Arsenal and bias. Is this the untold story?

John McCormick:
John McCormick: reading serious stuff

It just happened that when M Salut was passing on “Untold Arsenal’s findings about referees being biased against Arsenal and towards Sunderland I was dipping into “The future of football: Challenges for the twenty-first century” (Garland et al, 2003). Its final chapter discusses refereeing and its author, Sharon Colwell, should know her onions as she completed a PhD on elite refereeing in 2004.

Colwell’s central tenet is

“the room for interpretation in the Laws is a key element in understanding the reasons why refereeing issues have been, and continue to be, so contentious… …Referees are expected to interpret the laws and to apply them in spirit rather than too literally”

This requires refs to achieve a balance between common sense and consistency, which isn’t easy. To help them achieve this balance they can ignore minor offences to keep the game flowing, which leads to a situation where judgements will always vary. She cited David Elleray, then a Premier League Referees’ Spokesman, who put it quite succintly:

“If a referee is letting the game flow, he is probably satisfied that he does not need to penalise every foul, that the players are not reacting to being fouled and, therefore, there is limited danger of retaliation… referees can appear to be inconsistent during a game because they appear to be letting a lot go by and then suddenly bang, bang, bang, bang, everything is being penalised…People don’t always see the overall context.”

It strikes me that anyone watching a match afterwards, no matter how good she or he is, won’t always see the overall context and might therefore tend to apply the letter of the law more strictly, or just differently, from the ref on the ground. Not only will there be different views on any incident, there will be different views on the importance of that incident. As Colwell puts it:

“when we ask referees to demonstrate common sense we are not really expecting them to do what they think should be done but to do what we think should be done”

In other words, you can expect differences of opinion, which leads to the possibility that sites like “refs decisions” and “Untold Arsenal” are reporting these differences as dodgy decisions.

Colwell then goes on to discuss the pressures on refs. There’s media coverage; TV will show controversial issues repeatedly, in slow motion and from various angles, allowing all and sundry to form their own view, to influence others and be influenced themselves. There’s pressure from managers before and after games, and there’s pressure during the game as players try to mislead or influence the ref (part of the “overall context”). I’d be surprised if the qualified refs referee decisions uses weren’t exposed to at least some of the pre and post-match analysis before they watched videos of matches to make pronouncements on decisions. If so, how can anyone be sure they are making an unbiased decision themselves? Now, I have to say I haven’t done more than glance at the referee decisions website and haven’t scrutinised their methodology, but what I have seen leaves me disinclined to believe their results are valid.

Does this mean referees don’t show bias? No, I haven’t disproved a negative. All I have done is give my opinion here and elsewhere that the reporting of bias by these sites has some flaws. Enough flaws, I think, for fans elsewhere to take their findings with a large dose of salt.

Is there proof elsewhere that refs do show bias? There might be. I have neglected the crowd effect in my writing to date. There is some evidence to suggest large crowds can sway the ref in favour of the home team. Look, for example, at the study by Professor Andrew Lane and others published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2006. You can find it at: It begins:

Evidence points to the existence of a home advantage effect in soccer with referees giving more decisions to the home team being a plausible explanation for this effect.

If this study and the sources it cites are valid then it is possible, given the size of our crowd, that we might just get some decisions going our way. But there are no prizes for guessing which teams are likely to get more. Is anyone from Arsenal complaining about that?

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17 thoughts on “Arsenal and bias. Is this the untold story?”

  1. The media and the pundits all shout the mantra about bad decisions. ‘It all evens out in the end’. With out any evidence for the claim. But the mantra as some how become fact, When there isn’t any evidence for it.

    The media want us to believe and (many do) that their chosen ex player who is their mouth piece is an expert simply because he has played the game. Most players barely know the laws, never mind the problems of the manager etc.

    To objectively report on the refs on all a season’s league matches is a huge task but it is the only way to prove the mantra is no more than a myth.

    When you look at the map that locates EPL refs and see that there is none from London and South East and only one south of Birmingham. Do you say ‘Oh well it all evens out in the end’?

    When you take into account that refs are not allowed to explain decisions. Do you say ‘Oh well it all evens out in the end’?

    That at first the PGMOL’s website was an open site but now is closed. Do you say ‘Oh well it all evens out in the end’?

    When you follow the career of a ref who has refereed a Man U home game and Man U have lost and find that his career takes a downer. Do you say ‘Oh well it all evens out in the end’?

    When you see one team being kicked of the park while yellow cards handed out to the other team for the lightest of touches do you say? ‘Oh well it all evens out in the end’.

    Untold Referee is the start to end the myth.

  2. Cant believe you are continuing to spout this half baked twaddle?

    The thing is, the website usually explain that refs who are either from, or say they have a particular allegience DO NOT officiate those games, so if a NE ref officiates a Toon or some small NE team (only joshing!) then it could only be due to them saying they support another team (highly unlikely and I dont think Ive seen untold suggest NE refs officiate NE teams’ games, but maybe you have and I missed it?)

    The fact that the refs they use to do their games ARENT Arsenal fans, just ex, or current refs of differing experience.

    Once again, Im disapointed that this site are continuing in this vain when the bigger issue; that of the murky world of the Mike “OT season ticket holder” Riley and the PGMOL and its monopoly on refs and the weird ways it selects refs. Like how Clattenburg never got a ManU game for years after officiating one they LOST!

