This ‘Assessment’ is just not working in football

I used to think assessing referees from the stands was a great idea. After all, every week we read of the terrible mistakes these men are making around the country, so surely it is correct that they are monitored, and punished if they do not meet the correct standards?

But I don’t think that way any more – because the assessors in the stands are clearly not making a blind bit of difference.

I can’t stand a lot of things that come out of the lips of co-commentators, but few things irritate me more than the oft-quoted line “the referee should have used a bit of common sense there”, or “no-one wants team to see one play with 10 men” which leads to the classic “the red card’s ruined the game as a spectacle.”

All rubbish? The referee is there to apply the rules of the game, not to do what ever entertains the masses most. If he doesn’t he will be marked down by the man in the stands, and most likely be refereeing one league lower the following week. Maybe that’s why Chris Foy had such a stinker at Stoke this weekend – he should now be free to do his Christmas shopping next week. A yellow card is a yellow card whether it is the first, fortieth or ninety-fourth minute. The referee is not there to turn a blind eye because it’s late in the game or because the team are already three goals behind. The referee cannot run the game applying “common sense” as different peoples’ perceptions of what constitutes common sense varies wildly, leading to an inconsistent running of games.

But. Sometimes it isn’t that simple. Certain matches have to be refereed differently. They cannot be run using set rules in a statute book. A heated local derby needs to be dealt with in a different way to a boring mid-table end-of-season game. A match on a slippy pitch on a rainy day needs to be run differently to a pre-season friendly on a hot August afternoon.

Matches aren’t run consistently anyway. Some referees are much happier to brandish red cards than others. Some have a good relationship with the players, whilst others come across like a strict boarding-school headmaster.
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What’s more, I see little evidence of these assessors making a difference. It’s not as if the standard of referring has suddenly improved, and if it had, this could be attributed more to the decision to make referees full time, to improve their fitness levels and the like. Doing the same for linesmen should be the next step.

This is not an anti-referee rant. They are human beings who will make bad mistakes. Their bad day at the office can have far greater consequences than me accidentally deleting the staff database due to a nasty hangover. They need not be castigated further, but given the tools to make their job easier (the technology debate though is for another day). For example, if UEFA want to add extra linesmen behind the goal-line, perhaps they should be allowed to make the odd decision, and occasionally help out the referee. Just a thought.

The official guidance for assessors states that they are there to educate and help improve referees, and for inexperienced (and/or young) referees, I am sure they have got a lot to offer. They offer advice on the referee’s Application of Law, positioning, fitness and work rate, alertness and awareness including management of stoppages, communication, teamwork, and match control. But I really can’t see how they are helping the likes of Mark Clattenburg or Chris Foy to improve. They can get a perfectly good idea of how they did by re-watching the match – I would hope they always do too. The extra scrutiny may not help them run the game in a smooth manner – the pressure of assessment and the knowledge that they will be marked down if they don’t follow the set rules will not always help them do their job well.

Besides, the practice of temporarily demoting referees is ridiculous – akin to the punishments of the school playground. Either the referee is good enough to do his job at that particular level or he is not. If not, why should the league below get him, or why is the demotion not permanent? Do those who make such decisions really think this week-long seat on the naughty step helps focus the minds of referees, the threat of punishment helping to bring a clarity and extra spurt of energy to their match day actions? I can’t see it myself.

Surely it is better to assess referees over greater periods, perhaps via an independent panel of some kind, and decide who is generally up to the job at the level they referee, and who isn’t.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the assessment process, something isn’t working. Mistakes continue, as they always will, but too often, and with too significant consequences. It’s time to help and develop referees in a different way.