Striking Back for the Umpires

I was listening to TalkSport in the car yesterday. The ex-football referee, Graham Poll, was criticising a more recently retired ref, Mark Halsey, for betraying the ‘refereeing fraternity’ – which is presumably some kind of sacred brotherhood for middle-aged men who prance around like schoolteachers on a Saturday afternoon.

The meat of the controversy passed me by to be honest – I find club football nauseating these days – but one thing was clear: the majority of people believe the standard of refereeing in football has reached its nadir.

I’m not surprised this is the public perception. One of the many reasons I stopped caring about club football was the fact that referees decide a large proportion of tight games. Statistically, the most common scorelines in professional football are 2-1 and 1-0; therefore, a referee’s decision to award a penalty or not, basically decides the outcome.

Furthermore, there seems to be no consistency in the issuing of red and yellow cards. So much is open to interpretation. It’s not black and white like cricket’s supposed to be. If a ref sends a player off after half an hour, the game is basically ruined and for what – a borderline challenge at best?

However, it’s not just football that’s suffering from poor officiating. Since giving up on football, I’ve become an avid fan of club rugby union. They’ve got a salary cap, you see.

I also contribute daily to online forums discussing my team’s fortunes. A recurrent theme – you might be interested to know – is the pitiful standard of refereeing.

Last season, my team Worcester Warriors (yes, I know we’re bad) received two or three official apologies from the league after ridiculous and totally unacceptable refereeing decision directly cost us matches.

Maybe it’s always the teams at the bottom who suffer most. However, I personally think not. If you read forums for Leicester or Saracens fans the same disillusionment with officials exists.

The reason I’m talking about other sports, of course, is that cricket has its own problem with match officials. This summer’s Ashes was blighted by some of the worst umpiring witnessed at a cricket ground since the 1970-71 Ashes, when England’s bowlers didn’t get a single LBW decision in the entire series.

Despite the controversies involving DRS, I’ve heard many fans argue that technology is needed for one simple reason: the standard of international umpires is currently the worst it’s ever been. Instead of Dickie Bird, we now have officials with dicky eyesight.

Or have we? Isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that exactly the same debate is happening in the nation’s three major sports simultaneously? Have standards really plummeted to an all-time low in football, rugby and cricket, or is there something else at work here?

My gut feeling is that the standard of officiating is probably exactly the same as it’s always been. Would we remember Dickie Bird, David Shepherd and Co so fondly, and revere them as almost infallible, if their every decision had been scrutinised by hotspot, hawkeye, snicko and super-slow motion replays?

Television coverage has evolved to the point where every single decision is replayed ad nauseum, using technology nobody would’ve dreamed of thirty years ago. The same goes for other sports too.

When a penalty in given in a Premier League football match, Gary Neville fires up his computer and gives Sky viewers what amounts to virtual reality recreation of the incident. Slow motions replays no longer suffice: television viewers need a three-dimensional computer simulation of the incident to decide whether it was a penalty or not.

This is so unfair on the referees. In the old days, TV commentators would simply say “well, the referee was in the best position to see the incident”. Fans in the stands might have disagreed with the decision made, but their anger was tempered by the realisation they were a long way away from the incident (often high up in the stands). Meanwhile, TV viewers would get one grainy, indecisive replay.

As for rugby, most fans can’t tell whether it’s a penalty or not, because key parts of the action are going on at the bottom of a pile of bodies, or the other side of the scrum. What’s more, they keep changing the bloody rules. None of this stops the likes of Stuart Barnes, however, from giving the ref hell every time something controversial happens.

So what do you think? Perhaps we should return to the days of trusting officials. Maybe the overall experience isn’t enhanced by endless replays after all.

Before the days of big screens at grounds, cricket spectators accepted a batsman was either out, or not out, and looked forward to the rest of the match. Besides, human error was an accepted part of the game.

Would everyone have enjoyed the Ashes a lot more if Sky had binned hotspot, hawkeye etc, and just showed one replay of controversial incidents at full speed (or not shown any replays at all)? I suspect we would have done.

Dar, Erasmus, Hill and Dharmasena certainly would’ve enjoyed themselves a lot more. Can you imagine Dickie Bird tolerating a fielding captain publically challenging his decisions on the field? The whole concept of DRS would’ve been an anathema to him.

Umpiring was always a tough job. Now it’s almost impossible. Who’d be an umpire? It’s an extremely pertinent question. The public are demanding better officials, but where exactly are they going to come from?

James Morgan


  • Good for you for your renewed interest in rugger – my commiserations that your side is Worcester! There are good people there and the ethos is admirable but it is going to take a while – possibly longer than they have – to get things to where they need them to be to stay in the Premiership.

    You are essentially correct about the standard of refereeing. The technology allows us all to become armchair experts with access to way more information that the on-field official could ever have. My view, however, is that in some areas referees have not helped themselves. Refereeing at the scrum is a case in point. It doesn’t take advanced technology to see a squint put-in – just an official prepared to be firm and to enforce the existing laws. If referees were tougher on the obvious stuff they would probably be given more leeway on the really difficult decisions.

    Incidentally – I have never understood why soccer doesn’t allow post-match citing. If players could be cited for cheating many of the absurd penalty situations would probably disappear in short order.

    • I’ve often wondered about that: if players were banned for a game for diving, how long would any manager tolerate it?

  • I feel quite despondent about Worcester. They just haven’t got things right either off the field or on it. Such a shame as the fans are now giving up after 9 years of failure. The cricket team is also poor, although lack of resources rather than mismanagement is probably to blame at New Road.

    Agreed re: citings in football. Makes perfect sense. They do it in cricket too albeit slightly differently. Disciplining players is one area in which TV evidence can indisputably help sports, without much of a counter argument.

    • I’ve often wondered, Morgsy: have you actually got a job? You seem to watch more sport than anyone I know, even me, and I’m famously lazy.

      You shouldn’t be despondent. Supporting a team which never wins anything is classical English behaviour. You should adopt a rugby league team as well and completely forget this nonsense you refer to as ‘football’.

  • Here in England, professional referees, with very few exceptions, come from the ranks of former professional county players, and on the whole they are very good at their jobs. I would contend the best in the World. The few come from the ranks of Premier League umpires who progress to the minor counties panel and then onward and upwards.

    The problem starts with the ICC Elite Panel which does not treat umpires as impartial and have ruled that only “foreign” umpires are allowed to officiate at test level. This causes several problems. First of all it determines that umpires are appointed to the Elite Panel based upon nationality rather than sheer ability. It also determines that the choice is restricted to those who are willing to travel abroad for most of the time, living out of suitcases, on aeroplanes and in hotels in foreign countries. Not many young umpires in particular are prepared to give up their personal life in this way.

    The result, with one or two exceptions, a small pool of second rate umpires with nice uniforms.

  • Umpires will be replaced by technology before too long anyway. Much less likely to make a mistake, and can’t be swayed by personal biases or prejudices – or by the crowd.


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