There have been discussions lately about a fly-on-the-wall series about the Premier League’s match officials. An attempt to shed light on the human side of the refereeing fraternity, apparently — to show they are just normal guys trying to do an honest job, at times under intolerable pressure.
It’s just a shame there were no hidden cameras at Stockley Park on Saturday evening to record the moment Darren England, on video assistant referee (VAR) duty for the game between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, distractedly told referee Simon Hooper “check complete” in the belief he was upholding an onside decision, rather than an offside call, which resulted in Luis Diaz’s legitimate goal being wiped out.
There could be nothing more humanising than the embarrassing revelation that England “lost focus”. Which of us hasn’t done that while sitting in front of a TV monitor for hours on end? And it turns out he had taken an eight-hour flight back from the United Arab Emirates the previous day — along with Dan Cook, the assistant VAR. Who can blame them for losing focus? Come on, give the guys a break!
Unfortunately for England, Cook and their employers at Premier League Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), this controversy isn’t going away.
The PGMOL statement on Saturday evening spoke of “significant human error” — saying that the “clear and obvious factual error” made by linesman Adrian Holmes, in flagging Diaz offside, “should have resulted in the goal being awarded through VAR intervention. However, the VAR failed to intervene.” A “full review” has been promised.
Liverpool, who fell 1-0 down just two and a half minutes after appearing to go 1-0 up, have not taken Saturday’s defeat lightly. A club statement on Sunday spoke of “sporting integrity being undermined” and, ominously, of their determination to “explore the range of options available, given the clear need for escalation and resolution”.
It is not yet entirely clear what Liverpool meant by that, but they have started with a formal request for PGMOL to release the audio of the in-game exchange between England and match referee Hooper. The mind boggles as to what Liverpool imagine they might find here. Laughter? An eerie silence? Someone phoning through their pizza order for half-time? Fantasy Premier League talk? A discussion of the range of in-flight refreshments and entertainment on Friday’s flight back from the Middle East? Who knows?
What is certain is that, just over a year into his role as the PGMOL’s chief refereeing officer, Howard Webb faces a crisis. Errors and controversies are nothing new in the Premier League, but the high-profile, bizarre nature of Saturday’s cock-up raised serious questions — about the working environment at Stockley Park, the rigour and focus of the VAR protocol and, not least, a new policy of allowing match officials to travel far and wide to do extra work.
PGMOL is big on optics. There is a reason why, for example, Michael Oliver, their leading referee, is not allowed to officiate matches involving Newcastle United, the club he supports — or indeed their fierce rivals Sunderland.
It’s nothing to do with trust or the idea that his allegiance might get in the way of integrity. It’s all to do with optics.
PGMOL decided long ago it would be unfair to put referees in a position where they might be accused of a vested interest. The job is already hard enough — and the accusations of bias or agenda vehement and wild enough — without putting officials in charge of games involving their favourite team.
So why on earth, in an era when two of the Premier League’s pre-eminent clubs are owned by the vice-president of the United Arab Emirates and the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia respectively, would the PGMOL allow its leading match officials to take lucrative assignments in the UAE Pro League and the Saudi Pro League?
The optics? Not great. Everyone knows that Sheikh Mansour, vice-president and deputy prime minister of the UAE, owns Manchester City. Less well known is that the UAE Football Association has held talks with City Football Group chief executive Ferran Soriano about a “framework of joint cooperation” and that the UAE Pro League’s main sponsor is the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), whose board members include City chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak.
In that context, allowing a group of PGMOL officials to fly to the UAE last week to take charge of a match between Sharjah and Al-Ain — Oliver as referee, Stuart Burt and Cook as assistants, England as VAR — looks inadvisable in the extreme. Not because of doubts about integrity among the officials or the authorities in the UAE, but because having referees on the payroll of another league, with close links to the ownership of Premier League clubs, inevitably brings an extra level of scrutiny that match officials really could do without.
State ownership has brought so many unwanted complications and entanglements into football, but this is one area where the game’s authorities have the opportunity to respond with a polite no — which is exactly what the PGMOL should have done when receiving requests for their referees to work in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Webb has supported the principle of Premier League referees taking overseas assignments, believing they will be better for the experience of working in the UAE, or in Saudi Arabia, as Oliver, Burt, England and Simon Bennett did for a match between Al Nassr and Al Hilal in April — or in Super League Greece, as Craig Pawson did last May, or Japan’s J1 League, as Andrew Madley did in June — and for the increased international exposure. Beyond that, having worked for both the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and Major League Soccer, Webb has been keen to strengthen links between the PGMOL and other refereeing bodies.
Surely that requires an urgent rethink. It is one thing for Oliver and his team to take charge of a Champions League match in Europe on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and then a Premier League game at the weekend. It is quite another to do so in the UAE on a Thursday night, take an eight-hour flight back on the Friday and then find themselves on VAR duty (or, in Oliver’s case, fourth-official duty) the following day.
Even without the uncomfortable question of being paid by authorities close to Manchester City’s ownership — or in the case of Saudi Arabia, Newcastle United’s ownership — that itinerary seems problematic.
It has become increasingly clear that some officials regard VAR duty as arduous. Mike Dean, who retired from refereeing at the end of the 2021-22 season, spoke recently of “getting into the car on Friday and dreading Saturday” when he was in the offices at Stockley Park. “I was thinking, ‘I hope nothing happens,’” Dean told Simon Jordan’s Up Front podcast. “I used to be petrified sitting in the (VAR) chair.”
Whatever your thoughts on VAR, it is not an assignment to be undertaken reluctantly, wearily or with a feeling of dread. It requires total focus. That does not appear to have been the focus on Saturday evening. Whether or not last week’s trip to the UAE was a factor, it has done nothing at all to enhance trust in the process.
Anyone who has refereed will tell you it is a thankless task — whether at grassroots level, where there are so many terrible stories of officials being abused, intimidated or assaulted, or at the very top of the sport, faced with an unenviable combination of matches played in devious, dishonest spirit, at an extraordinary pace, in atmospheres where you can barely hear yourself think, in the knowledge that your attempts to interpret and implement vague, subjective regulations will attract fury and worse, no matter what decision you make.
It is striking — perhaps even slightly gratifying — that so little of the fall-out from Saturday night at Tottenham has focused on Holmes, who initially raised the offside flag. That was a split-second mistake made under extreme pressure. He got it wrong, just as Liverpool defender Joel Matip got his angles wrong when he sliced the ball into his own net in the final seconds of the game. Human errors of that type should always be understood and excused.
It is far less easy to excuse such a glaring error from a VAR, whose sole responsibility — free from the atmospheric pressures of the stadium, blessed with the ability to pause, rewind and watch again in slow motion — is to ensure that glaring errors are picked up and brought to the referee’s attention. What’s that line? You had one job.
Except it transpires that Darren England didn’t. Unusually, he had two jobs last week. One of them involved going all the way to the UAE to watch a match on a TV monitor — and, one would assume, being paid handsomely for his trouble and his expertise.
Only he can say — and even then perhaps not with total certainty — whether or not his exertions and itinerary had any impact on his concentration levels on Saturday evening.
But these are questions that Webb and the PGMOL should not have allowed to arise. That one job is already challenging enough when, even if they get 99 per cent of their job right, it will be the other one per cent that everyone talks and rages about.
Referees need to be protected and given the best possible conditions to excel without their authority and integrity being questioned at every turn. Packing them off to far-flung destinations seems unhelpful at best.
Webb feels the experience and the exposure is beneficial. After the experience of the past few days, England might feel he has had enough exposure to last a career — just another fallible human being in an industry that demands perfection. Or failing that, concentration.
(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)
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