Officiating in England: A Reffing Disgrace?

Simon WilliamsSenior Analyst IFebruary 2, 2009

As I watched this weekend's Premier League fixtures evolve, one thing stuck out. The frankly awful standard of officiating. Ref-bashing is possibly the biggest participation sport in the UK, and I am usually loathe to join in the fun, but sometimes there is simply no other option.

Whether it be Howard Webb giving Newcastle a bizarre penalty from an impossible viewing angle, Martin Atkinson failing to notice Shaun Wright-Phillips kick back at Rory Delap from five yards away, or Mike Riley, well, simply being Mike Riley, there was some appalling officiating this weekend.

Some of you might be thinking that this is not evidence of a decline in standards, just a coincidence of bad decisions in one weekend, and that refereeing in England is just as bad (or good if you are feeling generous) as it has always been.

You might be right, but before you make your mind up I ask to consider a few things. Firstly, current FA estimates suggest that in some areas of the country 20 percent of games are played without a qualified match official.

Now of course I am talking about your local grassroots Sunday morning leagues here, but it goes without saying that it is in these leagues that the Mike Riley's of this world learn their trade. If there is a smaller pool at that level, then the chances of finding top officials who are willing to be professional decreases at an alarming rate.

You may have noticed some very young officials making the headlines this season. Stuart Atwell is just 25 but has made it on to the Premier League official list. It is he who gave the "phantom goal" for Reading against Watford earlier in the season in the Championship—a decision so spectacularly bad that Reading's manager Steve Coppell even offered to replay the match.

The promotion of young officials such as Atwell suggests one thing to me—the FA are getting desperate. There are simply not enough good referees coming through, so any that show competence at a lower level are being fast-tracked to the top before they are ready for the responsibility.

I don't blame the referees themselves. They are the best around, but it is that very fact that is so worrying. Terrible decisions are being made with greater frequency than ever before in my opinion. Inconsistency has never been so consistent.

The FA recently launched a programme to find 8000 new referees across England by 2012. There is no doubt that new blood is needed, but will the our desperation for new talent just further dilute the quality? Will referee's who 10 years ago would not have made the grade, now pass with flying colours purely because we need them?

You can't help but think that local FA's will take advantage of the new policy in the same way local education authorities took advantage of the clamour for university places by handing out A grades at A-level like chips in the canteen.

Of course, Sky TV will continue to preach that they hold the solution to all our woes with greater use of their technology. Some find the idea of trial by TV nauseating, some see it as a glorious inevitability that will increase standards and decrease controversy.

Personally I fail to see how anyone cannot see the benefits such TV usage could bring to top-level football. We would all feel a great deal happier if our teams were given red cards that were warranted, and penalties against us that were justified, instead of the lottery officiating that we have now.

The problem lies lower down the pyramid. Sky might be able to bail out Mike Riley and Howard Webb when they drop a clanger, but what about the rest of us?

As a regular watcher of League One football, I can assure you that the standard is no better than the hideousness you see on Match Of The Day every weekend. The only upside is that generally you do not get such adept con-artists as Steven Taylor or Steven Gerrard at this lower level, so refereeing is substantially easier.

Some say the England Manager's position is the "impossible job". Those that think so should try refereeing for a living, who knows, they might even be good at it.