Halsey blows the whistle on referees’ controversial failings

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With referees in the spotlight after a bruising season that has seen standards plummet and blunders rocket, Palatinate spoke to referee Mark Halsey, a Premier League referee for fourteen years until his retirement in 2013. In a frank and fascinating conversation, and in light of mounting criticism from fans and players alike, Nick Friend asked what has gone wrong and what must be done to arrest an increasingly costly slide.

Referees are human beings.

This statement is so simple, so obvious, so necessary to reinforce. For, when penalties are missed, crosses overhit, open goals squandered and passes misplaced, human error remains a constant justification of these flaws. Yet, when a referee fails to spot the slightest of infringements, the football community savages him – as if this is no human error but that of a malfunctioning robot.

Hence, my forty minutes with Mark Halsey feel so valuable. In what is less of an interview and more of a conversation, there is a refreshing honesty in Halsey’s thoughts. It is the sort of candid dialogue that football fans crave from officials. There is no defensiveness, no denial, no delusion in Halsey’s views. Nor can there be. As he explains to me, when he took on a role with BT Sport as a referee analyst, he did so with a “no friends” approach.

“It’s all about being honest, and it’s about offering constructive criticisms. I supported them when they did well and I tried to explain when things went wrong, why they’d gone wrong.”

Much like Graham Poll and Dermot Gallagher before him, by entering the media, Halsey received criticism for what some viewed as stabbing at the backs of his former colleagues. He disagrees, pointing out that, “What I was doing was no different to what ex-players do when they talk about player error.”

It is on this point that Halsey places his sympathy for his former colleagues as well as focusing his ire towards the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOL).

Throughout our conversation, Halsey, a former Barnet and Cambridge City player, refers back to his buzzwords: man-management, leadership and direction.

“We have some excellent referees but, ultimately, it comes down to how you manage them. It’s all about man-management. It’s all about managing and giving confidence to your referees. You know, let them go out and referee.

“In anything that anyone does in any walk of life, it’s all about confidence. It’s up to the management to provide leadership and direction. All you’re doing is man-managing a football team. You have to take the Premier League referees as the twenty-first team in the league.”

This concept is a captivating one and one that exemplifies the extent to which the human aspect of refereeing has been lost. The reason for this, he says, is due to an innovation of PGMOL chief Mike Riley.

“I’ve worked under Mike Riley and he can be a nice person but he’s not one of those referees that had the aura about him that meant that he could manage players and men. He wasn’t regarded as one of the best referees in the Premier League but then he got the job.

“If a manager performed like he has performed, he’d be sacked wouldn’t he? I understand that his role is difficult but it’s the way you treat the men and I don’t think Mike Riley is the best man to get the best out of the referees.”

Halsey’s major criticism of Riley is in the scrapping of the previous system of referee assessing to be replaced by an evaluation system, described by Halsey as “one of the worst things they ever brought in.”

The previous system was based on the instinct of the assessor, allowing the referee leeway and use of common sense. Yet, these staples of the refereeing have been culled.

A system entirely based on negative marking, the referee begins with one hundred points, but has marks deducted for any error – no matter how trivial.

“It’s led to referees refereeing games for the evaluation system”, Halsey explains. “You can’t have that. Refereeing is an art, not a science.

“There’s been an influx of yellow cards for nearly every challenge. We’ve seen so many yellow cards – five, six, seven per game. That’s down to the evaluation system.” In essence, referees are being controlled by a claustrophobic inferiority complex – a fear that their every move is being monitored.

“You’ve got different people watching the DVD of a game and looking out for every wrong decision he makes. If he doesn’t give a foul, the evaluator says: ‘oh, he should have given a foul there.’ Or, he talks to a player after committing a foul without yellow carding him and the assessor will say, ‘well he should have cautioned him there.’ And for every instance like this, the referee loses marks.” The system shows a total disregard for human instinct.

With such an iron-fisted and scaremonger-fuelled approach towards its employees, it is little wonder that Halsey questions Riley’s leadership. He tells me that “officials are not happy with the evaluation system.

“I think in that system you will find why the standard of refereeing hasn’t been what we expect this season.”

It is this, he explains, that has led to what he sees as an unfair criticism of player attitudes towards officials. The reason for this is two-pronged.

First and foremost, Halsey – a former lower league footballer himself – assures me that the player-official relationship is far better than the way in which it is often portrayed.

“There is [a lot of banter]. A lot of chitchat goes on. Yes, sometimes they’ll speak to you with some shop floor language and you say something back to them in the same tone.”

“I always used to get on with Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers. Steven Gerrard was brilliant, Frank Lampard was a gentleman. But you’d still have that banter. Wayne Rooney was great and you’d have good banter with him. You know, sometimes he’d tell you to f-off and you’d tell him to f-off and then you’d get on with it and that’s the way it is.”

The image painted by Halsey is a refreshing one and one that brings both player and official closer to the spectator. The light-hearted atmosphere that Halsey presents is a welcome step away from the FA’s ludicrous decision to punish Jack Wilshere for his post-FA Cup celebration which was, in effect, a player displaying his human side.

The way in which players and referees communicate is, in Halsey’s view, crucial to game management.

“You can’t do everything by the book when you referee a game at the highest level,” Halsey clarifies. “It’s about knowing the game of football. Knowing the laws is important but knowing the game of football is important as well.

He uses the six-second law – a real blast from the past – as an example.

“You don’t go looking for trouble. Yes, it’s there in law. But it’s one of those where it’s about knowing the game. All goalkeepers do it and it’s something you just don’t consider. If you’re going to start blowing up for that and looking for trouble, someone scores and then you’ve lost the respect of the players.

