Premier League: Time for Refereeing Academies?

Following a game that hinged on two contentious refereeing decisions, West Ham manager Sam Allardyce last week came out with an interesting concept that perhaps deserves more attention than his usual sardonic post-match complaints: an academy for referees.

While Allardyce’s interviews have been known to end with Big Sam huffing and puffing about his lack of an Italian surname, it’s refreshing to hear the veteran manager offer a solution instead of dwelling on the questionable decisions made in the preceding 90 minutes of English football.

Allardyce bemoaned “we’ve been saying something needs to be done for six or seven years,” following a run of seasons in which both relegated teams and losers in the title race have blamed their predicaments on crucial refereeing errors with increasing frequency.

The Premier League has become a fast-paced animal that gives armchair fans the satisfaction of slow-motion replays where referees have a blur of action to interpret in real-time. The scrutiny on referees is not new to this decade – lest we forget that Clough/Motson encounter – but with Premier League television revenue upping the stakes, is it time we invest more money in our referees?

The sensible answer is: yes. With ongoing investment in goal-line technology, safer stadiums, better players and better training facilities in the £105million St George’s Park, you’d expect a similar pattern in the investment in referees. You’d also expect, with England’s extensive league system and FA training matrix, a significantly large pool of referees in need of funding.

In line with such expectations, earlier this year the Premier League and its member clubs agreed to triple the investment in referee training in the next twelve months to £1million. This is a significant increase, but the figure remains strikingly low when compared to the cost of the average Premier League player (around £6million). The funding is also dwarfed when you consider some of the bigger clashes of the season, for instance Chelsea versus Manchester City, during which referees must protect and supervise upwards of £500million worth of talent.

The increase in funding primarily targets a long-term referee development plan where the previous policy focussed on the Select Group – the group of 16 professional referees and their assistants (the Howard Webbs and Mark Clattenburgs of this world). The new strategy means more referees will be able to attend and learn from meetings that take place at St George’s Park.

While it can only be a good thing that more referees are getting the funding they deserve (and apparently need), this change of policy will not see an improvement in the quality of refereeing at the highest level for quite some time. Certainly, Allardyce will be long gone: a shadow in the echelons of Premier League history.

I do believe though that the majority of complaints about the quality of refereeing are unfounded. Premier League referees have worked their way to the peak of their profession through years of good calls, and Howard Webb’s selection as referee to the 2010 World Cup final goes some way to prove they are amongst the very best in the world.

Surely, if this were the case, the room for improvement in the Select Group’s officiating is slim to non-existent. Allowing a certain threshold for human error, they do a fantastic job – something television pundits are finally pointing out in their post-match analysis. To further improve refereeing at the highest level, the threshold for human error would have to be removed through the introduction of video refereeing. This is clearly years away from reality.

While I struggle to imagine the benefit of a refereeing academy for those top referees, Big Sam has in fact brought to light a broader issue. God knows the refereeing in the football league could use a vast improvement, and the structure of an academy, with young talent learning from the current best, could mean that the Championship will one day see the same level of refereeing as the Premier League. And so on, and so on.

Whether the academy will involve trawling through archives of Ashley Young dives and Joey Barton fights like the theory before a driving test I don’t know, but football fans, players and managers should all welcome any investment in referees.

Before the game last week, you might have expected a rampant Luis Suarez or a vengeful Andy Carroll to steal the headlines at Upton Park, but the man in the spotlight come the final whistle was referee Anthony Taylor. Likewise, Andre Marriner’s embarrassing mistake at Stamford Bridge last month mothballed into a bigger story than the sensational 6-0 score-line.

Surely, for the good of the sport, more time should be invested in our referees and less time should be spent picking apart their every decision. The less time spent discussing referees, the more time we the fans can spend on admiring the football in this thrilling 2013/14 Premier League season.


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