On yesterday’s Arsecast Extra the subject of referees and decisions came up. James said that while watching most of the Premier League fixtures over the weekend, the in-studio analysis focused heavily on the decisions made – often at the expense of what happened with the football.
Refs seem to be in the spotlight more than ever before. Long gone is the old adage about how a good ref is one you never notice, because now that we have VAR it’s almost impossible for them to go through a game without some involvement which might take seconds, or sometimes minutes.
That genie can’t go back into the bottle now. You can’t have 25 HD cameras filming from every angle and ignore what they show you. Except what VAR has done is shine a light on how difficult it is to make split second decisions correctly when the rest of us have the benefit of slow-motion replays. Even then, when refs do consult the monitor after the VAR people tell him to, decisions can often confound us.
Remember, it worked in our favour this season when Emile Smith Rowe was shown a red card for a challenge which was barely a foul. On a second viewing, the ref who’d got it wrong in the first place reversed his decision. It’s one of the few times I can recall being pleased we have that technology available to us, because for the most part it has done nothing for the game we all want to enjoy. Even when the rules are pretty much black and white, as they are for offside, people take exception to it.
How can his toe be offside?! How can his fingertip be offside?! His right nipple, slightly erect from being in a scoring position, is offside. All of a sudden we want subjectivity to be introduced to a purely objective situation. The irony being that what we had before was exactly that – an assistant referee putting his flag up when he thought the player was offside. Sometimes it was wrong, most of the time it was right. Now almost every decision is an argument, one way or another.
The idea of a refereeing conspiracy against Arsenal came up. I don’t think there is one. I’m as frustrated by some decisions, and by some officiating displays as anyone else. This isn’t new. The onanistic habits of officials have long been highlighted in song by football fans, from the top to the bottom of the 92 professional clubs, and beyond.
I think we’re a club that gives referees too many decisions to make, and I do think there’s a certain hangover from the Wenger era when the fancy-dan foreigners were seen as some kind of threat to the thing that, for some, English football was built on. Hard work, running around a lot, being tough and physical. I don’t think we get the requisite protection at times, and in my mind it was no coincidence that Arsenal were the team that suffered three horrific leg-breaks in a relatively short period of time. What happened to Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo and Abou Diaby was a consequence of that, and that it didn’t happen to any other side says something about how things went down.
However, is there a cabal of referees plotting to bring about our demise? No. I was annoyed by the Luiz red card last week, but ultimately, if we keep our concentration and don’t do the stupid thing, we don’t give the official that decision to make. Do I get frustrated by the perceived lack of consistency in decisions across the league? Of course, but don’t keep putting error prone players in positions where they make fouls which give away penalties and often lead to red cards. The greater control you have over a game, the less of an issue the referees become, and I think there’s some crossover with our inability to do just that in recent years, and the heightened focus on decisions which have gone against us in the same time period.
We are, of course, laser-focused on Arsenal, but I guarantee the same complaints we have about certain officials are found in the conversations between fans of other clubs. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine Chelsea fans don’t think much of Anthony Taylor – the referee who didn’t spot Alexis Sanchez’s handball in the build-up to the first goal in the 2017 FA Cup final, and who sent off Mateo Kovacic in the 2020 final for not very much at all. Not that I give a fish’s tit about their pain, but up and down the league, fans will have their own refereeing bête-noire, no question.
I would never pretend to be any fan of Mike Dean, but there’s no justification for death threats to him and his family. Even if you think it’s just some spotty little prick on the internet hiding behind his anonymous egg avatar Twitter account with a name and 8 numbers, threats of that nature are scary. There’s a wider conversation to be had about social media and abuse, not least because it now seems after every game we’re seeing reports of racism directed at players who might have made a mistake in their job, but let’s be straight up: death threats against referees for what they do in a game of football is objectively very bad. We don’t need replays or lines drawn or anything else. It’s wrong and should be roundly condemned.
So how do we deal with the increased focus on officials? How is it possible to deal with the spotlight shining so brightly on everything they do, at the expense of the actual sport? You can’t just say ‘Let’s stop talking about it’, because that doesn’t solve anything, and people aren’t going to stop talking about it anyway.
Right now, the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Board) feels like an organisation in need of some serious introspection, at the very least. From the Premier League website:
Formed in 2001 to improve refereeing standards, the PGMOL group officiate across all the Premier League, English Football League (EFL) and Football Association (FA) Competitions. All three organisations fund it.
I think it’s incumbent on those three organisations to ask if it is successfully, or satisfactorily, accomplishing the job of improving standards. Mike Riley has been in charge since 2009, and it feels to me like the inconsistency of standards is inextricably tied to his stewardship. I could be wrong, but it feels like there’s a lack of accountability. Decisions are made from on high, often with no explanation.
The idea of having a former referee on TV coverage to try and explain an official’s thinking is perhaps a good one, but when it feels like they’re only there to defend referees, what’s the point? When that former ref says stuff like ‘VAR isn’t there to get decisions right’, it’s little wonder people get frustrated.
It feels to me like there’s a need for some calm, considered conversation about refereeing standards and how to improve them. It can’t happen if officials are on the defensive, fans are screaming blue murder, and managers/coaches are sticking the knife if in the heat of the post-game moment. I don’t know how exactly it should work, but any profession should be open to things which improve its standards, and that has to be the starting point. Whether the PGMOL is ready for that kind of conversation, I can’t say.
For me, the biggest damage VAR has done is to create an expectation of flawlessness when it comes to officiating. If we have this technology, these camera angles, these replays, why can’t we get everything 100% right all the time? The reality is the rules of the game lend themselves to a subjectivity which will produce ‘mistakes’. Those mistakes make us angry, because they cost our teams goals, players, points, matches.
It’s a hard job, and VAR has made it even more difficult. There were always bad decisions before, but I don’t think they reverberated as long as they do now – and it’s worth pointing out that clips that can exist for ever and be pulled up in the blink of an eye and posted on social media play a part too.
What is unquestionable though is that there is a growing problem right now, and no amount of wishing it was like the old days will fix it. The PGMOL, the leagues, the clubs, and the media have to find a way to talk about it properly, and at least try and make improvements. Fans are always going to be frustrated by injustice – perceived or otherwise – but I suspect there’d be more understanding if there were genuine attempts to acknowledge the issues and make them better.
This is no longer something that can be swept under the carpet, because it will just fester and resurface. You don’t fix anything without talking about it first, so hopefully that happens at every level.