“It’s about managing the event, the occasion and the players. There are occasions where you can’t and you have to show a yellow card or show a red card. But, on the whole, there are a lot of incidents out there that you can manage.”

By ‘managing’, Halsey means that constant dialogue with the players is imperative. “You know the players that can cause you trouble”, he assures me. “You watch them like a hawk and you keep talking to them all the time.”

It is in this regard that Halsey believes the underperformance has come in top-level refereeing. As a result of the rigidity of the evaluation system that prevents referees from natural game management and encourages doctrinal submission, players – consciously or otherwise – have lost respect for officials.

Despite this, Halsey feels that the Respect campaign has worked. He is, though, quick to point out that the campaign must work both ways.

“Obviously, occasionally players do get frustrated and show their emotions. On the whole, although I think it has worked, the Respect campaign comes with accuracy in decision making.”

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Mark Clattenburg, described by Halsey as “the best in the Premier League by far” tries to keep a lid as tempers fray between Aston Villa and Hull City

And yet, for all the negativity surrounding English refereeing, Halsey is keen to praise those he counts as the best in the business.

He views Mark Clattenburg as “the best by far, a natural referee”, with Mike Dean and Martin Atkinson, who, Halsey says, took charge of the Europa League final “really excellently”, close behind.

“You know with the likes of Clattenburg and Dean that when they cross that white line, you know what you’re going to get from them.”

What Clattenburg possesses though, is invaluable. With the pace of the Premier League, referees need the pace and stamina to cope with the likes of Eden Hazard, Raheem Sterling and Alexis Sanchez.

“You have to be fit but you can use your experience and the dead ball time to get into the right sort of position and that’s what Mark does very well.

“Refereeing is all about getting the big decisions right. If you look at the likes of Clattenburg and Dean, they very rarely make big key match errors.”

His accuracy is right up there and that’s how you get the respect of the players. Players know their referees. He makes the game easy for himself.

So, I ask, why the seeming reluctance to reward Mark Clattenburg with key games?

Halsey’s response is typically candid and a clear reflection of the major cause of recent shortcomings.

“His face doesn’t fit with certain people within the PGMOL. That’s the only reason.” Halsey describes the decision to punish Clattenburg for leaving a game in unauthorised transport as “nonsense, absolute nonsense.”

Furthermore, he tells me, “Plenty of referees don’t go back on the bus to the hotel after the game but because Mark’s face doesn’t fit, they found it an opportunity to kick his backside.”

Clattenburg – the KP of referees if you will – has become something of a pawn in the PGMOL’s game. Despite being viewed as the best in the land, he was overlooked for the FA Cup Final – the Everest for English referees – in favour of Jon Moss. As it happened, Moss had a straightforward day, with Aston Villa never getting within fouling distance of Arsenal’s forwards. That said, as Halsey expresses, this should not detract from the absurdity of his original appointment.

“Listen”, Halsey explains, “Jon Moss is a great lad, a really good lad and a really good Premier League referee. But he’s only been full-time for a couple of years, he’s still finding his feet and he’s only refereed ninety Premier League games in four years. Now, is he the right man to referee the Cup Final?”

Based on last season’s statistics, the answer is a resounding no. Clattenburg finished far higher than Moss in the Merit list. Nevertheless, Halsey is keen to point out that this is not Moss’s fault but of those far above him.

“They’ve gone for Jon Moss because he’s right by certain people on the management. Yet, the PGMOL don’t trust him to do a big Premier League game. He’s never done a big derby.”

The most worrying aspect of this is the FA’s treatment of its own flagship competition. As Halsey ponders, “The FA moan about clubs resting players in the FA Cup and belittling the competition. Yet, surely the FA are demeaning the FA Cup by putting Jon Moss in charge of the final?”

Crucial to understand is that Halsey is in no way critical of Moss, but of the system. Just as the Premier League has its subdivisions – the title race, the top four, the Europa League avoidance battle and the relegation scrap, so too does the PGMOL. Whilst Messrs Clattenburg, Atkinson, Oliver and Dean sit in the Champions League places, certain officials are not trusted to break through the glass ceiling of Southampton vs Swansea in an end-of-season dead rubber.

So what can be done to help these officials? Firstly, says Halsey, Howard Webb – a Collina-like beacon of authority amongst players – must be better utilised. Halsey, who suggested to me that the man who refereed the 2010 World Cup final was disillusioned with his role, was proven right when he resigned last week.

“Howard shouldn’t be in a studio in Salford Quays watching all the games. He should be out there watching referees in the Football League, bringing in the new Football League referees, watching the Conference referees.”

As well as scouting and mentoring from the likes of Webb, central to referee progression, though, must be technology.

“Technology has been fantastic on the goalline and it would be brilliant to use it even more. People say it would delay the restart but it won’t because when you have a big controversial key match incident, it takes four or five minutes to get the game restarted anyway. Whereas with technology, it would take ten seconds to work out what the outcome should be.”

This clarity of thought is indicative of the way in which Halsey thinks about an often over-complicated sport. In a world where referees are condemned for their lack of game experience, Mark Halsey is a rare breed. A former non-league player and a huge QPR fan; he is a terrific ambassador for football and its officials. There’s no bitterness or self-interest in Halsey’s thoughts, merely the reflections of an English footballing stalwart whose pride in his profession is unwavering.

When the new season begins in August, much will have changed. Yet, refereeing errors will remain a constant.

I urge you, though, to look for the blinders as well as the blunders. When it does all go to pot, consider the limitations of the men in black.

They are, after all, only human.

Photographs: Sportimage, Ben Sutherland (Flickr)

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