Referees are being given a raw deal

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The Independent Online

IT CAN only be imagined what Rob Harris thought when he watched Match Of The Day on Saturday night: horror and embarrassment probablybut, after the initial shock, there may have been exasperation too. Having dissected his errors - Harris wrongly awarded a free-kick then mistakenlydismissed Steve Staunton for encroaching at it - during the highlights from Villa Park, did the BBC really have to do so again in their analysis slot?

IT CAN only be imagined what Rob Harris thought when he watched Match Of The Day on Saturday night: horror and embarrassment probablybut, after the initial shock, there may have been exasperation too. Having dissected his errors - Harris wrongly awarded a free-kick then mistakenlydismissed Steve Staunton for encroaching at it - during the highlights from Villa Park, did the BBC really have to do so again in their analysis slot?

Instead, they could have dwelt on Stephane Henchoz's backpass, which almost gifted Villa a goal; Dion Dublin's poor touch when he should havescored; Sander Westerveld flapping at crosses like a clothes line in a gale, or any number of mis-directed passes in what the programme admitted was"a dire game".

Referees make mistakes and are inconsistent but not as much as players; David Beckham, for instance, was anonymous at Stamford Bridge onSunday. The spotlight, though, is on referees and it is one of the reasons why, erroneously, there is a belief they are worse than ever. They may bestricter than before but they are also fitter, more professional and, when you watch old videos, probably better than their predecessors.

A lot of effort goes into improving referees. Their fitness is continually assessed while, this weekend, with no Premiership matches, they will be atSutton Coldfield with Philip Don, the referees' co-ordinator, assessing through videos their performances this season and discussing how to achievegreater consistency.

They will also be discussing the various panaceas which are suggested to improve their lot: professionalism, sin-bins, using two referees, videoassistance, a variation of rugby's 10-metres rule (in which dissent is punished by free-kicks being moved forward by 10-yards), and, the latest idea, ayoung referee's academy.

Most of these are not regarded as the answer. "We are open to new ideas, like the walkie-talkies this year, but we also need a period of stability," saidSteve Lodge, a Premiership referee since the league began in 1992. "The 10-yard rule, which is being tried in the AutoWindscreens Shield this year,could be a positive step, but I am not sure about the others."

Lodge believes making referees full-time will not improve decisions, except for a slight improvement in fitness and preparation, and could result ingood referees being lost to the game; a pair of referees would lead to greater inconsistency; using video replays during the game would slow it down.With promising young referees already being fast-tracked, and continual in-service training, he feels an academy is superfluous while the sin-bin ideawould further burden referees by creating a third tier of punishment to be administered.

Sin-bins, two referees and video evidence to check if the ball has crossed the goalline, are worth experimenting with, but such ideas should notobscure the truth that, if players showed greater discipline and did not cheat, referees would not be required. It may be due to fear of theconsequences (large fines and punch-ups in the car park) but Sunday morning footballers do not commit anything like the number of foulsprofessionals do.

Managers are partly to blame - and not just because they love deflecting blame on to referees. It was a surprise there were not journalists fainting allover the press room when Arsene Wenger admitted he saw the tackle that led to one of his players being dismissed. This unique event was explainedwhen he added that Patrick Vieira's second yellow card was undeserved.

Maybe, but what goes around comes around and Vieira should have been sent off for head-butting Roy Keane in August. Similarly, Alan Shearerwas unlucky to have been dismissed against Aston Villa, but he should have gone for kicking Neil Lennon in the head last year.

Refereeing could be better; few touch the standards of consistency reached by Uefa referees (four of whom are English) in Champions' Leaguecompetition. Some of the Premiership newcomers, like their playing equivalents, have struggled to adapt to its speed and intensity and a fewlonger-serving referees, Paul Alcock, Jeff Winter and Mike Reed, seem to be involved in controversy rather too often for comfort.

However, it is an extremely difficult job (the BBC commentator John Motson's reaction, when he first saw the replay, was that Staunton hadencroached) and referees are hidebound by the mandatory Fifa guidelines. These rule out the common sense approach in favour of consistentstrictness.

The problem is that when the inevitable errors occur - "we will always make mistakes, you just hope they don't swing the result," added Lodge - theyhave more serious repercussions, such as a red card. No more serious, though, than Nwankwo Kanu missing a late penalty, or Massimo Taibimisjudging a cross. Until players are perfect, they cannot expect referees to be.

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