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Give Premier League Officials The Tools They Need And Until You Do, Give Them A Break

Thursday 9th March 2017
Twice in two days, now, I have found myself disagreeing with fellow Round and White authors. The first occasion was mostly semantic. Jordan Street believes Tyrone Mings fully intended to mash Zlatan Ibrahimović's brains to a pulp in the clash between Manchester United and Bournemouth which subsequently sees the duo facing lengthy bans. I'm not so sure. Ultimately, we agree both player's conduct was inexcusable. Ryan Stewart's opinion on Premier League officials' competence is another matter. He believes referee performance is deteriorating. I think technological advancement simply exposes pre-existing flaws and the Prem and FA are dragging their heels over the opportunity to use the same technology with which broadcasters damn referees to improve an officiating body already ranked among the world's best.

Before I get into that, let me say there's nothing personal in my disagreement. I believe everyone has a right to a defensible opinion. If you can't defend yours, just like Louis van Gaal could no longer defend Jonny Evans' performance at Manchester United last season, you should drop it and find a better one. Nor is simply having an opinion an unassailable right. Using Donald Trump's recent accusation that Barack Obama had his campaign wiretapped as an example, you can't just put yours out there and expect it to be legitimized. You must provide support. You know, such things as evidence and (non-alternative) facts. Otherwise, the rest of us will simply think your diet consists primarily of stuff that comes out of the wrong end of a bull.

I'm referencing Trump with my last remark, not Ryan. He points to recent match performances as evidence to support his opinion. So, unless he's a vegetarian or Hindu, his diet probably consists of the bull itself, rather than its waste product. I just believe that in drawing his conclusions, Ryan hasn't taken all available facts into account. Therefore, I'm claiming equal time to present a differing view. Feel free to poke holes in my opinion (just not me) in the comment section below.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Referees and linesmen are human beings. Even though we rely on them, like parents, to always get it right, they will make mistakes. To stop appreciating them when they do is to be like temperamental children who yell "I Hate You! I Hate You!" when they don't get their way.

Instead, 'supporters' should be lobbying the Premier League to--ahem--support its officials by giving them better training and more advanced tools. If viewers can see in less than thirty seconds an official has botched an important call, why does the FA leave its men in black to twist in the wind? Don't hand me any hooey about "natural flow" and "needless delays." Instead, read this study demonstrating matches played between two positive sides, say Barcelona v Arsenal, will produce only seventy minutes of effective time, aka ball in play. Conversely, when just one Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce-type eleven takes the pitch, fans only get forty for their money. When have you ever seen twenty to fifty minutes added time assessed in a match? Teams know how to waste time during throw-ins, goal kicks, and set pieces, which are all halts in play not included when calculating stoppage time. We're back to dining on cow patties when we entertain complaints about video review interrupting or slowing play.

Ryan bases much of his argument on Kevin Friend's United/Bournemouth performance, which, as you already know, I watched. So, let's talk about that, and not Anthony Taylor's day at the Liberty Stadium, which I did not. Sky Sports broadcast team felt Friend made a right hash of things. Yet, they admitted, even showed on replay, he couldn't have seen either Mings' stamp or Ibra's elbow because his view was obstructed on both occasions. Wayne Rooney's prostate body impeded his line of sight for the former and a Cherries player, standing not ten meters away, the latter. When players from both sides began mobbing him, Friend surely knew he had missed something. Still, he did his job properly. Without seeing either incident, or being told of them by his assistants, he could take no action. Imagine being placed in a position where your choices are to sacrifice your integrity or your reputation. That is not an easy decision to make, especially when you're paid less in a year than most players you're babysitting earn in a week. Top flight referees face such pressure continually and are pilloried for making the correct choices as much as for their errors. It's no wonder Mark Clattenburg, who refereed the FA Cup, Champions League, and Euro finals in 2016, has decided to leave the Premier League, much as Howard Webb bowed out early in his career.
The Bundesliga has experimented with and recently announced it is prepared to implement video review for the 2017-18 season. Major League Soccer used video assistant referees during its recently concluded preseason, which, among other instances, saw David Villa issued a red card for an action the referee missed. League Commissioner Don Garber wants to have VAR online for the 2017 season's second half. MLS is even hiring in anticipation it will happen. If the Premier League is truly a global leader why does it lag so far behind?

Had video review been in place at Old Trafford, Mings would have been red carded before Zlatan had a chance for revenge. Would receiving justice have put the topknotted Swede in a better frame of mind when later taking the penalty Artur Boruc would save? Who knows? All that is certain is Mings rather than Andrew Surman would have been ejected. One Bournemouth player for another. Tensions may or may not have been curbed but the visitors would have been still been down a man. For all the outrage, the outcome was in line with what should have occurred.

Kevin Friend was also lambasted for not immediately realizing the yellow he showed Surman for shoving Ibra was the player's second, although he eventually did. To fault someone for requiring time to make the right decision when players from both sides are haranguing him is ridiculous. Had Mike Dean been the official, the match would have finished closer to five aside than eleven v ten, as he would have used the Prem's new dissent ruling like a mom sending her squabbling brood to their rooms. By comparison, Friend, who hadn't issued a red card in more than thirty previous matches, is an official who believes players should be given every opportunity to fairly decide a match rather than taking it upon himself.
Which brings me to the next point. Referees having different personalities is inevitable. Varying standards, however, should not be acceptable. Football is an art. Officiating is not. Enforcing discipline is a discipline itself. Match officials should never be looking to express themselves or put forward an individual interpretation. Yet, without proper league support, Premier League officials must find their own way. Optimal standardization cannot be met. Again, ask yourself why Webb and Clattenburg turned in their whistles?

In the 1990s, Major League Baseball failed to support its umpires, leading to an ugly rebellion. The league ended up accepting their resignations en mass, then rehiring the best among them. Not failing to realize it bore some responsibility for the umpires' power grab, baseball reorganized its officiating division and sought out advanced tools like Pitch f/x to rate and help umpires improve. There are now sharply defined standards to determine when umpires should be promoted from or relegated back to the minor leagues. MLB also uses video review in-game to determine whether runners have been tagged out, and whether balls are fair, foul, or home runs.

The National Hockey League reviews every goal from a central command center in Toronto. Last season, linesmen were given access to a tablet to review offside calls onsite. Interestingly, when offsides were made reviewable, resultant goals were overturned at an alarming rate. The phenomenon demonstrated how difficult it is for a linesman to be in position to make an accurate, unobstructed call, even though hockey's offside rule is centered on a static blue line painted on the ice, rather than defenders whose position continually changes up and down a far longer, wider playing surface. While many pundits lobbied for the call to no longer be reviewable or for offside's definition to be changed, a decrease in offside calls this season reveals players have adjusted to the improved accuracy technology afforded officials. While officials took the brunt of criticism for their supposed failings, playing quality improved.

For the Premier League and other lucrative football competitions, it comes back to the same issue: dedication to quality control. Football could find room for two referees or four linesman to make more accurate calls. As well as a fourth official standing between the two coaches, there could be another in a video booth, miked to on-pitch officials, letting them know when they've missed a critical incident. Cost is not prohibitive given the huge broadcasting fees leagues are reaping. Players would adjust to additional eyes monitoring their actions. Yet, league executives exploit every excuse not to invest in officiating, letting dissatisfaction fester. Richard Scudamore and his peers across Europe might just as well be farmers as executives. While they shovel the bull----, match officials are expendable livestock, sacrificial lambs or scapegoats, take your pick.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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