    But lets drag things down to simple tribalism eh…

    Talkshite, tabloids is that the level things have to be?

  3. “But there are no prizes for guessing which teams are likely to get more. Is anyone from Arsenal complaining about that?”

    Untold Arsenal did a study of home advantage etc as well and found that most teams do get more decisions in their favour at home but it’s not as simple as you make it seem. Of course the home crowd can have an effect but it doesn’t mean it’s the only effect.
    Of course many of these ref decisions are at least partially subjective, and the reviews given on the Untold website are made by a number of different refs so you can’t take all of their data as being 100% accurate by any means. Also, as you pointed out in the previous post, they don’t review every game and they only reviewed 50% of Sunderland games, for example. Sadly, though, you seem to have taken issue with Untold saying that Sunderland were fortunate based on the (again, to some extent subjective) data they’ve accumulated but this response post is really clutching at straws a bit. You can only respond to data by offering a better interpretation of the results or with better/more complete data.

    • As I said previously, it was only the preposterous suggestion that Sunderland profited from the bias of North-eastern refs, when in fact NE refs usually don’t officiate at our games and should in any case be as professional and impartial as any other, that made me comment on the Untold Arsenal piece in the first place.

      And however objective and high-minded the series may claim to have become, Untold Arsenal is saddled with the self-confessed partisan nature its origins, mentioned in my comment.

      • Oh ok, sorry I missed that. Well it doesn’t surprise me that NE refs don’t tend to ref your matches so much, and I do agree that it’s probably not that major cause of any bias that may or may not exist (I think it’s far more to do with media reaction tbh), but it is a bit crazy that practically all of the referees are from the midlands and then north as that doesn’t reflect the spread of the teams in the league at all. I don’t really know how much it effects things but it doesn’t seem right and it’s hard to believe that all of the refereeing talent is residing in the north, but oh well I guess.

        That’s true, but the fact that the partisan nature of the site is a really good thing. It means it’s easy for anyone to know where they’re coming from and take from their findings what you will.

      • The site can and should be as partisan as it likes. The problem is, or was, with the Untold Referees series which, at it outset, was also unashamedly partisan, seeking to highlight wrongs done to Arsenal.

      • Oh dear, there you go again, missing the bigger picture. Of course the refs reviews might have stemmed from some dodgy decisions they felt had wronged Arsenal, but it soon grw into a far bigger, whole PL thing. The work they do might not be air tight in terms of its rigour and robustness, but I dont see many others doin it.

        They should be applauded for it, and I dont even like their actual posts re’ Arsenal!

      • The thing is, you’re only postulating that. If you were going to review the referees in Sunderland matches, would you unashamedly put everything in Sunderland’s favour or would you try to be fair about it? You might even give the benefit of any doubt against your side or just in favour of the ref because you know that you are going at it from a Sunderland perspective?

    • “You can only respond to data by offering a better interpretation of the results or with better/more complete data”

      Not so. I have responded to data by casting doubt on its validity. It is a prime tenet of the British justice system that the prosecution needs to prove its case beyond all reasonable doubt.

      You have failed to do so.

      The defence rests

      • This isn’t a legal case. Untold are explicit that the site is made up of Arsenal supporters, but they also post up their match reports for you to look at and compare with the match itself. I’ve seen them mark decisions for and against Arsenal that I didn’t agree with personally. If you make an analogy with science rather than the legal system, you can write a scientific paper about something that you might have a vested financial interest in, but the paper would be judged on the data and the conclusions drawn. You also have to acknowledge your financial interests, which Untold have done very clearly in this analogy.

      • You’re wasting your time Davi. Its a blinkered them vs us thing. The fact that the ref reviews go against decisions that have gone in Arsenal’s favour numerous times proves nothing, apparently.

      • I’m not sure what your point is. Mine is that sufficient doubt exists about the validity of the methodology and data of Untold’s claims for their case to be unproven. Surely you accept this, given that you admit the data isn’t 100% accurate.

        As for scientific papers being judged purely on the data and conclusions, getting published is a highly competitive business. If you submit work to a journal where the editor or peer reviewer is a competitor in your field how confident can you be you be that it will be objectively reviewed? Have a look at

  4. For anyone entering this debate late in the week, here is a comment posted to the earlier articles:

    I wasn’t sure whether this belonged here or at the original post (, so have decided to add it to both:

    The well-meaning attempts (by some Arsenal supporters) to portray Untold Arsenal’s approach to its Untold Referees referee survey as entirely non-partisan sit uneasily with the site’s own description of the series and its origins:

    “Untold Referees is part of Untold Arsenal – an ever growing collection of articles and comment on numerous aspects of football from a pro-Arsenal perspective. A list of other sections within Untold Arsenal is given at the end of this page, and on the home page of the site.

    “Background: Initially Untold Arsenal started to publish referee reviews of Arsenal matches, and through this we found some evidence of what appeared to be consistent bias by referees against Arsenal. The point was then made we would get a better overall picture of what is going on if we also analysed errors made by referees in non-Arsenal EPL games as well.”

    The methodology may have developed in a more even-handed way but the classic refs-have-a-down-on-us Arsenal mantra lies at the roots of the whole exercise. Add the nonsensical statement that Sunderland benefit from the bias of non-existent refs from the North East officiating at our games and you begin to see why the series seems so flawed.

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