Maybe the ref does know what he’s doing after all

Supplied by Tom Webb
Photos supplied by the University of Portsmouth

Monsieur Salut writes: Salut! Sunderland often asks ‘Who are You?’ interviewees to share their views on the best and worst referees in the Premier League. Mark Clattenburg is the one most commonly named as the best and, for all that he’s a Mag, I agree. Experience has also taught me to be as understanding as most of the pressures on match officials. I criticise bad decisions and inconsistency but am the first the recognise that players make many more bad decisions, and show much greater inconsistency.

In one of the occasional guest pieces we receive from a football academic, Tom Webb, we learn that pundits generally are also more restrained in their assessments of refs than is supposed. It is worth noting that many ex-referees – Graham Poll, Howard Webb and Dermot Gallagher spring to mind – now provide their services to the media as expert assessors …

Football referees aren’t criticised by sports commentators as much as they think they are, according to new research.

A study carried out at the University of Portsmouth found that professional pundits don’t make as many negative comments about referees’ actions as is believed.

Dr Tom Webb, a senior lecturer in sports management and development, analysed live commentaries and post-match discussions for 20 English Premier League matches to reach the findings.

The study, Referees and the Media: A Difficult Relationship but an Unavoidable Necessity, published in Soccer & Society today, showed that the amount of time spent discussing the referee during live commentaries amounted to a total of 37.5 minutes over the entire 20 matches.

And of the 267 total comments made about the referee during the matches, only 29 were judged negative.

Dr Webb said: “Most people will be surprised by these statistics. We analysed 20 live matches, including the post-match analysis, which is a significant amount of coverage – at least two hours of content per match.

“The negative comments were minimal compared to the positive or neutral comments. That was really unexpected.”

Interviews with referees in previous academic studies found that match officials believed the media was responsible for much of the pressure they felt.

Dr Webb’s study found that post-match analysis was more critical of referees’ performances, but these negative comments were reserved for an error which was obvious and was thought to have affected the outcome of the game.

The sport scientist also carried out interviews with people working in sports media, and found that views about the standards and quality of Premier League refereeing were generally positive.

He said: “The pressure that referees find themselves under today is unprecedented. Matches tend to be determined as much on decisions about tenuous penalty kicks or marginal offside decisions as on the superior play of one team.

“These refereeing decisions can be pivotal for a team’s prospects of winning championships, qualifying for lucrative European competitions or avoiding relegation.

“But the pressure that referees believe they are under is not an accurate reflection of the current environment.”

Tom Webb
Tom Webb

January 18, 2016

Dr Webb broke down discussion during the 20 matches into four categories, with the following results:

Neutral comments: 113 incidents (41.85 per cent)

Positive comments: 69 incidents (25.56 per cent)

Comments questioning the referee’s action: 59 incidents (21.85 per cent)

Negative comments: 29 incidents (10.74 per cent)

“There is an acceptance that mistakes can and will be made, but that referees are trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. Comments recorded during live broadcasts also supported this,” he added.

Dr Webb believes referees’ perception of the pressure they are under can lead to errors in performance, increased tension before matches and worries about making wrong decisions.

Knowing that this perception is not borne out by the statistics could therefore help ease the pressure they feel, resulting in fewer errors on the pitch.

“If there is to be an improvement in the relationship between referees and the media there are a number of discussions required, as well as a greater degree of understanding, particularly from those within refereeing to ensure that the reduced pressure identified here is communicated.”

By contrast, an online survey carried out by University of Portsmouth in collaboration with Loughborough and Edge Hill universities found that verbal abuse towards referees is rife.

Sixty per cent of respondents reported being verbally abused at least every couple of games.



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2 thoughts on “Maybe the ref does know what he’s doing after all”

  1. Not sure what all the fuss is about. Any honest recollection of refereeing decisions will show that over the course of a season good and bad decisions cancel each other out, just like luck and “the bounce of the ball”.

  2. Interesting, although, with only twenty matches analysed, this isn’t a huge survey.
    Not that I read the red tops but, I wonder if the tabloids, with their sensationalist headlines, make more of referee errors.

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