When Luis Diaz scored for Liverpool away at Tottenham Hotspur in late September, the goal was initially ruled offside by the on-field officials. Darren England and Dan Cook, the VAR and Assistant VAR respectively, were tasked with adjudicating whether the decision to raise the flag was justified. A replay was paused, a line drawn across the field on their monitors, all standard protocol – the images showed Diaz was clearly onside. Hastily, England and Cook concluded the check. “Check complete” was uttered, the review finalised, play continued and soon the on-field referee Simon Hooper was congratulating his team for a “good process”.
Ultimately, England and his team did not realise the on-field decision was offside and thus VAR should have intervened to award the goal. No doubt, too, that the officials were unaware of the magnitude of the error and, significantly, the furore, anger, criticism and despair that was to come from all sides of football. It stands as the defining moment of the Premier League campaign thus far, a shocking error symptomatic of a season dogged by referring inconsistency and VAR controversy. For England and Cook, the officials (and importantly humans) at the centre of this saga, the moment is career-defining, possibly career-ending.
For Howard Webb, chief of the FA’s refereeing body PGMOL, the error adds to his woes, igniting a crisis that represents a baptism of fire into the role of Chief Refereeing Officer for one of our most successful ever referees. The infamous error at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has ignited serious questions about the working environment at Stockley Park, PGMOL’s base, the rigour and integrity of VAR protocol, and policy towards English referees working abroad as freelancers.
The latter point rose into the consciousness of the footballing masses as both England and Cook, just 48 hours prior to the fateful Liverpool-Spurs match, had been in the UAE refereeing a game between Al Ain and Shajarah. The pair, along with fourth official Michael Oliver, arrived back in the UK on the Friday before the Premier League encounter on the Saturday.
The practice of freelancing abroad is not uncommon – Oliver, Andy Madley, Craig Pawson and Tom Bramall are other officials who have all refereed abroad in recent times. However, it raises a number of questions and queries which Webb will be forced to answer.
Firstly, considering the tight turnaround, long flight times and potential jet lag, issues of fatigue have to be considered. Could England’s lapse of concentration be explained by this? It is certainly feasible. The fact that England and Cook were VARs rather than on-pitch officials is likely itself indicative of an acknowledgment of the role fatigue could play.
In another respect, the practice raises more serious questions. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the countries frequently visited by English officials, own Newcastle United and Manchester City respectively. Being on the payroll of nations who bankroll English clubs is not a good look for a body that prides itself on integrity – while it would be foolish to see this as impacting sporting integrity, or that officials would be actively biased, it simply adds fuel to the vitriolic rhetoric of footballing conspiracy theorists, a faction deeply abetted by the role of social media. Referees do not officiate matches of teams they support to prevent accusations of a vested interest; for the same reason a ban should be applied to refereeing in the leagues of nations behind state-owned clubs.
To combat this, the footballing authorities also need to examine why this practice occurs. Premier League referees, by national standards, are well renumerated – although reporting on refereeing salaries varies by media outlet, there is a consensus over a match fee of £1500, plus a significant base salary and a yearly retainer fee. Many Premier League referees will earn six figures. However, in the context of football’s own economic habitat they are significantly undervalued monetarily, as well as underpaid in comparison with referees on the continent.
An increase in pay to a level appropriate within the footballing market would dissuade such freelancing abroad, preventing attacks on integrity or accusations of fatigue. It would also be wholly appropriate. Refereeing in the Premier League, the most watched league in the world, is a job that comes with extreme pressure, unprecedented scrutiny and, unfortunately, hideous levels of ugly, partisan abuse. These pressures should be reflected in the pay.
Such a move would also help to improve standards of refereeing. Refereeing on the biggest stage in football should be an attractive proposition, not a reason for fear. It would also help to secure the futures of our best referees, such as Oliver. Nations such as Saudi Arabia are not just courting elite players but elite referees too, offering higher pay packets. With such a simple change as increased pay, the PGMOL could entice new talent, keep our current elite, and prevent drastic errors such as England’s VAR gaffe.
Image: Артем Гусев via Wikimedia Commons