Thursday 08 August 2013
The statistics from last season reveal that there was a considerable improvement in the lofty standards of refereeing in the Barclays Premier League. From offside calls hitting a 99% accuracy rate for the third season running to a 21% fall in red cards, refereeing proficiency hit a new high last term.
Premierleague.com caught up with Mike Riley, General Manager of Professional Game Match Officials Limited, to examine how our referees have been improving year on year.
"The most significant reduction is that of players receiving second yellow cards, and that's down by over a third"
PL.com: Match officials in the Premier League had their most successful season in the 12-year history of PGMOL. Firstly, there was a drop in red cards of 21%. How do you explain this?
Mike Riley: We've been working for a number of years with the Professional Footballers Association and the League Managers Association to have a common understanding of what is and what isn’t acceptable in the field of play. You have to give the players credit in knowing when to draw the line in committing to challenges.
Each season when we go into the clubs in pre-season and January/February we spend time talking to players, showing them video clips so they understand those offences for which we issue yellow cards and red cards. You can see clearly the players have responded to that in terms of how they behave on the field, the types of tackles they make, so not only have we had a reduction in red cards – so instances of violent conduct have fallen – but the most significant reduction is that of players receiving second yellow cards. This is down by over a third.
The players understand the confines within which they are playing and that it's in everyone’s interests for a game to be 11 v 11. Premier League football is difficult enough when it’s 11-a-side; let alone 10 v 11.
There were other areas in which match officials excelled, too. Major decisions were correct in 94% of instances, weren't they?
MR: Yes. The standards expected of Premier League referees are rightly very high because it's arguably the best club competition in world football and we want to provide a standard of refereeing that matches the abilities of the players and the managers. So we work very hard on analysing decisions, making sure that the referee's positioning is right on the day; doing everything possible with the referee so that they are in the right place at the right time to make the right call, and that they get 94% of those major calls right is great credit to the hard work of the referees.
How often do they get together to talk about these things?
"The referees average 176 high-speed runs, compared to the players’ 175"
MR: The Select Group referees meet every two weeks. We have a two-day meeting up at St George's Park. Part of that is about physical training, so they'll be out on the field with the sports scientists, who put the referees through their rigorous training sessions.
And if you look at the fitness standards through the years referees are now athletes in much the same way that players are in order for them to be in the right position when it counts. We also spend a lot of time analysing individual refereeing performances, analysing decisions, looking at videos, talking among ourselves and working out how we can best execute decision-making on the field.
Is it true referees average more high-speed runs per match than the players?
MR: Yes, the referees average 176 high-speed runs, compared to the players' 175. It reflects how the game has changed over the years. We talk fairly regularly about how Premier League football is now 20% faster than it was five years ago.
Referees used to train by running, because they do a lot of high-intensity running during a game. Now what we've noticed is that the best referees are the ones that can make those short, sharp sprints. So a lot of the sports science work, as well as maintaining high-intensity running, is about the ability to make that dynamic run that will take you into the right position to make the right decision.
So a lot of the training they do is interval training?
MR: That's the test. The fact that the referees have a sports science team behind them in the same way that the players do mean they get highly professional training and you can see the impact on the pitch.
On the pitch the penalty area accuracy of decision-making was high too, wasn't it?
MR: It was 98.6% last season. We know that incidents that take place in the penalty area almost always directly result in goals and we're working hard to make sure that the closer to the penalty area we get, the referees concentrate more and you see the impact of that on their accuracy.
Probably the hardest thing to get right is offside decisions, because it's simply impossible to look in two places at the same time and yet 99% of offside calls were correct last season – and that was the figure for the third year running. How is that possible?
"We've seen correct offside decisions jump from 92% five years ago to a now consistent figure of 99%"
MR: If you look back five years we fundamentally changed the way assistant referees trained. They go through a lot of simulated practice on very difficult offside situations, then sit down and review the DVD and try to analyse their own decision-making. As a result of that we've seen correct offside decisions jump from 92% five years ago to where it is now consistently at 99%.
What's particularly encouraging is that we know from the degree of media scrutiny that the offside decision used to be one or two metres. We're now talking body parts of players: Is his head offside? Is his shoulder offside? Does the defender's foot keep the player onside? And even with that degree of scrutiny their accuracy is maintained.
How difficult is it for match officials to do their jobs when the scrutiny has never been greater and how do they deal with that?
