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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.



  1. ken

    October 29, 2012 at 10:01 am

    liverpool have played 9 league games refs and linos have made bad calls in every game are games in europe have been without a problem that tells me the are big problems with english refs and liverpool if we need to complain week in week out to mike riley till he listens so be it but we cant just keep taking it on the chin,

  2. John

    October 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

    The premiership is crocked. Why on earth does Clattenberg officiate man u games.

  3. steve

    October 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

    However, should an assitant or a referee make an obvious mistake that costs a team 3 points, they should at least get the same sanction that a player gets who makes a bad tackle and gets sent off and banned for a following date. Are we that short of referees that we need to sacrifice the integrity of the game at the alter of mediocraty??

  4. Mupinyuri

    October 29, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Referees who officiate for Man U against any team Barca the same are systematically selected by their corrupt bosses who are involved in match fixing.Man U is now boring and must be professional.

  5. kulwa kazimoto

    October 29, 2012 at 10:41 am

    always manchester united are favored by referees unless otherwise they can get into out of top four also i think referees are being given some money to lets opponent to lose because of their wrong decision like yesterday

  6. Elijah

    October 29, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Its very bad for a team to lose due to ref’s error.i just feel bad.

    • steve

      October 29, 2012 at 11:03 am

      Because the ref does not feel bad, why would he? Nothing ever happens to them, just managers get sacked or “mere” supporters get treated like scum……..

  7. Walex

    October 29, 2012 at 11:03 am

    All The officias were so stupid.they all do pathiar.

  8. Towson Tom

    October 29, 2012 at 11:16 am

    There was a time when ref’s decisions were seen to be wrong occasionally but now the destination of the premier league title is being decided not by the activities of the teams on the pitch but by the rank incompetence of the officials. It is not just goal-line technology that is required but also the right for tv replays on the captains request for red card issues and tight offside calls only, O.K. it may slow the game down a little but this could be “added time” the same as injuries and subs, at least that way the teams that deserve the points would have a better cahance of getting them.

    • Amba Eric

      October 29, 2012 at 3:03 pm

      Towson Tom, you are right my friend. I wish England FA will see to your suggestion.

  9. moses from benin

    October 29, 2012 at 11:25 am

    I’m really disappointed at English Referees, why do they always favour Man U. If FA doesn’t act now, then we will begin to also suspect them. Referees should ballot to officiate a match not by selection.

  10. mykehell

    October 29, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Now look where liverpool Α̲̅я̩̥̊ε̲̣̣̣̥ on table JƱ§†̥‎​ because of one line man mistake he should be ban for 8matchs without pay for that error cos liverpool won that game and now a wrong record has been created

  11. Vincent..aka; never wlk alone

    October 29, 2012 at 11:37 am

    God wil surely see liverpool through!!

  12. victoer nash

    October 29, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Wasn’t it the very same mark Clattenberg who disallowed pedro Mendes goal against the very san
    me team as he awarded the game to yesterday.
    Maybe he should always wear his red and white scarf during the game so that fans know who he is supporting, and not have to guess.

  13. mathias Adakole

    October 29, 2012 at 11:58 am

    we know man u is one of the best club in europe but referee should stop helping man u to win their game .i presume things will get worse if the english FA chairman retired next year by MAY and been taking over by the chairman of man u

  14. charles iwuji

    October 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    I’ totally blame English FA for all this. Because they should have set a commity or pannel against any kind of officiating like this rubish one yesterday. A law should have made against this kind of officials, whereby a common and a stup ref, after taken a bribe will came from no were to discide the winner. It is quite appoling.

  15. Soyaq

    October 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Mark clattenburg put is future in jeopardy coz he is try to blow in favore of man U ,by larning is lesson for not reffrein UTD match for the past one year . The last time he reff Man U match was against Man City wch Man U loss 6 : 1. The FA need to act fast coz man u usualy do dis against spur, liverpool,chelsea,man city watch dem against dis team u will understand wat am sayin

  16. Damydiva

    October 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Dat referees must be banned,4 so many match!

  17. Ade kay

    October 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm


  18. SP

    October 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    1) Calttenburg has done far worse, in favour of United and against Spurs, on a regular basis. He should have been banne from officating a long time ago – the fuss NOW is because it is mega-bucks Celsea.

    2) Already, this season, I have seen Alex Ferguson calling the game ref’s competence and honest into question infront of the TV cameras, and yet nothing stil nothing is done…and they even got decisions in their favour in one of those games, in particular. Roberto Martinez state what veryone in footbll knows and he is hit with a disrepute charge.
    Is it that the authorities, early on, ralized that Fergie just was not going to stop, no matter what they did, and decided that they would either have to accept it from him or ban him from the English game – and chose the former?

    Want to do something about the quality of refereeing in this country – start with that man and hi antics (bit late, now, relaly isn’t it!).

  19. Ray San

    October 29, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Years after years there seem to be a conspiracy to favor Man U. “Almost all” tight decisions seem to go their way. The match officials are a bunch of idiots. We should stop watching EPL altogether!

  20. Charles.

    October 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    For more on refreeing in england, check You wont be surprise.

  21. Pingback: FIVE transfers who would improve Manchester United – | Manchester United News and Bets

  22. lfcpaul

    October 31, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Is it a mere co-incidence that, since the beginning of the Premiership (and hence the increase in money involved) that it is now the clubs with the money that are winning it? As everyone knows, money means power meands corruption

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