Safeguards for game led by emotions

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The Independent Online

Short of referees decommissioning their whistles, there seemed until quite recently little that could be done to calm the conflict between footballers and those appointed to persuade them to abide by the rules.

Short of referees decommissioning their whistles, there seemed until quite recently little that could be done to calm the conflict between footballers and those appointed to persuade them to abide by the rules.

But there are positive steps being taken and it is no surprise that they originate almost entirely from the referees themselves and those who administrate them. While players and managers still appear hell-bent on imposing their will, not only on the flow of a game but the running of it as well, there's been an outbreak of encouraging signs from the arbiters' side of the argument.

It would be foolish to expect total peace between forces of suchvaried priorities but a more compatible working arrangement is essential to the future well-being of the game.

Perhaps the most telling and long-lasting contribution to that aim will come from a scientific study that is still in its pilot stage and has yet to surface among the more immediate measures being taken. At the behest of Philip Don, the FA Premier League's Referees Officer, an intensive video scrutiny of top referees is being undertaken by the Centre for Performance Analysis at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff.

While this is going on, we mustn't underestimate the effect of the FA's recent edict to referees to be less aggressive in the number of red and yellow cards they wave around. This doesn't suit Fifa's attitude of zero tolerance - they'd like refs to carry the cards in holsters for rapid drawing - but has helped considerably to soothe the situation and reduce the worrying output of managerial mouth-foam.

Last Monday, the subject of refereeing was debated by 15 officials representing the FA, the Premiership, the Football League, the referees and the players. They agreed to an eight-point plan that included holding chairmen and managers accountable for players' behaviour on the field and the introduction of full-time, professional referees.

In the midst of all this, almost miraculously, appeared the beaming figure of the referee Paul Durkin. Like the genial from the bottle, Durkin presided over three high-profile televised games in the space of 10 days, beginning with the potential powder-keg between Manchester United and Arsenal.

Durkin has not always threatened to dazzle the crowd with the reflection of the floodlights from his teeth but he smiled his way through an exciting match that flowed freely while he exercised a control that was firm without ever being dictatorial. Even when a protesting Roy Keane clattered into him he managed a cheery response when others would have reached for their pockets.

That the referee's performance was so effective while being so remarkably benign made an impact and no more so than in Cardiff where they are seriously studying the behavioural patterns of referees. The world-wide renown gained by the Centre for Performance Analysis and the increasing awareness of the value of psychology to sport has led to the CPA's involvement in the quest to improve the referee's lot.

Philip Don employed the CPA to monitor two referees last season and was encouraged enough to enlarge the study to cover five of the newest recruits to the Premiership. "They are each being covered during three games this season," says Don. "After each game three tapes are produced. The first tracks the referee during the game; the second gives a split-screen view of the game and the referee; the third is 15 to 20 minutes of highlights of the referee in critical situations. They are all studied in relation to body language, carding procedures, positioning at corners, free-kicks etc, and dealings with players."

The videos are evaluated in the presence of the referees by the CPA's project leader Mikel Mellick. Formerly an Australian rugby union referee, Mellick is a qualified psychologist who has been with the centre since 1996 and was last week granted financial support by the International Rugby Board in Dublin for a PhD project investigating the verbal and non-verbal behaviour of top rugby referees.

Not unnaturally, Mellick has a sympathy for referees. "It is time we recognised that referees are athletes in their own right and as such deserve the same kinds of applied sports science support that is crucial for the development of successful performance at the elite level of sport," he says.

That doesn't mean to say that they shouldn't be made aware of any behavioural problems that might hinder their efficiency. He goes over the videos with them, especially the split-screen tapes which reveal their reactions in close-up to what is happening in the game. It makes them aware that they do have an emotional reaction to incidents.

"Referees go through patterns of behaviour in the same way that players do and they should be aware of that," says Mellick. "They need to be pro-active. Rather than let an incident control their behaviour and emotions they should maintain their own emotional level. Sporting contests have a rhythm and sometimes a referee can get caught up in that rhythm and not be as detached as he should be when he has to react to an offence."

Don sees great benefits coming from the study. "Showing the referee how he should manage the space between him and an offender, how body language is important, how smiling helps, how signalling or miming what offence has been committed can make a decision more acceptable to players and spectators... there are so many ways a referee can impose himself without losing control."

In the light of the shameful barrage of snarling Manchester United players faced by the referee Andy D'Urso last weekend, it would do players no harm to be confronted by a video study of their behavioural patterns. A touchline video patrol of managers haranguing referees and linesmen would also be revealing. It is little wonder players feel free to castigate referees when they hear their bosses doing the same thing from the dug-out.

"People don't know how difficult it is for referees being continually harassed in this way," says Mellick. "I wish spectators who witness players surrounding the referee would realise what is really going on. Players know that the referee is not going to change his mind. What they are doing is trying to have an effect on his attitude during the rest of the match. They are intimidating him in the hope they can influence his next decision. Players have their own agenda and it is as well for referees to be aware of it."

Mellick believes that a behavioural video study would be beneficial to players, too. There are stages in a game when players are far more prone to violent conduct than in others. An awareness of when these stages and how damaging they can be to themselves and their team could make them more wary of being led by their emotions.

What makes the role of referee such a unique and complex task is that he is expected to be both witness and judge and one of Mellick's favourite quotes comes from Australia: "There exists an explicit expectation that referees will act as impartial judges, performing their decision-making duties with fairness, accuracy, consistency, objectivity and the highest sense of integrity."

That may well be the tallest order ever demanded of a man required to make a split-second decision but that makes Mellick all the more determined that referees should receive all the psychological help available. "The increase in professionalism and commercialism in sport has meant a big cultural change in the expectations we place on the performers. And if it goes wrong, the easiest person to blame is the referee. We're not likely to change that but we can equip him with the psychological armoury to help him survive that pressure."