Steve Dunn, a former Premier League referee and current PGMO matchday coach, talks about the challenges facing the modern referee.
Interestingly, Dunn declined to answer when asked what action the Premier League would take if a player who had suffered racial abuse during a match decided to walk off the field of play.
It is important to understand that Dunn was perfectly entitled to decline to answer the question and is not at liberty to offer an explanation. Rather, it shows that the Premier League has not contemplated what it would do if a player was to make a stand and independently abandon the match.
The potential for such a scenario to unfold in the current climate of mindless racism cannot be discounted, and hoping it doesn’t materialise is not a stance the Premier League should be satisfied with.
The questions that need answering are many and begin with the following: Does the referee abandon the match? Is the team obliged to make a substitution? Will the player in question be reprimanded?
Ultimately referees will need to make a difficult call and, as we learn from speaking with Dunn, referees are born to get the tough decisions correct.
How has refereeing changed since you retired?
I have been retired now for six years and I see it in a completely different context right now. When I was refereeing I used to see it only as a referee, now the way I see it is how to match-educate referees through the art of referee development.
The game itself has speeded up and I guess it will continue to speed up through the course of time.
You are a matchday coach – can you explain what that entails?
We liken ourselves much in like to how a football club is run with a coaching team. We work with our referees on a matchday to feed that experience into the referees at the three levels we deal into which are Blue Square Conference, Football League, and the Premier League.
It’s not an assessment role, that’s a completely separate role entirely. We look at how they can, in general, control games in their leagues and look to improve their match day skills.
You held a training session titled ‘the challenge of refereeing’ – can you tell us what you feel the challenges are for the modern top flight referee?
The big challenge is and always will be that we need to get the major decisions correct in football matches. That was the crux of the afternoon session today where we gave the attending delegates the opportunity to make decisions themselves based on one citing of an incident and I think it brought home how difficult it can be to make a decision, albeit away from a match-day situation.
It’s still difficult to get a decision correct – you’ve got to be in the correct location, the right angle, to get the right decision. So I think that’s where we’re at and that’s one of the big challenges for referees in today’s football.
Equally more and more emphasis is being put on referees in managing the game, using your life skills, your different management techniques, to bring a game to a safe and satisfactory conclusion.
Issues of inconsistency on applying the laws are common and inevitable, what can be done to placate the natural frustrations felt by players, managers and fans alike?
When you talk of consistency, what do you interpret as consistency? Are you looking for consistency within one match, or are you looking for consistency from one referee to another referee over a number of games? Are you looking for consistency across different confederations?
What we mean by consistency is having the same decision for the same type of incident across many matches on any given weekend.
Our training and development is geared towards getting every referee seeing situations as similarly as possible.
It allows you to award every decision in every game to end up with the exactly the same decision, but experience tells you that’s not ever going to happen; we all see things slightly different. What’s critical is that referees in any given game are consistent so players know exactly where they stand in a game and currently we are pretty good at doing that.
When you talk about from one game to another, more training and development will be ongoing and because of the amount of work we do in that aspect and the work we do with the PFA and the MMA we are getting there on that. I will say again that when you talk about getting absolute consistency over a wide range of things that throw up completely different scenarios – that will always be difficult.
The players, managers and fans do appreciate that inconsistencies are part of the game but do you think referees need to explain their decisions a bit more?
Immediately after the game is not the right time for referees and match representatives to discuss incidents – that in itself throws up problems. Me personally, I don’t know what benefit there would be with referees coming out and justifying the decisions they’ve made.
What is important is that we have the half hour cool off period after a game and then the manager is allowed to come in and ask the referee to explain why a certain decision was given and I think that’s an accepted way of working. Its all done in an amicable manner, thankfully, but there will always be cases where we beg to differ on things.
A recent BBC article looked at the concept of ‘Fergie Time’ and suggested that top teams are favoured with extra time at the end of the match particularly when playing at home. What are your experiences with that and what sort of pressure does home advantage have on referees to make favourable decisions?
My opinion on it is that it doesn’t exist. We go into games in an open-handed manner and we see decisions for what they are, and we make decisions as we are coached to make them.
Experience tells you that once you are in a game you’re dealing with one team playing in red and one team playing in blue and that’s the professional consideration. Referees are strong people and that’s how they go about their work.
Racism from the stands has been a constant talking point lately, culminating with the watershed moment of AC Milan’s Kevin Prince Boateng walking off the pitch in protest. What would be the reality if a player who is racially abused decides to walk off during a Premier League match?
I wouldn’t want to respond to that question.
Is it time that the governing bodies re-evaluated some of the laws – such as bookings for goal celebrations? A penalty AND a sending off for a technical foul in the box?
I think the second example you gave me there; I think that that has been looked at by FIFA’s ruling body and that will continue. The first incident you gave me about cautions for celebrations, or over celebrations of goals, that was brought in to enhance the safety of players, spectators and indeed match stewards. So if you’re asking me if that caution should be taken away for such celebrations then I would say ‘No’.
The recent announcement that goal-line technology will be introduced at the World Cup seems to be warmly received. Do you feel video replays can be successfully incorporated into the game too?
No. Referees will be equally pleased that goal-line technology has been announced and that it’s forthcoming. We would back that purely because it’s a matter of fact, ‘yes the ball has crossed the goal line’ or ‘no it hasn’t’.
The other decisions that are made by referees are matters of opinion and for me personally, its important that decisions in a game stay that way.
Are we any closer to having a female referee operating in the top flight?
We have female referees now refereeing at all levels of the game and they are steadily progressing through the system so I see no reason, or any obstacles that would prevent that.
I’ve seen female referees that I’ve worked with who are exceptionally good match officials and I see no reason why a female referee should not reach the top level of the game.
Journalists learn just how hard it is to make a decision