Assistant referees, what are they good for?

in Opinion

sian mass

Like many of you, I have an unhealthy obsession with football. There are the favoured sites for checking the latest gossip, team and transfer news, others for articles and a review of the weekend fixtures, morning, noon and night.

But it was the latter; a synopsis of Crystal Palace’s game at West Brom that peaked my interest recently. The headline:

Neil Warnock should accept officials’ failings

The text:

“…Referees do not make deliberate mistakes but they do make mistakes; that is in the nature of football and not necessarily to its detriment. And, in any event, the only way to deserve to win a game is to win a game; a team must be good enough to eliminate the influence of officials from this equation.”

I’m sorry Daniel Harris but I could not disagree more. How many times a season do we hear in essence, ‘the officials cost us the game’ being uttered by managers in every single league? Despite often being correct, many fall foul of disrepute charges as a result of raising their opinions, which are inevitable if the league relies on such an archaic method of officiating games.

I’m talking linesmen…sorry Sian Massey, assistant referees. Who would want to be one? Even at an under 10s game I’ve witnessed the vitriol being hurled at one on a par with what Reeva’s mum is reserving for Oscar. On the rare occasions they receive praise it’s for doing the bare minimum of their job, which under Law 6 of the Laws of the Game, could involve indicating:


  • when the whole ball has passed outside the field of play;
  • which side is entitled to return the ball into the field of play;
  • when a player may be penalised for an offside offence;
  • when a substitution is being requested, or assisting the fourth official (if present) in doing the same; or
  • when offences or other infringements of the Laws of the Game have been committed of which the referee does not have an adequate view;

depending on the referee’s discretion. Only the fourth can be achieved each time without an element of doubt.

Go back to 1891 when the referee was introduced and the game’s two ‘umpires’ became linesmen. Over 100 years later in 1996 political correctness got involved to rename them ‘assistant referees’. Not a lot else happened in between or since, apart from some frankly comical decisions. Italy v England in 1990 and Lincoln v Huddersfield in 2003/04 spring to mind, where you watch in total disbelief that the decisions stood. But it’s the marginal ones, Messi for Barcelona v Real Madrid just one of 100s of examples, which can impact the outcome of a match.

Games in the modern era are played at a technical level unimaginable even 20 years ago, let alone when the rules of the game were conceived. Match of the Day’s forensic analysis of contentious decisions uses multiple camera angles, zoomed in until you can practically count the follicles on Jonjo Shelvey’s pate. Specifically for offsides, how can a human being without the aid of technology be able to look at the player kicking the ball and the forward’s position some 60 yards away at the same time and make an accurate decision 100 per cent of the time? It’s impossible.

Goal line technology has finally creaked its way in to aid referees and despite the dissenters, is working so well it’s not a point of discussion anymore. Is it time a similar system was developed to help referees and do away with their assistants running the line? The firefighting after the event, such as FIFA’s replacing of Columbian Humberto Clavijo after his shocker in the Mexico Cameroon game at the 2014 World Cup, is unacceptable.

Some ‘purists’ will enjoy the attack on assistant referees as part of the banter, the human error makes it interesting. Others will deride this suggestion as making football sterile and staccato – as in goal line technology, a beep on the referee’s watch is instantaneous and crucially, accurate.

To give Harris credit, the angle of his analysis was a dig at manager’s, not officials, in saying, “if only managers were as strident in criticising themselves and their players as they are decisions made in good faith; those who accept responsibility are more likely to take responsibility.”

But it boils down, rightly or wrongly to money. With astronomical sums of it at stake, is the ‘good faith’ element enough to excuse the human error? It’s a no for me.

by Foylo