Debating the Use of Video Referees in the Premier League

Talk to any football fan and chances are, they can painfully recall a weekend ruined by a bad refereeing decision. And for supporters of Premier League sides, the pain is that much greater.

Thanks to the TV cameras present at every EPL game, fans get to relive the nightmare decision through slow-motion action replays which reveal just how badly the ref got it wrong. Yet in an age when fans and pundits alike can judge refereeing decisions in high definition from several different angles, our match officials continue to have to rely on their own eyesight to get it right first time.

As ESPN commentator and former Arsenal player Stewart Robson, defending a contentious decision in the recent Serie A match between Inter Milan and Juventus, pointed out: “The referee only gets one look at it, whereas we get three or four.” The television camera has become the referee’s enemy, when it could be their friend. Isn’t it time we used instant replay to help them out?

Video-review systems already work well in other sports. In rugby union, the on-field referee can call on the video referee to confirm whether a try should be awarded, while in American football, coaches can challenge a decision if they think the referee has made a mistake.

If ever a match highlighted how video referees could benefit the Premier League, it was Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 2-1 home defeat to Newcastle United last month. Wolves fans won’t need reminding that their team was denied a goal and a penalty by two refereeing decisions confirmed as errors by TV replays.

The first bad decision was made by referee Mark Halsey, who ruled that Steven Taylor’s foul on Jamie O’Hara had been made outside the area, when replays showed it had been committed inside the area. Wolves manager Mick McCarthy said of the referee’s decision to award the penalty: “I spoke to Mark and he said he didn’t want to guess.”

If a video-review system had been in operation, Halsey wouldn’t have had to guess – he simply could have simply referred the decision to the video referee, who would have clearly seen that the foul happened inside the area and instructed Halsey to award a penalty.

The second mistake was made by the assistant referee who ruled that Wolves midfielder Adam Hammill’s cross had gone behind for a goal-kick before it was headed back for Kevin Doyle to score. With a challenge system in place, McCarthy could have signalled to the fourth official that he wished to contest the decision. The video referee would have then reviewed the incident, seen that the ball was still in play and instructed Halsey to reverse his original decision and award the goal.

The video evidence for both incidents was conclusive; the reviews could have been completed in a matter of minutes. And two terrible decisions which almost certainly cost Wolves the game would have been averted.

Admittedly, there are doubts over whether video review would work as well in football as it does in more stop-start sports. A game of American football stops after every play, while a rugby union match is punctuated by scrums, lineouts and penalty kicks. Would video reviews ruin football’s unique flow?

There’s a danger they would. Officials might have to add on umpteen minutes of stoppage time to allow for video reviews or pause the game clock while reviews take place. Sky Sports and ESPN might welcome the opportunity for extra ad breaks and sponsorship (I can hear it now: “Video Referee Review, in association with Vision Express and Lasik Eye Surgery”), but I’m not sure players and supporters would.

Yet provided they’re introduced in the right way, video referees could help football rather than hinder it. Bear in mind that contentious decisions disrupt matches anyway, with incensed players surrounding the referee to protest, further delaying the game.

I see video reviews being restricted to game-changing incidents such as goals, penalties and red cards. I would also limit the number of challenges a team can make to one or two per game to prevent managers (yes, that’s you, Neil Warnock) stopping the game every five minutes to challenge even single contentious decision. If a challenge system proves too disruptive, video reviews could be restricted to use by referees only, like in rugby union.

Of course, video replays aren’t always conclusive. Sometimes, the view from TV cameras is obscured or a decision is open to interpretation. But whenever that’s the case then, as they say in the NFL, “the ruling on the field stands.”

Whatever the potential pitfalls, surely a trial of a video-review system is long overdue, perhaps at an under-21 tournament or in some senior international friendlies.

I wouldn’t, however, expect a trial to happen any time soon. Although we’re likely to see goal-line technology introduced in the Premier League in the next few years, football’s global governing body seems as reluctant as ever to introduce video referees.

In June last year, in response to renewed calls for video referees to be introduced following Thierry Henry’s infamous handball against the Republic of Ireland in a crucial World Cup qualifying match in November 2009, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said: “The basis of our game is one referee – whether you play in youth competition, amateur competition or at the highest level.”

Yet FIFA contradicted its “one referee fits all” argument when it gave its blessing to UEFA’s trial of an extra official behind each goal in last season’s Europa League matches. UEFA extended the trial to Champions League games this season, even though doubts have been raised over whether the extra officials have made much of a difference. Why deploy two extra pairs of human eyes when video cameras are already pitch-side, waiting to be used?

