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How to Solve the Referee Selection Problem

A consideration of how referees are selected for football matches and how this system could be improved to avoid conspiracy theories claiming bias towards teams

By Craig Wilmann

This article considers the process of selecting referees for Premier League matches and wonders whether referees should be ‘selected’ at all.

Referees affect football matches. That much is certain, no matter which team you support and regardless of whether you believe the whistle-blowers in black to be squeaky clean or profoundly corrupt. Sometimes their effect on a match is very minimal and on other occasions it is pivotal.

But this, we are always told, is just part of the game. The referees do not deliberately favour one side, they are human and, by the law of averages, the mistakes that go for or against a particular side should just about even themselves up over the course of a season. In a sense, then, referees are like the weather.

A strong wind or a bout of rain can affect a match too. It can slow down the ball to time with a striker’s run or make it take a sudden swerve away from the keeper’s outstretched gloves. And no one would argue that wind and rain have a favourite team, even if they do seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time at St. James’ Park.

The difference between the weather and referees, however, is that only one of these is random. No one sits down and decides to send light drizzle to Old Trafford or a blizzard to White Hart Lane. The allocation of referees, on the other hand, is meticulously planned.

A great amount of detail on the selection of referees for Manchester United matches has been unearthed by the website The website strongly suggests that referees who officiate matches in which Alex Ferguson’s side lose are likely to go a lengthy period of time before they are in charge of another United match.

The website also suggests, with supporting evidence, that when these referees finally do officiate a Man United match again, they often make controversial decisions in United’s favour. It ultimately argues that there is a full-on conspiracy whereby referees who give decisions against Man United are ‘banned’ from refereeing them until they have learnt their lesson and can be re-introduced into society as a co-operative Fergie-loving member of the refereeing community.

As the website also points out, this idea was given added credence by Mark Clattenburg’s display in the match between Chelsea and Man United yesterday, where he wrongly gave Fernando Torres a second yellow card for diving and (along with the assistant referee) allowed Javier Hernandez’s winning goal even though the Mexican was in an offside position. The last time Clattenburg had refereed a Man United match was a year ago in the 6-1 defeat to Man City. Therefore, to follow the line of the conspiracy, Clattenburg may have been eager to ensure his enforced Man United sabbatical did not happen again.

Of course, all of this is just a theory and, though makes a fascinating case, it certainly has no proof that there is a pro-Man United bias influencing the allocations of referees to matches.

Yet, the fact that referees are selected at all means that such a conspiracy is conceivable. If a referee negatively affects a match involving a certain team, it is possible that, following pressure from the affected club, the authorities may choose to keep said referee away from said club for a period of time.

It is possible. It is actually quite likely. It is certainly not fair. If refereeing decisions are supposed to adhere to the law of averages and even themselves up over the course of a season, surely the allocation of referees should too?

Put simply, once the ten referees for a particular weekend of Premier League football has been decided, the matches they are allocated to should be drawn out of a hat.

Of course, if a referee has a shocking performance in a match, they could be demoted to a lower division for the following week, as happens currently in English football, but they would not be able to be kept away from a specific team. It may result in a peculiar situation where one person referees the same team three weeks in a row but, as with all truly random decisions, this should roughly even itself out over the course of a season.

Such a situation could be prevented, anyway, with a clause in the draw preventing a referee from officiating successive matches involving the same team, much like how the Champions’ League group-stage draw keeps teams from the same country apart. For example, Andre Marriner, who took charge of the Merseyside Derby yesterday, would be randomly selected to referee one of the eight games that does not involve either Everton or Liverpool. However, the fact that Liverpool were wrongly denied a last minute winner in yesterday’s fixture would not reduce or increase Marriner’s likelihood of refereeing one of their matches in the near future.

And why should it? Once a referee has proved that they are competent at the highest level, their impartiality should be assumed. They should then be allocated randomly to a match each weekend on which the authorities believe they are one of the top ten officials in the country.

If a referee is found to be making repeated controversial decisions in favour of (or against) a particular team, they should be excluded from the Premier League or from refereeing altogether but not from refereeing a particular team.

The current selection process for referees allows the possibility for it to be compromised and the only way to remove such a possibility is to eradicate the selection aspect of it altogether.

One argument against this would be that only certain referees are capable of officiating, for instance, a London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham or a potentially title-deciding match. Yet, ostensibly, every match in the Premier League involves two teams battling for three points. The contexts of each match, from a neutral and professional officiating point of view, should be ignored.

A competent referee should be able to be allocated a match regardless of their own personal history with the teams involved. This would increase their ability to make in-play decisions without the fear that their performance will affect their prospects of refereeing either team in the future. It would also deter managers from criticising referees in the hope that their side will not be refereed by them in the near future.

Indeed, introducing a lottery for referee allocation would make any such posturing from these managers completely negligible and leave referees to make what they believe to be the correct decisions, without having to worry about how it may affect the matches they are given in the future.

To make referees and refereeing decisions truly random and incidental, a reform of the refereeing selection process along these lines seems imperative. The idea that bad refereeing decisions even themselves up over a season would be helped greatly if the allocation of referees was also tied to the same law of averages.

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With a random refereeing lottery, managers would be forced to stop attempting to influence who referees their match and could focus their attentions on complaining about more important things, such as…oh, I don’t know, the weather.

What are your thoughts on the referee selection process? Get involved in the comments section.

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