Issue Twenty-Twenty Vision

As told by Paul Firth

I watch a lot of football, live and on television. On Saturday I was at Valley Parade for the cup game and by Monday evening I was in front of the TV watching Coventry v West Brom. In little over 48 hours I saw the arguments for and against referees being assisted by technology – or at least by each other.

Let’s start with G’s sending-off. I was in the Midland Road, Block B, near the back. The sending off was for an ‘offence’ near the Main Stand touchline, about a third of the way into the other half of the pitch from my seat. I was, thus, the best part of 70 or 80 yards away. The referee, Mr Salisbury, was probably 15 or so yards away and his assistant not much more than 10 yards distant, with nothing between him and the incident. The fourth official was along the same touchline and perhaps 20 yards off.

The referee – and perhaps only the referee, for we will never know – decided almost instantly that whatever he thought G did amounted to a bookable offence, with the inevitable consequence for a player he had booked a few minutes earlier. The assistant, according to reports, and perhaps even the fourth official, didn’t think so. Indeed, even from the other side of the ground the first thing to be seen was City players and officials going to the assistant, clearly imploring him to speak to the referee and say what he saw. As far as I could tell, he stayed motionless and mute. By then, he must have thought, it was too late, such was the speed with which Mr Salisbury produced the card.

Next day, with the aid of those clever people who invented the Sky+ box, I saw the incident again, first in real time, then slowed down and several times over. The cameraman, at the back of the Midland Road stand and on the half-way line, did a good job and produced a reasonably close picture of the incident. I saw nothing to support the referee’s hastily-formed view and everything to support the equally quick opinion of Wayne Jacobs and others. Not for the first time, then, an injustice appears to have been done and one that cannot be challenged on appeal.

Move forward now to Monday evening. The referee was Mr Dowd, a Premiership official. (I hope he won’t take offence if I suggest he would look fitter with less round the middle.) A Coventry player, Michael Mifsud, ran toward a long, high, diagonal pass at the same time as a West Brom defender, Carl Hoefkens, came from a different direction. Because it was a long ball, the ref was never going to be on the spot and was probably 30 yards away when the two players came together in mid-air. He did, however, have an unobstructed view and blew immediately for a foul by Mifsud.

The foul took place some thirty yards into the half Coventry were attacking and near their left wing. The assistant on that touchline was on the other side of the half-way line, so further away than Mr Dowd. The assistant in that half of the pitch was inevitably on the opposite touchline, much further away than Mr Dowd. The fourth official, Mr Hall, (seen to do a good job at Valley Parade as recently as a Tuesday of the previous week) was also on the opposite side of the pitch and again much further away then the referee.

Mr Dowd did not reach for his pocket. A few West Brom players made their anger toward Mifsud fairly plain, suggesting that he had led with his elbow. Still Mr Dowd was not going to his pocket. Instead he was putting his hand to his ear. At this level the officials can all communicate with each other through earpieces and someone was clearly trying to communicate with Mr Dowd. He began a curious process of backing away from the incident and toward the fourth official. He continued this journey for most of the width of the pitch before he began checking his pockets. It was plain that he was making sure which card was in which pocket. He called Mifsud over to him and finally produced a red card.

I watched that incident a few times, as well. Mr Dowd’s decision was absolutely spot-on. Mifsud did indeed lead with his elbow and wasn’t even looking at the ball. If Mifsud had been Hoefken’s size (he’s about a foot shorter), there was a broken cheekbone waiting to happen. So, well done Mr Dowd and, perhaps, well done Mr Hall and/or one of the assistants.

Questions were asked in the half-time studio chat, not least about whether Mr Hall could have seen the Sky pictures – there was a screen not far from his position, but it seemed unlikely that he would have gone to it, given its particular location. The real question for the pundits, however, was what had happened to persuade Mr Dowd, after such a long pause and backward trot, that the correct decision was a red card. Somebody, somewhere had clearly been talking into his earpiece. Maybe he would have sent off Mifsud anyway. We shall never know.

Maybe, if he’d had some communication in his ear from either his assistant or the fourth official, Mr Salisbury wouldn’t have given G that second booking. He might even, as Mr Hall had done in the previous game and as Stuart McCall is now doing, have questioned whether a Chester player was being entirely honest. But maybe no amount of communication would have changed anything. Maybe Mr Salisbury was right all along – or at least believes that to be the case.

But this isn’t about good and bad refereeing decisions. If it was, picking one from your own team’s match would be a poor decision in itself. No, this is about how refereeing decisions are made. If, for example, Mr Dowd had had four assistants, one would have been very close to the Mifsud incident, almost as close as Mr Salisbury’s assistant was to the G incident. If Mr Salisbury had had Mr Dowd’s communication system (am I right in thinking that at our level some referees do have this system and others don’t?), might there have been a word in his ear or might it simply have been too late anyway?

Try to put to one side the actual circumstances from Saturday, especially that it was a City player involved. Then ask yourself as a football fan, which would you rather have – that the referee makes quick and sometimes wrong decisions that might change the course of the game; or that the referee takes a little time, gets better information and makes more correct decisions, using whatever technology is available.

I have a friend who works in Dutch television. Just a year ago I was with him in the press seats at the Amsterdam ArenA (and that really is the way to spell it) watching England play Holland. I saw how quickly the replays can be shown. Neither Saturday’s game nor Monday evening’s would have been slowed down in any way by resorting to a replay, if the screen had been made available to the fourth official. Of course, there are some cases where there should be enough eyes sufficiently near the incident to make any replay redundant. But that requires that referees don’t reach hasty conclusions, that their assistants really are allowed to assist, rather than just follow in silence, and that the fourth official, himself a qualified referee, does more than hold up the board for substitutions and stoppage time. It also requires that a referee is prepared to accept that he may not always be right, which in some cases may be a problem.

Well done, Mr Dowd, I say. And you can work out for yourself what advice I might give to Mr Salisbury.