How can we improve refereeing in the Women’s Game?

WALSALL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 27: General view as the assistant referee runs the line during the Barclays FA Women's Super League match between Aston Villa Women and Chelsea Women at Banks's Stadium on January 27, 2021 in Walsall, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

If there is one thing that women’s football fans can unanimously agree on, it’s the standard of officiating.

It’s consistently been substandard, and the recent Women’s Super League broadcast deal has amplified it tenfold.

Everyone talks of a need to grow the game. I don’t disagree. However, I think any kind of positive growth is stunted — and perhaps reversed — if existing issues aren’t addressed beforehand. Refereeing is most certainly one of those issues.

Defending referees

Some decisions are bizarre, some are confusing and others are utterly incomprehensible. They affect games, they affect results and they can even swing title fights or relegation battles. It’s for these reasons that refereeing needs a revolution.

But, before I go any further, I want to stress four important points.

1. Refereeing is the toughest job on the pitch

Football is a sport of three teams: the home side, the away side, and the officials.

The former two outnumber the latter 22 to 4. At the same time, the fourth official has to keep the peace between the two benches. That brings the ratio closer to around 50:4, including staff members.

Then consider the fact that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. A team and fanbase that has a free-kick, penalty, offside, throw-in or corner awarded against them is going to be furious, even if the decision is correct and totally justified.

You are fighting a losing battle whatever you do.

One merit I will give the women’s game is the ridiculous waving of imaginary cards hasn’t cursed it yet. Though, given time, I’m sure it will.

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2) Only the captain should speak to the referee, unless the referee requests a player talk to them

Despite this, every decision results in the officials being crowded and shouted at by a plethora of players. There is the flagrant disregard for the social distancing that would bring a cheer in Downing Street.

Again, this is less common in the women’s game, but it’s certainly increasing in regularity as leagues become tighter and margins become narrower. Players feel they need to offer their two-pence on every single call. This increases the pressure on later decisions as referees worry about a similar rebuke.

3) The men’s game is just as bad

I’ve seen some people criticise WSL referees, while ignoring the fact the men’s game boasts officials well-known for incorrect and controversial decisions.

It shouldn’t be some sort of competition as to who can make the most wrong decisions. I long for the day I can look at a referee’s name and have no clue who they are, because a bad decision doesn’t immediately pop into my head.

4) This is not a case of bias

Despite what some fanbases might think, referees don’t hold vendettas against teams. They are professionals and shouldn’t be crucified for making small, infrequent mistakes. Everyone is human.

However, at the moment, we are seeing a consistent pattern of mistakes from all referees. It should be a sign that help is required to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again. Instead, we currently have a vicious cycle of laissez-faire.

No one puts in measures to help referees. Consequently, they make the same mistakes over and over. Resultantly, we analyse them again and again and increase the pressure. And repeat…

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How can the FA help?

Better training is required. With the increased funding in the women’s game, more and more sides are rightly going full-time. Being a professional athlete is a full-time job. Being an official for a professional athlete should be a full-time job.

Despite this, a number of referees and officials in the women’s game are still part-time. A lot of them haven’t had enough training.

There is a shortage of referees due to abuse, poor pay grades and other factors. Young referees are fast-tracked in the system. Previously, you’d have to officiate for several years at lower levels, whereas nowadays that luxury is not available.

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Referees are jumping from grassroots to Championship and WSL level at a rate of knots. Instead of having time away from the spotlight to hone their craft and have the chance to learn from mistakes, they’re catapulted into the public eye.

It doesn’t help that Sky’s new half-time analysis often consists of picking apart every single mistake that referees make either.

Sian Massey-Ellis: Trailblazer, icon, mentor?

A mentoring scheme could be a practical and effective solution. In my view, the biggest female officiating success story to date is Sian Massey-Ellis MBE.

She’s been an official for 10 years across every level of the game. Nowadays, she is probably the best Premier League assistant referee in terms of accuracy and consistency. She has done numerous interviews trying to encourage more females into officiating.

In short, Massey-Ellis is the best advocate the FA could want for it.

With her knowledge and experience, it seems sensible to have her regularly communicating with and evaluating WSL referees and officials. Offering constructive criticism and feedback on decisions to help them improve. Giving them advice on handling the pressure of being on live-television. Most critically, helping with the mental burden of being a referee.

I’m sure she’d jump at the chance to spearhead and tutor the next generation of successful female officials.

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How can fans help?

It’s going to be incredibly hypocritical of me to say this here, but fans are as bad as players when it comes to pressuring referees.

I’m not going to pretend I don’t do it. I’ve provided officials with choice words during live matches of exactly what I think of their decisions. At times, however, we get so blinded by this, we fail to acknowledge the importance of really supporting our team.

We would always show respect to our players, our staff and our peers, so why do referees get such different treatment?

