Football: New approach has 'made refereeing easier': Neil Midgley, retired match official, assesses life for the men in the middle of a controversy. Derick Allsop reports

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The Independent Online
A SHRILL blast of the whistle pulls up play on the far side to a reflex accompaniment of groans from the locals, but the former Fifa referee, sitting in the directors' box, nods approvingly and scribbles in his notebook.

Neil Midgley, monitoring the performance of the match officials, points his pen towards the referee and whispers: 'He's a bit of a cocky character, a travel agent. He's a real Oldhamer. He's positive. Better than being a namby-pamby.'

The quest to raise refereeing standards has brought Midgley to Cheshire. In the past week he has been the match observer - with the wide responsibilities that implies - at Werder Bremen v Maccabi Tel Aviv, in the European Cup-Winners' Cup and Manchester United v Everton in the Premiership. Now he is the League assessor at Drill Field for Northwich Victoria v Halifax in the Bob Lord Trophy, a knock-out competition for Vauxhall Conference clubs.

The 'Oldhamer' under scrutiny is Gary Shaw, a referee considered promising and worthy of attention. 'He's side on and getting good positions,' Midgley says, 'but then it's easier when there's no aggro.'

Midgley, from Bolton, has a comprehensive guide to what he should be looking for, under the headings: application of the laws, positioning, fitness, advantage, signals, stoppages, co-operation with linesmen and summary. He will write up a report on the officials and mark the referee, from one (totally unacceptable) to 10 (faultless). In reality, the rating is likely to be from five (adequate) to eight (very good).

The modern interpretation of the laws, imposed in the edict from Fifa, the world game's governing body, and reiterated in this country by an FA mandate, has been the source of fervent debate this season. Earlier in the week, Phil Don, England's No 1 referee, and Keith Cooper were severely criticised by managers. There is a feeling our referees, rather than the players, have gone over the top. Above all, comes the cry, let us have consistency.

We are into that territory now, as a player is booked for a foul - though certainly not violent - tackle from behind. 'Fair enough,' Midgley says. 'The idea is to encourage and protect skilful players. Defenders know they can't go clattering into forwards and the game is better, more appetising.

'In my opinion the Fifa directives have actually made refereeing easier - whether through fear or respect I don't know. I go along with them if they are applied with commonsense. Players will co-operate if they see you have empathy. It's man management.'

Into the second half, Shaw is busier with his notebook and yellow card, Halifax's goal levelling the scores on aggregate and turning up the temperature. The visiting goalkeeper, well outside his area, impedes a forward but with cover at hand it was adjudged not to have been a goal-scoring opportunity.

'That's about right,' Midgley says. 'He could easily have been influenced by the home crowd.' The teams are still level after 90 minutes and the voice on the public address system solemnly announces: 'There will now be 15 minutes each way of football.' The mandatory malcontent response 'You must be joking.'

Few words go unheard when the attendance is 780, especially those directed at the referee. 'It's easier at big games with big crowds because then it's just a mass of noise,' Midgley says. 'I believe the referee's job overall gets easier the higher up you go. If you can come through this level you've a much better chance higher up, because it's more skilful, players have more time on the ball.'

An exquisite piece of skill and stunning shot from Carwyn Williams wins the tie for Northwich in extra time and at the end Midgley notes that the referee receives genuinely cordial handshakes from players of both teams. The contents of his report are confidential, but Shaw will probably have a reasonable mark. 'We're not here to criticise but to assess and assist,' Midgley stresses. 'Of course referees make mistakes, but fewer than players do and they have more good games than bad.'

Midgley, who retired from refereeing three years ago, speaks from bittersweet experience. 'I had good and bad. I had the 4-4 Liverpool-Everton match and the 1987 FA Cup final, when Coventry beat Spurs 3-2 after extra time. Absolutely fabulous.

'But my First Division game, Aston Villa v QPR, wasn't easy and no matter what I did I was unpopular with the crowd. After the match my wife, who was in the stand, told me that at one stage the entire row in front of her stood up and gave me the V-sign. I asked her what she did and she said she didn't want them to know who she was so she stood up and joined in.

'Ee, we've dined out on that one. There's always a silver lining. Life's too short to be too serious.'

Midgley believes the men with vast experience of controlling football at the highest level should have a stronger influence on refereeing guidelines and that a blanket system of assessment would help achieve greater consistency in the application and interpretation of the laws.

All Premiership fixtures are covered by FA observers but not all Football League matches are attended by assessors.

'I have to put my hand on my heart and say the refereeing isn't consistent,' Midgley confides. 'I've heard so much against the assessing scheme but there will always be pressure on referees to be more consistent when we don't have independent assessments at every match. There are so many ex-referees who want to help, fellows who have been there and worn the T-shirt. Then I'm sure we'd get a more consistent and uniform application of the laws.

'I just hope that people in authority who dictate the policies of football will listen to what referees have to say because they do have a contribution to make. They shouldn't be making refereeing policy decisions when they are not referees themselves, and that's happening. I wouldn't like to think it's the cost. We've got nowt to gain.'

FA match observers are paid a small fee and expenses for work at Premiership games, while observers at European ties receive expenses only, as do League match assessors. So why do they bother? 'I think we feel morally and duty bound to do it,' Midgley says. 'We're trying to put something back into the game we love. Or else, we're just crackers]'

Ah, then our suspicions are confirmed.

(Photograph omitted)

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