The Agenda: Should referees be allowed to talk more?

The men in charge of Premier League referees seem to think that silence is golden. After a weekend of controversial decisions, Stuart Rayner is not so sure

Julian Finney/Getty Images Referee Kevin Friend
Referee Kevin Friend

It was not a good weekend for football referees. Phil Dowd and Neil Swarbrick were criticised for not sending off Kevin Mirallas and Wayne Rooney respectively. But the worst decision was Kevin Friend’s to red  card Sunderland’s Wes Brown.

All prompted plenty of debate, not least over whether referees should explain their decisions to the public.

“I would like that,” Sunderland coach Gustavo Poyet said as he discussed Friend’s (right) decision in the Britannia Stadium Press room. “For us, it would be better. I understand why they don’t do it because they don’t want to be every week explaining things. They’ve got a point.

“But, with specific, unique situations, please do it. If you’re doing it every week, you have a problem, but then you’re making too many mistakes!”

It is hardly a revolutionary idea. Referees in Germany and America, for example, regularly do it. Rugby union officials – miked up in televised games – will too.

It has happened in English football in the past. In 2004 Paul Durkin admitted he was too far away to give a penalty for Tim Howard’s foul on Alan Shearer.

Nowadays that would be frowned upon by the Professional Game Match Officials – the body in charge of referees. First, a disclosure of interest. Post-match quotes from referees would – occasionally – make good copy for newspapers. But there are far better reasons for it than that.

Referees deserve the right to explain themselves when they want to. They should not be forced to, in the way managers have to front up after every game, but a right of reply ought to be available.

Without it comes a void filled by managers, players and pundits.

The first two are hardly impartial, all are too often ill-informed.

One Sunderland player suggested on Saturday “the linesman might have said he didn’t think it was a red card, I don’t know for certain.”

Such speculation hardly helped the debate.

Stoke manager Mark Hughes had another explanation as to why the decision might have been reached. “Some angles look worse than others so you can understand why he has interpreted it as a reckless challenge worthy of a sending off,” he said.

That might indeed have been why Friend reached for his red card.

If it is, it would have done no harm whatsoever for Friend to say so. It happens. It is why referees have linesmen, which is another debate.

Mark Halsey’s view of Callum McManaman’s horror tackle on Massadio Haidara last season was blocked by a player running across him. “I didn’t have a clue what had happened,” he has since admitted.

Even the fiercest referee-baiter could not criticise Halsey for being unable to see through footballers.

But without that explanation – it leaked out later, but was not confirmed at the time – every man and his dog had free reign to question Halsey’s judgement.

Supporters would feel a lot more sympathetic to referees if they had the decency to admit mistakes or explain their thinking. Leave emotional managers to pass judgement and they will continue to be demonised. Is anyone remotely surprised Hughes thought Friend was right to send off one of Stoke’s opponents, or that Poyet believed he was wrong to dismiss one of his own? You can be pretty confident you will rarely get an unbiased opinion from a manager straight after a match.

Pundits at least are normally neutral. The problem is, far too many do not fully understand the rules.

Referees – this country’s paid experts on the laws of football – might be able to explain a few nuances that have passed the pundits by, or give an interpretation that might have been overlooked or dismissed. Some, for example, have suggested the force of Brown’s trailing leg as he pounced in front of Charlie Adam might have been behind his dismissal. They are just speculating. At least some sections of the media are working to put the lack of knowledge right.

Mark Halsey is a matchday pundit for BT Sport, Graham Poll writes a Daily Mail column. Dermott Gallagher and, to a lesser extent, Jeff Winter are regular voices too.

The more we supporters are educated in the rules and the officials’ thought processes, the better for us and the referees,

Officials would have to be careful what they said, but so does everyone.

“Comments after the game could impair opportunity for a player to appeal his red card”, Keith Hackett, the former head of the Professional Game Match Officials – the body in charge of referees – has pointed out. The PGMO should have enough trust in their employees’ commonsense after giving the right training.

This season, for the first time, the Premier League has mandatory “mixed zones” at its matches.

They are commonplace in Champions League and international football. Mixed zones are areas all players who have taken part in a game are required to walk through. On the other side of a barrier stand the great unwashed of British journalism.

They gives us hacks the opportunity to ask for an interview. Players are perfectly at liberty to say yes or no.

Plenty of clubs do not take it seriously, allowing players to sneak out via other routes. Many is the player to have perfected the art of walking through with head bowed, sometimes with the aid of over-sized headphones clamped to their ears.

But we journalists would rather be told “not today thanks” face to face than second-hand by a Press officer we suspect has not even asked. Too often we find out from the supposedly reticent player they would happily have been interviewed if asked. If proper mixed zones become a reality, rather than the halfway-house sham they often are, that would never happen again. So why not just ask referees to walk through too?

More often than not their presence would barely register. When a procession of multi-millionaire superstars walk past, how often will the unassuming official be asked to stop?

When they are, the responsibility lies with those asking the questions. The ability to ask questions on behalf of the supporters is a privilege that can always be taken away.

“If you’re talking about a matter of fact, I can’t see a problem with it, as long as the questions are about that 90 minutes, not what happened three or four weeks ago with another referee,” said Halsey. “But in my opinion that will not happen with the management we have at the moment.”

More’s the pity.

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David Whetstone
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Mark Douglas
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Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer