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Study examines career of ’30s football referee

W P Harper – one of the best-known referees of the 1930s – in action during a match.

A new study suggests that increasingly outspoken views on football referees over the last century have gone hand in hand with the growth of modern media.

The research, published in The International Journal of the History of Sport, focuses on the experiences of W P ‘Percy’ Harper, a respected Association Football referee who officiated at the 1932 FA Challenge Cup final between Arsenal and Newcastle.

That occasion represented the pinnacle of his career, but his decision to allow a controversial goal sparked a mass of press coverage – including furious letters accusing him of “letting Newcastle win”.

Dr Tom Webb.

Dr Tom Webb.

And after another widely commented-upon decision during a match between two Irish teams, Harper – considered one of the foremost match officials of his day – received letters containing accusations of match-fixing and even death threats.

But the referee’s personal archive – used by Dr Tom Webb as the basis for his paper – shows that the press coverage of the day included both positive as well as negative comments.

In 1933, for example, a match report in the Oldham Chronicle stated that “next to Athletic’s dashing football the most enjoyable feature of the match was the way in which Mr W P Harper of Stourbridge controlled the game”.

Dr Webb, senior lecturer in sports management and development in the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Sport and Exercise Science, said: “It’s fascinating to look back at the career of W P Harper and compare it to the experience of modern referees. We can learn much about current media interest by doing this.

“He kept much of the press coverage he received during his working life, which gives us a valuable insight into the experiences of referees at a time when newspapers, radio and latterly television were establishing a powerful presence.

“Referees were contending with a growing level of attention and scrutiny to which they had never previously been exposed. That was consequently affecting the general public’s view of the role and the importance of the referee.

“Radio in particular had a substantial impact on the game of Association Football. Wireless licences rose from two million in 1927 to nine million by 1939 – a total that represented 71 per cent of all UK households.”

Earlier this year Dr Webb published research suggesting that professional football referees are not subjected to as much media criticism as they think they are – but he says there is “little doubt” media attention has increased hugely over time.

“The reporting and analysis of referees’ performances is part of the modern game. Looking at Harper’s experience, the growing focus on the referee was evident, although perhaps the most obvious difference to the game today was the positive reporting of the match official which was still evident in the 1930s, and is more difficult to find in reports on the modern game of Association Football.

“It’s also worth noting the difference in referees’ approach at this time. It would be unusual to find a referee in the modern game being praised in a report for joking with the crowd, chatting with the players and helping to carry off an injured player.”

Dr Webb concluded: “Looking at the early role of the media, and its direct impact on referees, increases our understanding of the development of this relationship and the role of the media in Association Football in the game today.”

Last year a survey of 2,000 football referees  – carried out last year by Dr Webb with Loughborough and Edge Hill universities – found that verbal abuse towards match officials is rife.

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