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Come On, Ref! A view from the Stands

Simon Snartt, a former professional football referee, is now putting his extensive knowledge of officiating to good use on the cricket field. Here, he explains his current role as a Match Assessor/Observer in the Football League.

As many of you will be aware, I was privileged to officiate in the EFL from 2000 until 2008 as an Assistant Referee and also to Referee on the Football Conference for two of those seasons until injury curtailed my active career. Since then, I have sat in the stands up and down the land as a Match Assessor (recently named Observer) reporting back to the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Board) on the performances of the officials.  Having recently read the column in “Officiating Matters” on BEDOs and peer reviews, I thought I would share with you what happens in professional football as it might be of interest, especially to those who are the subject of Observation Reports.

To prevent officials being targeted by gambling syndicates, appointments are received on the Monday evening (16:00) for the coming Saturday and mid-week until Wednesday and it is my responsibility to advise the competition of availability throughout the season. On Monday evening I will receive the same email as the match officials, coaches etc and be advised of the competition, participating teams and kick off time. In the week just gone, I covered Maidenhead in the National League and Yeovil Town in the WSL on Saturday and Tuesday. During the week, the clubs will email with details of the match, colours of the participants and parking arrangement (I am fortunate that I am allocated parking at the stadium). I will also contact the referee and arrange a meeting time pre-kick off so that I can get to know the officiating team on match day.

Match day usually means a fairly early start and a journey to the stadium. It is not unusual to be appointed to the likes of Portsmouth, Plymouth etc, with Tuesday nights back from these venues often being hampered by those lovely people at the Highways Agency closing the motorways. Most referees will specify a meeting time of around two hours before the start, so for Saturday past, that meant 12:30 as it was 15:00 kick-off. The pre-match chat is led by the officials and does not consist of me giving any instructions; they officiate – I report back. Once the officials have left to prepare, my quest is always for a team sheet so I can input the players’ numbers into the App on the company I pad I am issued.

Clubs are mandated to provide a seat on the halfway line with a clear and unobstructed view. I am normally in mine well before kick-off. The App has a section for each official as well as the capacity to record and code “key match decisions “(cautions, dismissals, disallowed goals, Law 11 (offside decisions). When the referee starts the game, I start the stopwatch and this “syncs” the footage (mandated to be provided by the home side) to the incidents recorded. When the match is over, and I “publish” the game, the big decisions automatically upload into the final section of the report 15 seconds before the time of the event so I can see the build up to the decision made. Throughout the match I record the key events, so I have a log and brief notes.  Once the match is over, I stop the clock and finalise the game. I then transfer my notes onto an Excel sheet that I have printed off so I can discuss the key decisions, what went well and what could be improved, with the officials.

20 minutes post-final whistle, I de-brief all four officials – I have a maximum of 20 minutes. The order is always: disciplinary action, key match decisions, discussion with the fourth official, both assistant referees, then the referee – a brief summary and a chance for them to pose any questions for me. With reference to the key match decisions, I am required to give an opinion regarding if I think they were correct. This is always caveated with the fact that I get to review them post-match on film.

The next day the film will arrive, and I can begin the process of the report. I am mandated to review the cautions and key decisions with a view to finalising my opinion in the written report. I have the advantage of being able to slow things down and stop the footage at key points to prove if a player was offside, if the ball did strike a hand / arm or if the foul was inside or outside the penalty area (the list is endless). I then have to either back up or go against the on-field decision. This then involves a discussion with the official so that there are no surprises in the final report as they too have access to the same footage. I then move on to check all offside decisions made by the assistants, applications of advantage by the referee, all free kicks awarded and not awarded. Once this has been done, I then complete the written report which is split for the officials into key match decisions and technical competencies. The former has a huge effect on the latter in that the system is prescriptive. For example, if a referee awards a penalty and the footage proves that the decision was incorrect, then his mark in both sections will be affected. I am obliged to add a ‘tariff’ to the key decision which then indicates where on the technical competency the developmental advice and negative part of the mark goes, the more difficult the decision is deemed to be the lesser the sanction and visa versa; the same principle works in reverse with correct decisions. When the whole report is completed and I have checked the spelling and grammar, then I submit, with this whole process taking the best part of four or so hours.

At this stage the officials receive the report with the marks (one key match and one technical competencies) which are calculated by an algorithm. I do not at any stage see that mark.

The key match decisions are then sent off to an independent panel who will by the Thursday of the following week determine If my opinion is correct. If it is not, then they have the final say and the report will need to be amended to reflect the changes and potentially the official’s mark.

The system is perhaps a little less complex than I have made it sound! At the end of the season, just as clubs have a league table, so do officials. Those at the top are selected for promotion interviews, those at the bottom run the risk of being re-classified. I would say that officials on the whole, are more competitive than the clubs! As an observer, my reports are under constant scrutiny from the competition organisers and other stakeholders.

My role is simple – what I see is what the officials’ report should contain. It’s about development if errors occur, it’s exploring why and hopefully providing advice to prevent a re-occurrence. It’s why I need thick skin, as I meet lots of supporters who want to tell me their opinion, which may not be based on an unbiased outlook, or with any actual knowledge of the Laws of the Game. I also have to deal with frustrated managers, which perhaps makes me worry less than most about cricketers who appear stroppy. I could list a number of managers who are far less easy to deal with than a frustrated bowler who can’t understand why his LBW appeal (that pitched outside leg and would have gone at least a foot over) was not given out!? Refereeing has many similarities with umpiring, good eye to eye contact, strong body language and ability to give what you see without fear of reprisal and the ability to ‘sell’ one’s decisions.

Cricket was always my first love, I just wasn’t much good at the playing side, whereas I became pretty good at the refereeing, which has brought much to my fledgling umpiring career.  The camaraderie amongst our group, the support that is there and the advice I have received have all been outstanding. I try and give the benefit of my refereeing experience back to match officials throughout the winter, just as numerous umpires and scorers try to benefit others by passing on their knowledge and experience throughout the summer. I hope that this brief insight into my ‘winter world’ has proved of interest to people in the ‘summer world’ community and wish everyone well for the season ahead.