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Football referees playing ‘catch up’

Football referee expert: Tom Webb

Professional football referees are the ‘poor relations’ in the game and have spent more than 100 years trying to play catch-up with players, according to new research.

Tom Webb, of the University of Portsmouth, has charted the history of referees’ move from the side-lines to the centre of the pitch over more than 100 years and found that refereeing was an afterthought in the development of the game.

His research is published in the International Journal of the History of Sport.

He said: “Refereeing has never been central to the thinking of rule makers and those developing the game. They have been forced to play catch-up ever since the game started and in many ways, they still are.

“They are the poor relations.

“Given referees’ decisions affect matches and therefore club and player incomes and careers, there is a strong argument to suggest that their pay should reflect their importance.”

Football players have been professional since 1885 but referees only became professional in the 2001/2002 season, so it wasn’t surprising they were lagging behind, he said: “Referees seem to always have been an afterthought for the ruling bodies.

“It took 100 years for the ruling bodies to concede referees needed training and longer for them to agree referees should be assessed. Even in terms of technology, they lag behind. Referees weren’t given goal-line technology until a long time after slow motion replay was being used in post-match analysis of games on television.”

Mr Webb is an expert in the history and training of football referees in England, Spain and Italy. His latest research examines the rise in professional training for football referees from 1863, when the laws and principles of the game were first laid down and in which referees were not even mentioned, to the 1960s.

“By 1960, football in England had been recognised as a formal game with written rules, for 97 years, professionalised for 75 years, and had a structured league for 72 years, but referees had been left behind,” he said.

“The big question that this research throws up is will referees always be playing catch up, being reactionary to advances and changes in the wider game as a whole.”

Before football was formally codified – given a formal set of rules and principles – in the Freemasons Tavern in London on October 26, 1863, decisions on the game were made by those playing it. The rules of the ancient Shrove football matches played annually in the north of England included that “men on both sides attend to see fair play is done”.  If the players disagreed, then the responsibility was for the captains of each team to agree any disputes. How the rules were applied and how much violence was ignored or encouraged varied greatly across England.

It wasn’t until the first FA Challenge Cup in 1871 that umpires were mentioned. They were seen as ‘neutrals’ whose role was to resolve disputes but all their decisions had to be agreed by the captains of both teams.

In 1881 they were allowed to move off the side-lines and on to the pitch, and in 1878 the referee’s whistle was introduced.

But it wasn’t until 1889 that referees as we know them were born. In that year they were given the power to act as timekeeper, make decisions when the teams’ umpires could not agree, issue cautions, rule players out of play, award free kicks and award penalty points. At the same time, umpires were renamed linesmen.

Six years later, in 1895, the updated laws of the game gave the referee “absolute power”.

Mr Webb said: “These changes marked a clear promotion for the referee, but there wasn’t any training for them or even assessment. Right up the start of the First World War the belief persisted that referees were born and not made; that being a first-rate referee was something you couldn’t learn.”

In 1913, referees fed up of criticism and public scrutiny of their decisions, took the unprecedented step of sending a petition to the Football League saying they wanted formal support from their ruling body.

Mr Webb examined historic FIFA meeting minutes over the period and said that it was clear in England and internationally there was no appetite a uniform approach to training and assessment of referees who “still appeared to be an afterthought”.

In 1935 guidance to referees and those selecting them included this advice: “Mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness [for referees] and attendance [at instructional classes] may be helpful in giving a referee confidence and courage.” But it was 11 years before training was formalised.

Mr Webb said: “The realisation that refereeing was not keeping up with the professionalised element of Association Football at the elite end of the game was beginning to permeate the FA, FIFA and other governing bodies by 1946.

“By this time, football had been professionalised for more than 60 years, the quality of training that players were receiving, along with their wages, was steadily increasing, but the amateur ideal persisted and the attitude towards referees’ training and development was completely out of step with the rest of the game.”

A watershed moment for football refereeing came in 1958 with the introduction of the first professional training courses for referees.

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