The Blame Game - Why it's our fault that referees mess up

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.

In a title race with more plot twists than a cheap novel, this weekend saw a new protagonist step forward, and it wasn’t who you might expect. Leicester City’s 2-2 draw with West Ham United will forever be remembered not for the actions of the players, but of referee Jonathan Moss, who gave what has been called the ‘worst performance of the season’. It was an undoubtedly bad performance, notable in that both sides could be justified in thinking they were screwed over, (Leicester fans have been the most vocal but the worse decision was the one that gave them a late penalty*). Predictably, fans and pundits have since called for Moss' head, but in reality it's our collective fault that performances like this happen in the first place.

Part of the reason why Moss, not the most decorated of English referees, was in charge of this key fixture was that Mark Clattenburg and Martin Atkinson were out of action taking part in medical testing with UEFA. Some would say a freak scheduling conflict, but it points to a wider problem in English refereeing. The pool of quality refs is smaller than ever, and to be honest it’s hardly surprising. Every time a ref makes a mistake in a high profile game they are ripped apart in the press, on social media and in football conversations across the country. Having seen the treatment Moss has received since the weekend, who on earth would be a referee?!? By being so overtly critical of referees, the pool only continues to shrink, and the likelihood of a bad performance increases. It is a vicious circle that needs breaking.

In watching the game on Sunday, it felt like the media spotlight was affecting decisions in the game. It appeared that Moss giving the injury time penalty to Leicester, the most egregious of all the decisions, was a conscious attempt to ‘level the score’ and not be seen to be hurting national darlings Leicester. It has always been the case that the pressure of 30k+ home fans has led to refs making suspect decisions, but with the media spotlight what it is now, in big games this pressure has increased tenfold. The huge amount of coverage of football is great for fans, but when individuals become the focus of the media glare, it tangibly affects the game, a genuine danger for the product on the field.

Another worrying trend on the referee front came when the Premier League pulled Kevin Friend from refereeing yesterday’s Tottenham game because he is a Leicester supporter. It was a move that sets a dangerous precedent. It’s long been the case that you can’t ref your own team’s game, but if the Premier League attempts to stop referee’s manning games that could affect their team, where does it end? Teams across the country could rightly complain about specific refs manning games that affected their team at both ends of the table. In bowing to a classic football conspiracy theory about refs making decisions to serve their own interests, the Premier League suggested fallibility in their referee’s decision making. It is vital that we see refs as totally impartial, and the move from the Premier League to put the spotlight on this issue will likely only increase the circus around every bad decision.

In amongst the cries of criticism of Moss, perhaps the most sensible comment came from West Ham boss Slaven Bilic, who despite feeling like he may have been robbed of a crucial three points, commented: “It’s hard for him. Here you have 32,000 people screaming at every contact in the box, every long ball in the box. If it’s for the home side it’s a penalty or handball. If it’s in the other box it’s cheat or dive or whatever,” said Bilic. “It’s hard, it’s extremely hard for him and the game went like crazy and they were losing. It’s easy now to say the refs shouldn’t get influenced by the fans. On paper it is easy to say that. Actually it’s real life.” Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri also refused to throw Moss under the bus - “I don’t want to speak about the referee.” There is a valuable lesson to be learned from the reaction of these coaches. Everyone has a bad day occasionally, from refs to the players themselves, to every job on the planet. But as every refereeing mistake is blown up, we make them more likely to happen. We’re discouraging future referees and further stimulating future conversation. Refs won't stop making mistakes, they are only human after all, so it's up to us to stop making them such a big deal.  

Do you agree? Do you think I’m being too lenient on Jon Moss? Get in touch by tweeting @hksports.

*Disclaimer: author is very much a West Ham fan.

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search