MR: Referees are trained throughout their development to make effective and accurate decisions in the most demanding of circumstances. Part of the refereeing promotion strategy takes you from local football to senior local football, to semi-professional football to the professional game. So you go through from refereeing in front of one man and his dog to crowds of 2,000 in the Conference, bigger crowds in the Football League, 20,000 in the Championship, to the environment of the Premier League. Right through that career development referees are trained to concentrate and block out any distractions and make effective decisions in those environments.
So there is a severe series of tests to pass to become an elite match official?
MR: There is. Typically, it's a training pathway of around 10 years for the very good referees from picking up their first whistle to their first professional game. For the exceptional candidates it can be quicker, for others it can be longer, but throughout that career pathway they get a lot of training and support. Once they reach the level of PGMOL they have referee coaches, mentors, people who can accelerate the development of those officials and make them better referees.
"Working with both the Assessors and the Delegates we’ve been able to improve the accuracy of our officials"
What about the other people scrutinizing the referees' performances?
MR: We have two groups of people who assess our officials: the PGMOL Assessors and the Match Delegates. The PGMOL Assessors are employed by PGMOL and are the guys who used to "sit in the stand". Last season, however, we changed that and the Assessors now evaluate through the use of DVDs and ProZone, so every decision is looked at more thoroughly than if we had someone watching in the stand. As a result of that referees get a report based on how accurate their decision-making has been during the course of that match.
In addition, at every Barclays Premier League game there is a Match Delegate, who is employed by the Premier League. The Match Delegate is a former player or manager, who gives a more rounded view of the referee's performance. It's about how they managed the game, the players and how accurate they were on the major decisions.
That's been extremely beneficial in producing a more rounded view of the refereeing performance. Referees aren't there purely to apply the laws of the game, they are there to serve the game at Premier League level, which means having an empathy for the game, an understanding of the game and applying the laws in a credible manner. Working with both the Assessors and the Delegates we've been able to improve the accuracy of our officials.
How do you think our referees are viewed abroad?
MR: Premier League football is revered throughout the world for the quality of the game and the referees are respected for the part they are playing in that. Eight of our referees are FIFA international referees and we probably have the most iconic referee in the world in Howard Webb, who having refereed the last World Cup final has gone on to demonstrate just what a good referee he is, particularly in the last Confederations Cup.
"We probably have the most iconic referee in the world in Howard Webb"
So people look to referees like Howard, Martin Atkinson, Mark Clattenburg, Mike Dean and they recognise very experienced referees who can operate at the very highest levels of the game, and that reflects on the rest of the Select Group.
Another plus point from last season thing was the reduction in mass confrontations on the pitch. Why is that?
MR: If you go back to the debate about the reduction in red cards a lot of work has been done between ourselves, the PFA and the LMA and the people in the FA disciplinary department as well to get the message across that the image of the game isn't served by seeing players surrounding referees in a confrontational manner.
That message has been accepted by the players and you've seen a dramatic reduction in the number of charges for mass confrontation season on season, particularly last season. In fact, there was not a single charge in Premier League football last year.
There's a perception that referees put up with a high level of abuse and swearing from players. How would you address this matter?
MR: It's interesting. First of all, it's not an offence in the rules of the game to swear. Players are allowed to swear. The offence is using offensive, abusive or insulting language which typically means that the most offensive word you can use towards a referee is "cheat", which isn't swearing, but is very, very offensive and abusive.
The other thing is, looking at the data, if you go back five or six years we had a season where there were a lot of high-profile incidents. The Premier League took the initiative with their "Get On With The Game" programme as an adjunct to the FA's RESPECT campaign. That was about getting players to understand their responsibilities towards the game.
"In each of the last four seasons the number of yellow cards for dissent has fallen season by season"
And again we have to give the players credit for the way they have embraced that and changed their behaviour on the field of play. You look in each of the last four seasons the number of yellow cards for dissent has fallen season by season; the number of red cards for abusive, insulting and offensive language has reduced markedly.
That's not just in the Premier League, that's in the Football League and in the Football Conference as well and that’s concrete evidence of players accepting their responsibilities on the field of play and moderating their actions.
It also points to the work we do between the referees, the PFA and the LMA to understand each other better and the amount of respect towards referees on the field of play probably goes unnoticed because of the quality of the football but the conversations that take place, the smiling, the banter, it's probably never been in a better place than it is at the moment.
How satisfied are you with the results of last season?
MR: As a group we’re extremely delighted by how things went last season, but like a player, we're only ever as good as our next game, so whilst we reflected on how well we did last season, we then have to regroup and set ourselves targets this year because having raised the bar in each of the last four seasons we know that that's raised everyone's expectations. This season we'll try to go out and beat those expectations again.How do you improve on last season?