How being a referee can improve your football commentary

Copyright Peppergrasss (2008)

The referee. The constant enigma of modern football. Damned if he does. Damned if he doesn’t. Sometimes just damned because he’s the referee.

Through my work as a football commentator across Kent and the country, I have had the good fortune to see thousands of minutes of football. I can recall a number of occasions where fans have launched a barrage of abuse at the man in black (and his assistants) and I’ve listened to enough BBC Radio 5Live to understand some commentators views on officiating in the professional and semi professional game.

I feel that I’m in a relatively unique position in that I do both. I am a qualified, active FA Level 7 referee and a football commentator.

I firmly believe that being the former makes me a better latter.

Referees are often criticised for making incorrect decisions, and justifably so. At the top level of sport you want top level officials making the right call 100% of the time. As spectators, fans and the media – it is easy to jump on their mistakes and launch blame at their whistle.

I will never do that.

As a referee, we make mistakes during the game, in the same way a player might miss an open goal or a goalkeeper might drop a clanger. None are deliberate and we rarely need telling.

More often than not, spectators see the game through the eyes of the player and their team and don’t consider the thought process of the referee, who only gets one look at an event and in real time. No slo-mo’s, no replays, no second chances. However, when a contentious decision is made, it is important to rationalise how or why the referee came to their conclusion.

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Having officiated for over 5 years, I’d say around 90% of a referee’s decision making is based on his positioning. How well placed was he to see the incident? Was another player blocking his view? What exactly did the referee see from his angle? Can he be 100% sure on the decision?

Often fans or players do have a better angle than the referee and will make their case heard. When I referee, I try explain this to players, that yes – there may have been an infringement but I couldn’t give it from my viewpoint.

As a commentator, it is more professional to ask why the referee made the decision he did rather than instantly criticise.

Another contentious area is ‘denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity.’ It irritates me when I hear the term ‘last man’ used. I would recommend all commentators to have a flick through the laws of the game to better understand a referee’s decision making.

In a recent match I covered between Dartford and Barrow in the Blue Square Bet Premier, Dartford’s manager Tony Burman (and plenty of fans in attendance) felt that a Barrow centre half (the ‘last man’) should have been sent off when a Dartford midfielder was fouled 35 yards from goal.

The defender was booked and, as I said on air at the time, I felt it was the right decision. Can a player 35 yards from goal albeit with no obstacle between him and the goalkeeper, have an OBVIOUS goalscoring opportunity?

Sometimes common sense prevents a referee at that level too, be it stopping the game for injuries, preventing players re-entering the field of play or the processes that lead up to booking or sending off a player.

Often, we, from the sidelines see the common sense approach but when most referees have FA assessors reviewing their performance, they are bound by the laws of the game. Every referee has an ambition to stand at a higher level and they must follow these laws, sometimes at the expense of a bit of their match control, compassion and common sense (i.e. Bradford’s goalkeeper being sent off in the Capital One Cup final when the team were already 3-0 down).

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Now I’m not out to defend referees or do it as part of an unofficial referees union. A few times I’ve tried to understand his decision and not been able to. I’ve said on air – he was wrong.

But hey – everyone makes mistakes – and none of them deliberately, contrary to what some fans are led to believe.

This season, I have received criticism that my commentary is ‘too neutral’ and often my reaction to a contentious decision forms part of that perception of neutrality.

But I am in the business of presenting the detail, in describing the action and in making sense of the game. I try not to take sides. I believe the best commentators understand the game almost inside out. They can predict patterns of play, they can read the game well and they have a strong appreciation of the tactics and flow of a game.

But surely a better understanding of the game involves knowing the rules and knowing how a referee thinks as well as a player?

So next time you’re at a match, or listening to one on the radio and you disagree with a referee’s decision, before hurling a four-lettered tirade in his direction, take a step back and put yourself in his shoes.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with the decision. Just try to understand it.