A whistle, a red and yellow card and the strength of your personality – those were the tools of the trade when I began a 25-year refereeing career in 1989.
In the late 90s we were given these chunky radios that sat in the middle of our backs with a big earpiece looped over your ear. But there was loads of white noise and interference where people could hear other radio users — taxi firms, pizza delivery people — and it was really difficult to make out what was being said. So it was tried but got shelved for a while to allow technology to catch up.
It took until about 2006 to get the technology that was good enough: a much smaller radio that gave the quality of sound with a size that was suitable. It was the single biggest development in my career because suddenly refereeing a game was no longer such a lonely place. You’ve got three friends – two assistants and a fourth official – in your earpiece not only telling you about decisions to be made but encouraging, motivating, advising. It became a massively important tool.
And then of course there was the introduction of goal line technology, and the wristwatch that lets you know if the ball has crossed the line or not. Referees love it. It takes away all the anxiety you might feel about getting a big call wrong and it gives you confidence and credibility with players.
I had a situation in a game at Fulham in my last season where the ball hit the crossbar and slammed down onto the line. It looked just over to the naked eye but the watch didn’t activate and so the game continued while the fans were screaming their heads off.
I shouldn’t have really done this, but minutes later they replayed the incident on the big screen and I had one eye on it. It showed the ball appearing to bounce just over the line but then the camera zoomed and spelled out “NO GOAL” in big letters. I felt like punching the air in front of all the fans!
So while I’m a big supporter of video replays, it needs excessive trialling and there are now questions we have to resolve. What incidents do you check? When do you check it? How long do you have to check it when the game is still live? Where do we draw the line? And how do we implement it?
Imagine in the last minute of a Champions League final the ball goes out over the goal-line and there is debate over whether it’s a corner or a goal kick. The referee gives a corner, a goal is scored directly from the cross – but the video shows it should have been a goal kick. The pressure from the outcry would lead to further intervention of the video assistant referee. He could end up checking every corner, every situation until we just have remote control referees carrying out instructions on the pitch.
What happens if the video ref is checking a situation that takes 20 seconds to check but while they’re doing that something else happens? Or do you just rely on two appeals each half for the two coaches, similar to cricket? That would undoubtedly break the game up; is that something we could accept?
We need to try all of these systems to see which one has the most positive impact on the game and which is the least intrusive. Then we’ll hopefully be able to draw up some sort of accepted protocol.
Humdinger errors that become career-defining for players and officials could be cut out but a lot of decisions will always remain subjective and come down to someone’s opinion. Even with the benefit of video we will still get decisions which will split people 50-50 – the technology won’t be a panacea.
The Man in the Middle by Howard Webb, published by Simon & Schuster, is out now in hardback, priced £20.