Michael Calvin: Howard Webb has mission to explain as referees are called to account

New public face of officialdom has power to change the game

It didn’t take long for the humour to wear thin. There are only so many jokes that can be made on social media about the notion of Manchester United reeling from the retirement of Howard Webb as the Premier League’s principal referee.

Assumptions of bias and crackpot conspiracy theories go with the territory, and can be answered by a simple statistic: the most successful club in matches Webb officiated over the past five years was Manchester City, who earned an average of 2.41 points in each of their games he controlled.

Tribal absurdities and wilful ignorance may militate against unanimous acclaim, but his appointment as technical director of the catchily titled Professional Game Match Officials Limited is a significant diversion from the usual pre-season tittle tattle of transfer speculation.

PGMOL is an introspective, opaque organisation. The news that Webb’s duties will involve “a public-facing role, informing and educating on refereeing matters” represents a significant and welcome cultural shift.

Referees are second-guessed about everything from their eyesight to their bloodlines. They make far-reaching decisions in a fraction of a second, knowing their judgements will be replayed from every angle and at a variety of speeds.

The debate is conducted in shrill tones, in front of the sort of audience that is routinely manipulated by populists and posturing ninnies. It is the stuff of online click-bait and manufactured controversy. Dealing with the resultant rancour is tiresome and takes a strong personality.

Like Pierluigi Collina, the best referee of the preceding generation, Webb favoured prison-officer chic. His body language was assertive – the combination of bald dome, piercing eyes, and taut shoulders combined to demand respect and dissuade wannabe warriors from doing their worst.

Football is the most confrontational of professional sports, and referees bear the brunt of its emotional incontinence. Players may have disagreed with him when the adrenalin was flowing and the crowd was howling but  they did not doubt his professionalism.

He was imperfect – he admits he should have dismissed Nigel de Jong, the Dutch midfield player, for his kung-fu kick on Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final – but impressive. He is still relatively young, 43, but effectively goes out at the top, having been regarded as being unlucky not to emerge from the shortlist for this summer’s final in Brazil.

Webb began refereeing in 1989, starting off with an Under-11 match at Orgreave, the Yorkshire village that became synonymous with the 1984 miners’ strike. He progressed through the Northern Counties and Football League, eventually officiating in nine major tournaments, every domestic final, and the Champions League final.

The value of his new role will go beyond its formative responsibility of managing the training and development programmes for elite referees. He is a good communicator and privately has always favoured being able to explain some of his more contentious decisions.

Accountability is part of the entertainment module in modern sport. Webb would have been perfect as a TV pundit; Mark Halsey’s stint at BT Sport last season was marred by a dispute with Mike Riley, PMGOL’s austere and self-defensive general manager.

American television offers the best example of the genre. On Fox TV, former NFL rules official Mike Pereira explains controversial calls and analyses replay rulings before the referee announces his decision.

In an ideal world, referees would be free to outline their decisions, in the manner of a manager. Official reticence to scrutiny is understandable to a degree, given the post-match circus of accusation and counter-accusation, but it is ultimately self-defeating.

Referees would benefit from educated judgements. Webb has the opportunity to provide measured expert comment, and seems to be of sufficiently strong character to avoid becoming a slave to political correctness.

He’s used to the stick, and now has no secrets left to share. The announcement of his retirement included the previously unknown fact that his middle name is Melton. Such knowledge would have been worth its weight in  gold in Premier League dressing rooms.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Buddy DeFranco
people
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month