March 27, 2015

Video Killed The Referee Star

A collaboration by Michael Clements and Steve Kessel

Michael - It's funny that exactly a year after Gibbs is mistekenly sent off for a spectacular handball by Chamberlain against Chelski last season, we're sitting here talking about yet another error by a Premier League referee in a red card situation. First Gibbs, then Wes Brown against Manchester United back in February, now Gareth McAuley of West Brom against Man City just three weeks later. While these errors are surely the most blatant, it seems that referees are having more of an influence on Premier League (and European) matches than intended. To me, Referees are to be out of mind, out of sight for the most part. It is not a referee's job to detract attention from what we pay to watch, and that is the football. I believe Premier League Match Officials (referees) became full-time professionals back in 2001, but before that they were part-time and, let's be honest, underpaid. Now, in 2015 they are very well paid and their only job is to officiate English Football Association matches. Is it time that we demanded more from our referees? Let's not forget that these are merely human beings though, and I'll be the first to admit that we're nowhere near perfect, especially when required to make a split-second decision with 50,000 fans screaming for one decision or the other. So how can we assist these fellas? How about technology? It is the 21st century after all, so should we be catching up to every other major sport on the planet and utilizing video to assist our referees and ensure we're getting the best from our football?

Steve – Fifa has been beating the time drum until the skin is broken when it comes to incorporating technology into the game.  Finally we have goal-line technology in the Prem and guess what, seems to me like it saves time rather than adds it on.  Before, a close goal-line decision would regularly lead to a huge dispute among the players and the ref would get a lot of abuse and harassment.  Now, the players know that what the ref’s goal watch says is final and they accept that… instantly!  So, why should the technology stop at the goal line?  Luke Moore (from the Football Ramble) made a very compelling argument as to why it is not enough.  What is the point of a goal standing because it crossed the line, if the player was offside in the first place.  There are other reasons that a goal should be allowed or disallowed, such as the player being offside, or scoring with his hand (yes Maradona, it still hurts!).  By only having goal-line technology, we are falling very short of our responsibility to fair play.  Replays are instant and add no cost to the game.  I believe that any penalty decision should be instantly reviewed.  The minutes in between the issuing of the penalty and the player actually taking it, is more than enough time to clarify if the decision is right and fair.  This could also extend to any goal that is questionable. 

Michael - I've always considered myself a 'Football purist' of sorts. The iffy decisions and the botched calls are all part of the game, right? Except now, in an age when television rights are  going for billions of dollars, and players are being paid more than in any other sport, the stakes are so much higher than they used to be. There is so much riding on each call by the referee these days. I do believe the FA took a massive step forward when introducing goal line technology, but it's becoming evident that the ball crossing the line is, as Steve pointed out,  only the beginning of a seemingly bottomless can of worms. Penalties, offside calls, dives and of course red cards are all decisions that are going to be called into question when and if football decide to install some sort of review process, but where and how do we draw the line? Gary Lineker (of all people) proposed the idea of a three challenge system, similar to the National Football League in America. Each bench have three chances to 'challenge' a decision by the referees, and the theory behind this is to prevent every call the referee makes being questioned. Except you have to wonder, what's next? Time-outs?

