Time to give referees technological assistance

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The Independent Football

Issues were decided and the destination of many millions of pounds determined at the climax of the last football season without any of the controversy we have come to expect when passions rise and jobs are on the line. To say that referees are improving is as fashionable as proclaiming Howard Wilkinson a great international manager, so are they just getting lucky?

Certainly a referee needs fortune on his side if he is to succeed, even if, like teams, a good referee can make his luck. Before Kim Milton Nielsen came to prominence, Denmark's leading official was Peter Mikkelsen. He used to receive the tough assignments that Nielsen has been awarded over the last three or four years. Then, in the European Championship finals in 1996 in England, Mikkelsen's luck ran out. In the Bulgaria v Romania first-phase match at St James' Park, a long-range Romanian shot entered the net without referee or assistant noticing. The "goal" was not given, Romania went home and the unfortunate Mikkelsen faded from the scene.

Conversely, it was lucky for the Norwegian officials in Athens last week that the match, and qualification for the World Cup finals, did not hinge on any of the doubtful offside decisions given against the England forwards. These incidents illustrated just how difficult it is to run the line. The assistant referee had to stay in line with the second-last defender, watch for the ball being played through and distinguish in a flash from the periphery of the action between attackers actively involved in the move and those in a passive mode seeking to prevent themselves from compromising play. Given the pace of the game, there were some incredibly difficult calls to make.

In the FA Cup final, the Nationwide play-off finals, and the Preston North End v Birmingham City play-off semi- final second leg Messrs Dunn, Pugh, Wolstenholme, Rennie and Danson all exercised firm control without intruding into the good spirit of the matches by being over-officious and the games flowed as a consequence. For the most part, referees I saw in the Second Division last season operated efficiently, without the stature and profile which enable their Premier League colleagues to address many players by their forenames.

Next season Premier League referees for the first time will become fully professional, in that refereeing will be regarded as their primary occupation. This follows an edict from Fifa, which has ruled that only professional referees will be considered for duty in the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea. Maybe the governing body's president, Sepp Blatter, believes this is the only way to end the practice of making political appointments from the various continents, where the degree of difficulty in controlling matches varies enormously.

The referees will need to become fully professional if they are to cope with the latest review of the rule on the so-called professional foul, carried out at Uefa's recent course in Turkey for top-level referees. Having decided that a foul has been committed, which nowadays need only be reckless or careless and not necessarily intentional, the referee has to judge whether a goal-scoring opportunity has been denied, in which case the offender must be sent off.

In making his judgement the referee has to consider whether the attacking player is in control of the ball or is in a position to gain control, whether he is heading directly towards goal and is in a position to shoot as his next move, and whether any other defender is in a position to prevent the shot by fair means. The clause about being in a position to shoot as his next move is new to me and appears to rule out the possibility of a player being dismissed for committing an offence just inside his own half.

A goalkeeper committing this foul must, in principle, be treated in the same manner, but if a keeper fouls a forward, who, at the point of contact, has veered away from the goal, he must be shown the yellow card.

The referees have also decided that, if a player appeals for an opponent to be cautioned, he should be spoken to. If he persists, or his team-mates join in, the yellow card will come out.

After some experimentation Uefa has decided against the use of two referees in a match. All this is leading me to the inescapable conclusion that match officials at the highest level must be armed with appropriate technology, not because they are duff, but because they deserve all the help we can give them. They are obliged to make immediate decisions that are almost unreadable to the naked eye, followed by the proper sanction on the offending player. Under the circumstances they have done very well recently.