BOREHAMWOOD, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 05: Referee Elizabeth Simms is surrounded by players during the Barclays FA Women’s Super League match between Arsenal Women and Manchester United Women at Meadow Park on February 5, 2022 in Borehamwood, United Kingdom. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Recently, I spoke to a friend who referees. They told me a story of calling a tight offside during a match. The fans quietly accepted it. Said referee was so shocked by it, they momentarily paused. They thought the fans hadn’t realised the offside had been given. They were so used to receiving abuse for correct calls.

I’m not going to pretend we need any nonsense or fanfare around making referees ‘celebrities’. They are there to officiate the game, not sign autographs. If they are inspiring young people to be officials, that’s different. But as I’ve said before, I’d love to not recognise a referee’s name.

The sport is ‘football’ not ‘refereeball’. The best games are matches where I am analysing players and tactics, talking about individual moments of brilliance, or outstanding team moves. Not games when I am trying to piece together what caused a referee to make a controversial or poor call.

Is technology the solution?

The short answer is it’s complicated. The long answer is… it’s complicated.

Certain technology would definitely be of benefit in the WSL. There have been countless occasions where goals have been awarded that either haven’t crossed the line, or goals not awarded despite the ball clearly crossing the line. Goal-line technology is not without fault, but it is significantly more accurate than the naked eye. It also deals in absolutes. There can be no disputing if a ball does or doesn’t cross the line.

So why hasn’t it been implemented? Certainly, this drum has been banged by Emma Hayes, Casey Stoney and other top managers. However, there is a very real concern about cost. While teams like Chelsea and Manchester City may have the money, resources and backing to implement these measures, teams like Birmingham do not.

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It would be improper to suggest that teams that can implement it do, whilst others do not. That doesn’t eliminate the issue. It just only makes it a factor at certain grounds. If anything, that makes it even harder because referees then fall into a Russian Roulette of being able to access technology or not.

However, if we are talking positive options, then I think goalline technology needs to be the first step. It is reliable, it is instant and requires minimal intervention. It will be interesting to see if UEFA look to make it a requirement for the Women’s Champions League group stages, to match up to the men’s game.

The VAR Question

A lazy answer to resolving refereeing mistakes is implementing the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). For some reason, this seems to be increasingly pushed as a magic bullet that will eliminate problems and resolve a fundamentally flawed refereeing infrastructure.

Regardless, it looks like the powers that be are pushing ahead. The article references a VAR-light system that will be soft-launched from 2023/24. This system will not feature offside technology or cameras. But it’s bound to still resolve damaging referee mistakes and errors, right?

As we’ve already seen in the men’s game this is not the case. Before going into this issue, it’s important to differentiate VAR from the VAR officials. The VAR simply refers to the technology. The myriad of cameras and angles from which you can view the decision. The VAR officials are actually making the call. VAR officials are just match officials.

Consequently, if they don’t have enough training or experience to make correct calls, they are simply going to just get them wrong again.

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I split VAR decisions into two categories. Firstly, there are the painstakingly obvious calls that referees on the pitch somehow get wrong. I’m talking situations like the Beth Mead offside against Chelsea on the opening day. The Spurs handball goal against Manchester City. The Emily Ramsey red card against Leicester City. A simple review of this situation with a calmer, cooler head would ensure the right decision is reached.

If you are talking about deploying video assistants in these situations, it raises another question. Why is the on-field decision not confident enough to make the correct call? Again, it comes back to the issue of training and experience. When you factor in the bright lights and buzz of the Sky Sports cameras and fanfare of the new TV deal, it’s no surprise some referees struggle with it. They simply aren’t used to it.

The Other VAR Problem

The other issue with VAR is the fact it inevitably slows down the pace of games. People inside stadiums have absolutely no clue what is going on during VAR checks because they aren’t allowed to broadcast it. The irony is TV viewers are actually more aware in these situations. There has already been questions about games being disrupted and bitty especially when lesser teams visit stronger opponents away from home.

The frequency of timewasting is certainly an issue in the game. We already often see five plus minutes of stoppage in a standard game due to the disruptions and substitutions. A lengthy VAR check regarding an offside, or possible red card could result in this doubling. To make the product an overall better watch, games need to flow efficiently and effectively. Ideally in that scenario, the referee wouldn’t even be a factor at all.

All of this is once again discounting the hugely significant cost to implement VAR at every stadium and the logistical factors of whether VAR can be implemented within the stadium.

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Concluding Thoughts

There is not an easy answer when it comes to the refereeing question in the women’s game. The men’s game has had substantial advantages in terms of revenue and time to develop their process, and even then, refereeing still seems to be perennial issue.

Change will certainly come with time. Training programmes are being developed and implemented at grassroots levels but they will need opportunity and patience to mature. For now, it’s important to try and focus on the football where possible, and above all, to remember that referees are humans too. As frustrated as we do get at some decisions, we all have off-days.

That said, if an incorrect decision decides a Cup Final, or is crucial in the outcome of a title decider, the noise around refereeing, and the general unrest can only be expected to amplify further.

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