Steve – That is a very good point, given the current financial investment in football, both from a commercial and fan perspective (as Arsenal fans we most definitely know that tickets aren’t cheap), the governing bodies have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the game.  Technology, if sensibly employed, would help to facilitate that.  If I am completely honest, I also like to think of myself as a football purist, and I used to be worried that technology would remove some of the passion from the game, Americanise it and before long we would have rolling subs, short segments of pop songs would blare out at every stoppage (ending mid-verse ridiculously as soon at play commenced) and Palace wouldn’t be the only team with cheerleaders.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I can only imagine how hot the ‘Gunnerettes’ would be, but I don’t go to the Emirates to stare at women, there are other establishments for that purpose alone, I go there to watch football and experience the atmosphere and comradery with the Gooners.  Anyone that has gone to a NFL, NHL or NBA game will tell you that it is a very different atmosphere.  Not necessarily worse, just different.  I always tell my North American chums that one thing I love about football is the pantomime of it all.  The fact we will boo a player vigorously because 10 years ago he made one appearance for the spuds, or five years ago got away with a dive against us.  I do wonder if removing some of the potential for cheating in the game will negate some of this pantomime atmosphere?  In relation to a three challenge system, as Michael pointed out, the last thing we want is Time Outs creeping into the game, and challenges need time outs to work effectively.  For those of you unfamiliar with the challenge/time out system in the NFL, I’ll explain.  When a coach challenges at decision by the refs, this initiates an official review process (which in fair usually takes a few mins – may be on purpose to allow them to run adverts).  If the challenge is successful, the decision is overturn, however, if the challenge is unsuccessful and the decision stands, the team is charged by taking away one of their time outs.  In the NFL time outs win and lose games, as time management is an important aspect.  In the Prem, there would be no time out to take away, thus, no consequence of making all three challenges throughout the course of a game.  Therefore, not only would this add time as there would almost certainly be six challenges a game (three for each team).  If a team has been on top and the end of the game is approaching, the manager could save up the challenges and simply use them as an additional form of time wasting in the latter stage.  This, would drive me crazy, so no thank you!

Michael - These are exactly the points I hope the FA ponder before they jump into decisions. It's such a tough topic, and I don't envy the powers that be sitting around a table attempting to 'fix' football. The idea of pantomime is absolutely what makes football what it is, and nations such as the United States paying so much attention to the Premier League and other established leagues makes you wonder if there is, in fact, anything wrong with football at all? So many other sports are so calculated, so defined and so black and white. Football allows a level of unknown fate which makes the sport so exciting and so intriguing. If a team is down a goal with 3 minutes to go, literally anything could happen, and that's incredible. In many other sports there are a handful of scenarios that could unfold within the 'rules', and while there are most certainly written rules in football, they are rules which can be stretched, manipulated and translated in such ways that can provide limitless outcomes. Some like it, some don't, but we owe it to ourselves to have this discussion and decide whether we need a change in football. If the referee could hold the game for a moment to make sure he sent off the correct player against Manchester City last week what would we be talking about right now? An allure of football is the discussion that ensues after every match. I suppose I'm torn, but with such valid points being brought to light I find myself leaning towards; 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' 
Football is coming off one of the most successful World Cups in history in terms of popularity, and the Premier League (even while not perhaps the strongest league in Europe) is enjoying a seemingly never-ending growth in international fan base, so football it most certainly not broken. Some tweaking? Sure, but let's not get carried away.

