Saturday 04 February 2012
In an exclusive Q&A, Mike Riley, general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, discusses how a whole-game approach has been used to address the debate on tackling in the Barclays Premier League.
We convened a meeting between all the Select Group referees, the League Managers' Association, the Professional Footballers' Association and the Premier League match delegates to try to come to some form of consensus as to what is a careless tackle, what's reckless and what's an excessive force tackle.
There is now a guidance note which has been distributed to all clubs and match officials that gives examples of tackles we consider to be careless, reckless and using excessive force. That's supported by a DVD, which goes through all the main examples from the recent debate.
"If you commit to a tackle, at speed, with intensity, by and large with two feet off the ground, you run the risk of being sent off"
- Mike Riley
We canvassed the opinion of Premier League managers and we also brought in the Premier League Match Delegates, who look at referee performance from a club perspective. We got a broad section of views and looked at several examples on DVD.
In the meeting with the PFA and the LMA the debate over the Glen Johnson tackle alone lasted an hour. There was a very interesting discussion on this as it is possible to make arguments for being both reckless and/or excessive. So while there was a case for yellow, in the end there was stronger case for red.
No, the interpretation hasn't changed. While we were looking at the DVD examples, it was interesting that even with the benefit of different camera angles and slow motion, you still get a range of views because sometimes it isn't black and white. But we want to establish some principles that referees work to.
We have worked hard with clubs for a long time. Before every season, a Premier League referee goes into each club accompanied one of my management team and they go through examples of yellow cards and red cards. But you get some very difficult decisions - ones that could go either way.
The advice is to be mindful of your responsibilities towards your opponent and beware that if you commit to a tackle, at speed, with intensity, by and large with two feet off the ground, then you run the risk of being sent off.
In addition to the club meetings we hold a meeting with all managers at the beginning of the season. I meet quarterly with the LMA and PFA because we try collectively to have this whole game approach towards officiating. We also talk with managers regularly to understand their views and try and impart the referees' view to them. We also meet informally through workshops and events the LMA and the Premier League set up.
We meet as a Select Group every two weeks and spend a long time looking at current practice, trying to get even greater consistency and trying to improve performance. We have had very little issue with poor tackling over the last two seasons because we have dealt with it appropriately.
We've now had a couple of difficult judgements, so we use the Select Group meetings to sit down and go through the tackles. Ordinarily we do that just as a group of referees, but one of the steps forward this time is that the LMA and the PFA have got involved and we have had a whole game dialogue.
A tackle happens in a blink of an eye and in that second, the referee must consider lots of factors. Was it careless? Did the player show a lack of regard for his opponent's safety? Or did he use excessive force? You have also got the state of the pitch, the conditions and the state of the game. A lot of it comes down to where the referee is positioned. You can see why referees don't have a uniform interpretation.
"We should recognise that we have a great crop of referees at Premier League level and have among our ranks some of the best referees in the world"
- Mike Riley
The Premier League Match Delegate scheme uses former players and former managers to critique the performances of referees. It's been invaluable in allowing us to compare how referees are performing and to identify issues that we need to target for our training.
In addition to that we use our technical match assessors, who are former referees, who will appraise the referee's performance in each game. We also use ProZone and for all the Premier League matches that have it installed, we can go through the whole DVD, we can look at all the ProZone analysis and we can compare events game to game, referee to referee, so there's a wealth of information we collect.
The great strength of the Premier League Match Delegate system is that the delegate will speak to both managers after the game. So you have the view of the delegate and both managers. The scheme was brought in about six years ago and there is now a very considered appreciation of how referees perform.
If an incident has not been seen by match officials, the referee gets asked by the FA what action they would have taken had they seen it. They review the DVD footage and then come to a conclusion. If a red card would have been the outcome, the player gets charged.
Referees want to walk off the field at the end of a game with nobody talking about them. But it's a game that polarises opinions and we accept that when we get decisions wrong, we'll be criticised for it. Nobody hurts more than the referee when you are driving away from a ground, knowing that you've made a mistake.
We never get the appreciation for the good decisions because the standard is so high and people expect us to get them right - for example, ProZone data says that assistant referees got 99.3% of their decisions correct last season. Referees make about 250 decisions a game and very often all we talk about is one or two decisions that people don't agree with. We should recognise that we have a great crop of referees at Premier League level and have among our ranks some of the best referees in the world.
It has increased in each of the last three seasons and the challenge is to keep that trend going. The match delegates, who are independent of PGMOL, suggested that last season referees got 92% of their major decisions right.
Compared to five years ago, players in the Premier League do 20% more high intensity running and sprinting and this season they are making 9% more tackles than last year. Year on year the game gets faster, more skilful and more exciting, so refereeing has to keep pace with that.
In the last three years, the referees' fitness has gone up faster than the players' - referees now do more high-intensity running and more sprinting than all the players - because we need to be able to get in the right position to make the right decisions. All our training is geared to improving standards so that we can provide the right service to the Premier League because we know as a competition, it gets better year by year.
The referees will say it is excellent. The proof is that in the last four years the disciplinary data has got better. Initiatives like Get On With The Game were designed to say to players: 'You take responsibility for the way you behave on pitch'. We now have less confrontation between players and referees because captains work to keep their own players out of trouble by speaking with the referee off the ball. It's great credit to both the players and the referees.