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Forest row shows refs’ battle to adapt to demands of VAR era

Written by on April 27, 2024

The timing was impeccable. Just 48 hours after Nottingham Forest’s outrageous social media statement called the impartiality and integrity of Premier League referee Stuart Attwell into question, after they were denied three penalty appeals against Everton, UEFA announced that Attwell had been appointed as a VAR for Euro 2024.

It perfectly illustrates the disconnect with refereeing today. Fans on social media call for Attwell to never referee again, and he’s selected to officiate at European football’s flagship tournament. Not to mention Forest have created a storm of criticism, yet two of the three decisions they complained about were correct.

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It’s easy to assume that it’s just a Premier League problem, that PGMOL — the body that controls refereeing in English football — has lost its grip and allowed standards to slip. But delve into other countries and you’ll quickly see there’s no difference.

LaLiga referee Jesús Gil Manzano — one of the most respected in Europe — will be on the plane to Germany in June, yet last month he controversially blew the final whistle seconds before Brahim Díaz crossed for Jude Bellingham to score and give Real Madrid what would have been a 3-2 win at Valencia. Manzano was removed from selection for the next round of games or, as they say in Spain, sent to the fridge.

When the Spanish FA tweeted to congratulate Manzano, it was greeted with a sea of abuse. “To the fridge after Mestalla and now the prize is the Euros?” one tweet read. “This is becoming more and more like a movie. It is a real embarrassment.”

“The shame of refereeing and Spanish football … rewarded for listening to the mafia and for corrupting themselves,” another post said.

“We apologise in advance to all the teams that will have to suffer from the poor standard and lack of professionalism,” another read.

Alejandro José Hernández Hernández, who was on VAR duty for one of the most controversial games in LaLiga this season when winless Almería were denied victory over Real Madrid by a series of video decisions, will also be at Euro 2024.

This is picking out just one country, but it’s the same everywhere. The reputation of referees has never been so low, and VAR has a lot to answer for.

Fans expect perfection

Fans have never liked refs and players have never liked refs; let’s not pretend this is a new development. In other sports, such as rugby or basketball, the referee starts from a position of respect. In football, they aren’t respected unless they somehow manage to earn it — and even then it’s rare, with only Pierluigi Collina, Howard Webb and Szymon Marciniak doing so in recent memory.

In recent seasons, it has got far worse across the globe; FIFA, UEFA and the International Football Association Board (IFAB) have put the abuse of officials at the top of their agendas. I could reel off any number of incidents — the most notable being when Turkish referee Halil Umut Meler was punched by MKE Ankaragucu president Faruk Koca in December. And it’s spreading, with referee Craig Hicks chased off the pitch in the League One fixture between Port Vale and Portsmouth in January.

Forest have had their fair share of mistakes, and their statement was the result of a growing sense of injustice rather than one incident. Inferring bias and, in the case of coach Nuno Espirito Santo, suggesting there is a conspiracy against the club is dangerous and could even legitimise that kind of behaviour in the minds of some supporters.

There are societal factors, of course, but at the top level, the increased scrutiny of VAR has created a situation in which unachievable levels of perfection are demanded in a game of subjective laws and opinions; every set of fans has their own idea of what’s “correct.”

Fans want total consistency, but VAR was never intended to produce this. Maybe it was lost in the message from the start; instead, it has exposed just how many of the game’s laws are open to interpretation.

It means two similar situations can result in the opposite outcome, because the consistency is determined by when the VAR gets involved rather than the final decision. For instance, just because the referee didn’t give Forest a penalty for the handball by Ashley Young, the VAR isn’t going to cancel another one awarded on the field in similar circumstances, such as Coventry City’s spot kick against Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinal the very same day.

There’s a fair argument that VAR is running down a blind alley; if fans want consistency, how can a system that is perceived to breed inconsistency ever be accepted?

Perhaps a failure to communicate this effectively brought us here, but what’s clear is that fans demand better than what they’re getting. Not just in terms of decisions, but the paucity of information that is available to match-going fans.

The IFAB, football’s lawmaker, comes in for a lot of criticism for tinkering, when in truth — other than rewording the handball law (a fool’s errand that was exposed by VAR rather than designed for it) — there have been few tangible changes.

VAR has pulled back the curtain, with goals disallowed for technical reasons rarely picked up by the officials on the pitch; fans are subjected to detailed explanations based around complicated sub-clauses that they don’t want to know or care about. They just want to watch the game and get the decisions they think are fair.

Trust in VAR doesn’t exist

I’ve spoken to many across the game — including former players, referees and those involved in its administration — and no one feels that refereeing is worse today that it was five years ago. Many will disagree with that, yet the argument is that the game is so much faster, and the scrutiny VAR has brought is intense and unforgiving. Whereas a few decisions used to cause debate, now every single one is pulled apart; broadcasters get the super slow-motion replays out, radio stations shout controversy, and fans search for the conspiracy theories on social media.