Here’s hoping FIFA has a change of heart over the use of instant replay soon. Because trying to convince ourselves that refereeing decisions even themselves out over the course of the season never, ever works.

5 thoughts on “Debating the Use of Video Referees in the Premier League”

  1. I think one coach’s challenge per half could work without any harm to the flow of the game. As you pointed out the game is already delayed every time there is any kind of contentious call and the time consumed by celebrations after goals could easily be used for verification without any impact on the match whatsoever. However, no one need hold their breath waiting for the revolution.

  2. I’ve always thought they should have instant replay or additional officials to take away some of the pressure on an official as well. He’s only one man. We can go on forever talking about bad calls but one reason the PL is virtually my favorite sports league is because generally, I think they call a fair game and I think they make the utmost effort generally speaking to do so. Maybe I’m wrong there.

    FIFA refereeing is the worst, where do we begin, USA have legitimate goals nullified in South Africa last year vs. Slovenia and Algeria? Lampard’s no-goal vs. Germany? The next game with the obvious Tevez offside goal vs. Mexico?

    I once heard an Australian say, we can accept a degree of human error, the problem is with sham calls, calls that turn games into the absurd like in that France/Ireland match of 2 years ago. Internationals coming up again? Any chance of a repeat?? And see, instant replay might lessen cheating because really, a lot of teams would have tried that hand ball as well, sad but true but when it happened, it became all the more dramatic.

  3. Before we even get into a discussion of video replay systems, we need to address a bigger problem. There are simply not enough eyes on the field of play in the traditional three man system. The NFL plays on a much smaller field with the same amount of players (22) and they have SEVEN officials watching the field.

    FIFA needs to adopt a new system of refereeing, especially at the highest level, where there are more eyes on the players. Here is my proposal (which I think is common sense, so it has no chance of getting through FIFA or the IFAB), and it draws from many of the major sports in the world.

    1) Increase the number of officials from one to two. This has been done in the NHL, and it has worked out great. An additional official can watch the play behind the referee and this will cut down on fouls behind the play that go unnoticed.

    2) Increase the number of ARs from two to six. One AR will be on each goal line to monitor the penalty area and help out to see if a goal went in or not. Two ARs will be on each touch line. In one half of the field, one AR will handle offside only, and the one across from his will do in and out of touch, corners, etc. All ARs will still be able to call fouls, advise the referee on cards, etc.

    3) This may be the most important. The game clock MUST be stopped by either referee after a goal is scored, and restarted once a kick-off is made. This will eliminate how much time to add on while the players celebrate around the corner flag, etc. This would also apply to injuries on the field, so we don’t have players rolling around wasting time. In rugby union, when there is a video review or an injury, the referee stops the clock.

    4) ALL goals or ALL potential goals are reviewed on a monitor by an official either at the stadium in a booth, truck in the parking lot, or a command center somewhere in the country. For example, in the England v Germany game, a review could be made by a video referee, and the goal correctly awarded, and the game would go back and restart from the time the goal was scored. The second part of this can only be effectively implemented in you are allowed to stop the clock. This is what is done in the NHL, and it also works out great. For goals that are disallowed by the on-field official, the video official will have the option of overturning the ruling on the field. This is the system in place in the NFL and NHL, and for MLB on home run calls.

    Just my two cents. Feel free to discuss and object. I welcome that.

  4. Only just saw this column after the Saurez handball goal got me wondering if anyone was yet talking about replay in football.

    The biggest problem in the debate is that people say, as you pointed out, that replay is fine in stop-start games but it won’t work in football because it’s too flowing. The answer to that criticism is simple. Leaving aside the fact that there are, in fact, plenty of stoppages in football, you don’t try to copy another sport’s system. You devise a system of replay that is compatible with football.

    I happen to agree with you. Penalties, red cards and goals are all perfect for review as the game is stopped. Obviously you need some way of restarting the game in the even of a penalty being awarded incorrectly, but football already has the drop-ball in the Laws so that seems like it would work fine. I don’t happen to think challenges would work, so just stick with leaving the ref to decide whether he wants help or not.

    There are so many occasions when people watching the game on telly know the wrong decision has been made before play restarts that it seems only a matter of time before some form of replay is embraced. And the thing is, once it’s there, you’ll wonder how the game ever worked without it.

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