Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Reffing hell... and it’s high time it is brought to book

By Johnny Phillips | Football | Published:

Last Sunday’s events at Goodison Park appeared to point to a nadir of both refereeing and VAR.

Everton check on the condition of team-mate Andre Gomes as referee Martin Atkinson consoles Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min (left) after a challenge during the Premier League match at Goodison Park, Liverpool. PA Photo. Picture date: Sunday November 3, 2019. See PA story SOCCER Everton. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

The sight of the official Martin Atkinson replacing his yellow card for Son Hueng-Min with a red, based only the severity of the injury to Andre Gomes, provoked strong reactions.

At the height of an emotionally-charged moment, the supposed dispassionate clarity of VAR failed to reverse a decision which was later overturned on appeal.

Referees are coming in for more criticism than ever before, so it is timely that a new book, Blowing The Whistle – The Psychology Of Football Refereeing, has hit the shelves this month.

It sheds new light on the near-impossible climate of refereeing at the top of English football, and it is hard not to have greater empathy with the task faced by all officials as a result. Stuart Carrington, a sports coaching science lecturer at St Mary’s University, in London, has painstakingly researched the book over the past two years, collecting a multitude of accounts from referees, coaches, academics, media, supporters and others.

“I am a football fan and like any other fan I could never understand issues like consistency, and how referees missed incidents,” he says.

“So as a scientist I wanted to ask that as a research question. What are the answers? I am particularly interested in the psychological aspects of refereeing: how a human being makes a decision and all the influences on it. Are they influenced by big name players, teams and managers? You can’t disassociate a human from his surroundings.”

Referees are constantly fighting these influences while processing their decisions. They can never truly block them out, but they can reduce their effect.


“What we have to accept is this caveat that the more experienced and better trained a referee is then the less influenced they will be by external factors,” Carrington continues.

“That’s what marks out a top Premier League referee, like Michael Oliver, compared to a Sunday League referee. The main factors of influence relate to the crowd: the proximity of the fans to the playing surface and the density of crowd. A sold-out stadium will influence a referee more.

“A referee is 50 per cent more likely to give a yellow or red card to an away player than a home player for the same challenge. The referee will give more added time if a home team is losing by a goal compared to an away team. Another strong factor is reputation. If a team has an aggressive reputation then they are more likely to have their players punished with a card.”

There is also a culture of abusing referees that is rife in every football-playing nation the world over. To this extent, they are facing an uphill struggle before they even take to the pitch.


“The main thing that surprised me was how well referees do in the face of all these influences,” adds Carrington.

“They can’t get away from them. They can’t ask the crowd to stop appealing for fouls that they know aren’t really fouls. The referees get an astonishing number of decisions correct. Referees also do a much better job at identifying fouls and infringements than the players.

“In tests, current players get about 50 per cent right whereas referees are above 80 per cent. I’m very sympathetic to their plight, hopefully this book will promote the understanding of what these men and women have to go through. I also hope it can lead to more research into how to protect referees from all these external factors.”

VAR has unquestionably influenced referees. Contrary to what it set out to do, it is having a negative impact on their performance. Referees are starting to show they no longer feel empowered to make confident judgments on the pitch. Carrington believes it is undermining referees’ authority.

“It is implemented horribly. A referee makes on average 350 decisions per game and 50 are objective, which leaves about 300 subjective decisions – that’s one every 12 seconds.

“In football there are many grey areas. From a psychological view it doesn’t make sense for the referee not to have the final say. A really nice piece of research looks at group dynamics. Where you have a group there’s a hierarchical process; someone is in charge.

“You can have all the meetings you want, but what is likely to happen is that whoever is in charge gets the final say. Like in The Apprentice where it always boils down to the project manager. The referee should be left to make the final decision. One way to improve VAR would be to say that the referee has to request to see something if he’s not sure, otherwise the on-field decision should stand.

“However, what you are always going to have is people saying it’s not consistent. Frankly, we’ve opened Pandora’s Box. Fans, players, referee and the authorities need to think about this. What do we really want? Is it the perfect game – that guy’s big toe is offside – is that what we want?”

Carrington hopes his work leads to greater research that can be implemented in the professional game. Former FIFA referee Keith Hackett has described Blowing The Whistle as ‘the best book I’ve ever read on officiating’.

But perhaps the final word should go to the great Brian Clough.

Outraged at press criticism of referees, the legendary manager once took the media to task in his own inimitable style.

“I think what you do to referees is nothing short of criminal. It should be over-emphasised how hard it is to referee a football match.”

Johnny Phillips

By Johnny Phillips

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit and life-long Wolves fan, giving his thoughts on football across the country


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