Anything that is anti-referee gets traction, but turning the tide is a huge task because you can’t expect a club or its fans to have an objective view when they are so invested in every decision.

VAR might have increased the pressure and intensity, but video alone can’t be held responsible for all the issues. It has exposed complacency and how unprepared refereeing was for such scrutiny, while it’s been left playing catchup to the modern game.

And you can’t get away from the fact that Premier League referees have had a horrible year. The VAR stats may tell you there’s a slight improvement on last season, but perception is everything.

Mike Dean’s departure as a full-time VAR started a trail of events that have tested fans’ patience. Dean told the “Up Front” podcast in August that he decided not to review a missed red card because he wanted to spare the referee “more grief.” It gave credence to the notion that VARs just want to back up their mates on the pitch.

Then, in September, VAR Darren England inexplicably gave referee Simon Hooper the wrong information which led to a Luis Díaz goal being disallowed for Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur. Any remaining trust was gone and furious rants from Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta and Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Gary O’Neil, among others, followed concerning decisions for their own teams.

The Premier League desperately wants to reduce the impact of VAR, wanting quicker reviews and for the game to be as authentic as it was before the video referee came in five years ago — including a higher level of physicality than in other top European leagues. But the quality of the referee’s decision remains crucial; choosing to reduce interventions only works if the ref is getting things right.

There have been five incorrect interventions this season, and 23 times the VAR should have intervened but didn’t (remember what Dean said?). The Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel has also recorded another 30 times when it felt the referee made the wrong call, but it didn’t meet the threshold for VAR, plus 14 incorrect red-card decisions involving a second caution (given or not given) which cannot go to video review. That’s another 44 mistakes on top of the 28 related to VAR — averaging more than two per game week. The number of perceived errors is perhaps double that number.

How to move forward

There’s no quick fix to this. PGMOL has been forced into root-and-branch reform to transform it from what was largely an administrative organisation into one which is fit for purpose — able to train, mentor and guide referees.

The Football Association and the Premier League identified that action had to be taken two years ago and has invested millions of pounds in the Elite Referee Development Plan, the key moment of change intended to mirror the Elite Player Performance Plan introduced in 2012 which successfully managed to drive up standards in academies and produce future England stars like Cole Palmer and Kobbie Mainoo.

Millions have also been invested to rebuild PGMOL, with the number of full-time staff doubled from 65 to more than 130, and over 30 coaches employed to lower the ratio to one coach for every 1.6 referees — roughly equal to a Premier League club’s first-team squad. There’s now a 15-strong team of performance support, sports science and analysis which didn’t previously exist.

The Referee Development Group was created to identify the very best young referees with genuine ambition, providing a smooth promotion through the levels: Sam Allison, Sam Barrott, Lewis Smith (who 12 months ago was refereeing in non-league) and Rebecca Welch (the first woman referee in the Premier League) have all graduated through it.

Yet rebuilding — or, for that matter, simply building — an organisation which to all intents and purposes was a shell operation into a fully professional organisation and to see results is going to take time. But patience with fans is wearing thin.

Even when supporters have got the change they demand, they aren’t happy for long. Mike Riley was ousted as the head of PGMOL and replaced by Webb 18 months ago. Under Riley, PGMOL would very rarely engage with the media or the public. Webb has taken the opposite route but has learned that can backfire, with fans eager to pick holes in any public statements.

It remains to be seen if Webb will be afforded the time to complete the job amid such a high-pressure environment, but he quickly moved on two underperforming officials. Under Riley, both Lee Mason and Dean became full-time video officials, but within two months of Webb taking over Mason was stood down from his position and Dean was removed from the selection list over performance levels. Dean then walked away at the end of the season.

Even if Webb wanted to have a clean sweep of other officials it’s not that simple — just like players, they have employment contracts and can’t simply be dispensed with. The only way standards can improve is for PGMOL to build on that strong umbrella of coaching and development, just as a Premier League club can now look to its academy with confidence.

Webb feels having dedicated VARs is the long-term answer, but we’ve already seen that being a retired referee doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be good as a video official. He is also trying to find former players who want to make the transition. Chris Birchall, who played for Port Vale, Coventry City, the LA Galaxy and the Columbus Crew, was among those who accepted the offer and, at the age of 39, took charge of his first qualification game on Tuesday after completing his referees’ course.

The pathway is now clearer, though, with Josh Smith and Tom Bramall also promoted far quicker than they would have been under Riley. Yes, the six new referees this season are inexperienced — but they come without the baggage of the previous regime.

Referees have been subjected to unprecedented amounts of criticism this season — some of it of their own making — but maybe five seasons from now, like with the academy system, we’ll be talking about how much better refereeing has become. Or maybe we’ll all still be arguing about VAR.

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