Steve – You make a very good point there.  I am a firm believer in if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  In my opinion, football is not broken, but I do think there is some room for a little tweeking.  Last night I went to the Red Wings game in Detroit.  They lost, which sucked, but overall I had a great time.  I did, however, notice yet more dissimilarities between English football and U.S. professional sports.  The first thing, and the most striking is the atmosphere.  Even the poorest crowd atmosphere you would experience at a English football ground is a step up from what I experienced last night.  There are reasons for this.  One thing that was very striking was the deathly silence when the opposing team scored a goal.  There were some fans around from the opposing team, but they were, in my opinion, overly respectful.  I quickly realised that there was no away section in the stands, a place for the opposing fans to feel safe in their celebrations.  I think this is as, in general, in hockey the fighting is carried out by the players on the ice and not the fans in the stands, thus, the home and away fans can (usually) safely mix in the stands.  The side-effect is a complete lack of balance in the atmosphere.  The only real flashpoint in terms of crowd passion I witness was an incident involving what was perceived to be a bad call.  Due to video replay, these incidents are very rare in U.S. sports.  So would we lose some of our fantastic atmosphere if we lost the potential for human error leading to bad calls?  Careful what we wish for, if we get too carried away with technology we could essentially sterilize the game at the loss of experience.  As fans we often look for a scape goat following a loss, sometimes a player, sometimes the manager, but most commonly “WE WERE ROBBED!”.  We are often overstating that fact, but it helps ease the pain with a sense of injustice.  What will we tell ourselves if we lose this outlet.  I expect more of this emotion will be negatively channelled onto the team and in particular the managers.  Personally I think that this negativity is already a growing poison in the stands of many clubs and is not something I would like to see increase.   The flip side is that the refs are coming under increasing pressure and criticism and people are demanding change.  Why is this?  I was listening to my favourite pod cast yesterday, The Tuesday Club, and Ian Stone made a very good observation.  Mobile phones are to blame.  When a call is made on the pitch the fans may feel aggrieved, but there is a reason a replay is not shown on the big screens, it is to maintain doubt in the crowd and protect the ref if he has made a howler.  Now, everyone simply texted their mate who is watching the telly (never an impartial mate either) and said mate who gets to see replays from six different angles can relay any injustice directly back into the stands.  Word spreads and the crowd get on the ref’s back.  It is not uncommon for crowds to influence the ref, so is technology, in this case, already having a negative influence on the game?  Finally, we have been stating that the only technology we use in the prem is goal line, well this is not completely true.  It is the only ‘in-play’ technology used, but video replay is used to reprimand offenders for violent conduct (or spitting) retrospectively.  Thank god it is, as it means we will not be facing Skertle a week Saturday.  Would this technology not be better used real time to punish players on the field and actually influence the game in which the offence occurred?  Should we be afraid of some tweeking?  Just look how successful the introduction of vanishing spray has been, and how it has actually improved the flow of the game but negating the need for the ref to move the wall back 10 times before the free kick can be taken! 

Michael - Technology to combat technology, spot on. Social media and cell phones are getting people all worked up. Passion is a lovely thing that makes football what it is, but I'm worried that it's beginning to get out of hand once again. The 'tweaks' that Steve and myself have been discussing almost have to be implemented sooner rather than later. I agree on the mandatory reviews of all penalty calls completely, and perhaps straight red card situations too. That is what prompted this conversation after all. We can propose the idea of using an additional ref to sit in a 'booth' (as it's called in the NFL) to review calls, but it starts to get messy when you try to organize the ins and outs. Yes, we can instantly review a penalty if the referee blows his whistle, get a definitive yes or now answer and carry on with the game. What we can't do in the run of play is review a play from the booth if the referee does NOT blow his whistle. In this case one team is still robbed for a no-call. The same goes for red cards, so we're really only fixing half the problem. Because football is such a fluid, non-stop game it's impossible to halt the game unless the referee blows his whistle, and we all hate those games when the whistle gets stuff in the refs mouth all game long and the momentum and fluidity of the match is gone. We discussed challenges, but surely we can't allow managers to interrupt the run of play to challenge a no-call? 

If we step back from the discussion of technology for a moment, and look at another aspect of the game that's got out of hand as of late, perhaps giving the referee's a bit more time and respect would help them to make sound decisions. Once again I'll use Chelsea as a prime example (because I enjoy pointing out their many flaws) - When they played PSG in the Champions League at the beginning of March and Ibrahimovic was called for a foul on Oscar, every single Chelsea player, bar the goalkeeper, surrounded the referee. There was one player on the floor and nine players in blue crowding the referee. He also had 40,000 morons shouting at him too, but that's something we can't change. What ever happened to the 'Respect' campaign that was rolled out a few years back to protect referees from situations like that? The rule was that the captain was allowed to approach the referee, but nobody else. If the referee was given space without players trying to influence his decision, while also given a moment of time to either ponder his decision or hear from his assistants perhaps we could expect better calls from our dear friends with the whistle. A discussion for another time, but it might be something we will have to settle for if technology is not implemented.