We have witnessed two games played during the past two weeks were major refereeing errors took place, namely the Premier League fixture between Swansea City and Sunderland and the Championship game between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. There was a common denominator between these matches in that both encounters were controlled by referees who were appointed late to the games through injury or illness of the appointed match referee.
The referee appointment process in the Premier League and Football Leagues has changed in recent years on the basis that referees and assistant referees are generally appointed a week or so before games are played. This sets in place a mental preparation thought process whereby the match officials involved will arrange the travel logistics and a training plan in readiness for the game. If they have other forms of employment they will make time available for the match and the travel time and preferably rest periods before and after the game.
However another important aspect of pre-match preparation also kicks in, the referee or assistant referee will subconsciously be thinking about the game as the days and hours count down to the game. Such matters as the last time they handled the teams involved, how did that go? The match officials colleagues they’ll be working with? The match delegate they’ll be working with? The last time or previous times they visited this particular ground, how did that go? Media coverage, what is everyone saying about the game?
The pre-match thought process kicks in for a match official in the week running up to game. Whether you’re sat in the car in traffic, taking a morning shower, unloading the dishwasher… whatever you’re doing, idle moments turn to the game so, come matchday, you are fully tuned in.
So let’s consider that you only get the game 24 hours or less before it’s played due to the match referee being taken ill or injured? Well, referees at Premier League/Football League level are professional in their approach, they have the experience of similar situations because every referee will have stepped in late to game on some previous occasion.
However it’s not the same, how can you replace that week long build up and mental preparation process? Yes, the travel and timings can be rearranged but it’s never going to be quite the same. Human nature dictates that it can never be the same. The biggest controversy of my refereeing career came when I took control of a high profile FA Cup tie at 24 hours’ notice on a day when I wasn’t due to referee a game.
So what can be done? What the PGMOL needs to do is to establish a credible standby system where referees are on a countdown process to step in at any matchday period. A proper analysis by sports scientists and psychologists needs to be conducted to establish solutions of how match officials can be better prepared particularly mentally. It can’t be that hard, how do UEFA Champions League match officials handle this short notice appointing to games?
The thing is they are on a standby system which needs to be introduced into the Premier League and Championship. This of course will challenge the supply chain of referees at top level, at the moment there are just about enough referees to cover the weekly programme. The PGMOL will need sufficient numbers next season on its Premier League and Championship lists to introduce a credible standby programme. But if successfully introduced could lessen the chances of recent events at Swansea and Sheffield Wednesday occurring.
I close by saying this. If such feelings of mental preparation exist in the run up to a game, ask yourself this: Be you a fan, player or match official – if the game is suddenly or unexpectedly called off through bad weather, aren’t you massively disappointed and let down with a strong sense of anti-climax? You feel that way because you were subconsciously building up to that game all week, it was on your mind for a number of days!