown.

    1. PS. And why they feel the need to pay hush money to retiring refs. Shouldn’t retired refs actually be reaching out and telling their experiences so the public can understand better? What do they have to hide?

  2. It is a welcome move, but I fear we’ll see quite a bit of favoritism in this. Fans are more likely to withhold judgments of prejudice if we perceive a decision to be made ‘split-second’, but what counts as dissent is fairly subjective, and occurs in seconds rather than milliseconds. What happens when an English golden boy like Rooney mouths off to a ref, as he so often does? Very little, I imagine. What happens when a foreigner like Giroud does the same thing after getting dragged down by the shirt by John Terry? You get the picture.

  3. Wow. How not surprising is the rumored appointment of Fat Sam to the England job? Proving once again just how backward-thinking the English FA really is.

    1. Rather than safe hands, A la Dice is certainly the least bad option. Its difficult to tell how much credit Klinsman deserves at Bayern / DFB and whilst he has critics at USA they’ve done better than England with fewer options.
      Eddie Howe might have been the most exciting choice but I am not sure how serious his candidacy was, he did a decent job with Bournemouth and a very moderate squad (that lost a key striker for much of the season) but I think his age and experience (playing only in the lower leagues although injury curtailed his chances at Portsmouth) would make it tricky at this stage, but if he keeps Bournemouth up for 4/6 yrs he might be a real prospect.
      Otherwise there aren’t any exciting options. Part of the problem is the lack of English managers doing ell in the Prem. Even last seasons shockers had an italian manager
      None of the options have managed in the Champions league and I have as many full England caps as all three.
      Its depressing to say that at least under A la Dice England will defend properly and use set pieces well. He is not as ignorant as generally portrayed but I don’t think England have the players for total football / the beautiful game they are to be honest a bit Bolton. Hopefully we wont see as much of the Bolton thuggery tbf there has been less recently at WHam and Sunderland (probably due to sharper application of the rules god if only they had started doing that years ago we’d have won more titles).
      England with Fattio Smmio are not going to be exciting but if he gets organised has a decent start he will with then have to back up his boast he could be successful at Madrid with decent players.

  4. WHU are waiting for Bacca after AC Milan accepted their 30 mil bid. He is still waiting for a CL team to save him.

    Icardi has posted the following: #Amala #MI9. Metro reckons this means he still prefers (amala=love her, Mauro Icardi, 9) Inter to a move away. This should come as no surprise to anyone. So it goes and the striker hunt goes on.

    Can’t wait for the Lens presser.

  5. I would like to see the one appeal process, I would. also like to see the referee have the option to use it on behalf of the team of a player who is writhing on the floor in agony, if he is satisfied the player was injured the team retain their appeal if not they lose it. This may put a stop to the hystrionics that we currently see.

  6. I want to be optimistic about this but the premiership has shown no real desire to make stuff like this stick, at least on a consistent basis. I fear some players will be punished, some won’t, and it will just result in more ‘controversy’ and ‘talking points’.

    One thing in it’s favour is that, as pointed out by Tony at Untold, it seems the main driving force behind the change was a desire by Scudamore etc to make the league more appealing to people who find confrontational and over emotional antics a turn off and thereby increase profits. If this is indeed predominantly about boosting profits, then I can see them being more serious about it, unless/until it’s shown to have no real impact on the bottom line.

    Man, I do not like feeling this cynical.

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