Football: Managers and referees must bridge the divide

Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the Football Association, believes a lack of communication has been undermining the game's officials
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The Independent Online
ARSENE WENGER and Dennis Bergkamp complain that referees are prejudiced against Arsenal. Phil Thompson, Liverpool's assistant manager, runs across the Old Trafford pitch to confront the referee Graham Poll. And Jim Smith tells Sky viewers that Oxford United were cheated by Mike Reed's late penalty decision which handed Chelsea a scarcely deserved FA Cup lifeline.

What does all this tell us, apart from the fact that the drama of the Cup remains as compelling as ever, and that the FA Premier League's code of conduct for managers is obviously gathering dust in the corners of most training ground offices? The code says that managers "should take all reasonable steps to ensure that employees accept and observe the authority and decisions of match officials... and should not make public any unfair criticism of any match official."

Despite the pre-season briefings every year, there remains a disturbing gulf between the playing side of the game and the referees. The respective organisations - the Football Association, the leagues, the League Managers' Association, the Professional Footballers' Association and the referees' leaders - come together two or three times a season to discuss current trends in the game and to maintain good relations, but the message does not reach those on the ground. Or at least the managers, and through them the players, rarely heed it.

Moreover, with the wealth of live coverage on both television and radio (a service which, I hasten to add, I generally very much welcome), an unhealthy attitude has developed. It is not cool ever to take the side of the referee when commentating or interviewing. Even the mildest suggestion that a referee might actually have got a decision right is ventured ever so tentatively to the expert summariser. The media men - many of them former players and managers - cosy up to their modern-day counterparts.

Incidentally, it was only in 1982 that apprentices began to sit a test on the laws of the game and even that has lapsed somewhat in recent years with pressures on the time of young players. This explains why many expert pundits do not have a full grasp of the laws.

The climate of scorn was not helped by the removal of Paul Danson from Lincoln City's third-round FA Cup tie against Sunderland after protests that his presence might inflame Sunderland fans, who were unhappy that he had sent off two of their players in a previous match. The fact that the FA replaced him said little for Mr Danson and even less for Sunderland supporters.

The behaviour of some of those people who sit - or stand in front of - touchline dug-outs is also an important factor here. Six occupants of the benches at the recent Chelsea v Coventry match have been charged with misconduct over a melee after Gordon Strachan held on to the ball. With so many more personnel now occupying dug-outs, clearer rules need to be made, because it can become impossible for the referees. The fourth official does not have the specific authority to deal with the bench - he only "assists the referee" - while in the lower divisions he is often a local official without the stature to do so.

What of the referees themselves? Philip Don, the Premier League's referees' officer, says that in more than 90 per cent of matches referees are being given marks of at least seven out of 10 by the independent observers (who are former referees, managers or players). Is that good enough? If our senior referees are to be as consistently accurate as the best referees from other European leagues, then perhaps Mr Don should be aiming for marks of eight or above in all matches.

After Mike Reed's award of a penalty at Oxford, television replays showed both that Kevin Francis played the ball first and that Gianluca Vialli, moving away from goal, jumped high over the tackle. The tackle was side- on, not from behind, and therefore legal. Was that an eight out of 10 decision?

Dermot Gallagher, meanwhile, did little for the reputation of referees with his naive request for David Ginola's shirt for a charity auction. He should have realised that, at worst, it was placing him under an obligation and, at best, it was an action open to misconstruction.

So what should be done to improve the situation? Firstly, we should put an end to the practice of routinely asking referees to look at videos to re-examine yellow and red card decisions. What a referee thinks after viewing a video is no longer relevant. The laws of the game provide that the referee's decision is final. Any disciplinary reviews or appeals should be entirely separate and conducted under a different set of procedures, as should any charges laid against players for misconduct which escapes the attention of the match officials.

As for others in the game, I suggest the following. Clubs should be compelled to involve referees in training sessions so as to promote better understanding. Managers should be obliged to attend the seminars referees hold with a view to achieving uniformity. Players (and commentators?) should be required to study the laws of the game. And Arsenal should forget about conspiracy theories and look at the offences for which the red cards were issued.