Up and down the country this weekend football fans, managers, and players will partake in one of the nation’s favourite pastimes: screaming at referees.
Last season Mark Halsey was one of those men in the middle who was faced with the ‘impossible job’. However, now Halsey has opted to venture from the pitch to the studio and will act as a refereeing expert for new broadcaster on the block BT Sport.
As we begin our telephone interview Halsey decides to ask where my footballing affiliations lie. ‘I’m a United fan’ I say in a sheepish tone, well aware of public opinion on my chosen team. There’s a slight pause on the line before Halsey begins belting out Manchester City’s famous ‘Blue Moon’ anthem. Great.
On this occasion I was quick to forgive Halsey as there were more pressing matters at hand.
Firstly, the much debated issue of technology in football. The introduction of goal-line tech into Premier League matches appears to be the dawning of a new era for the beautiful game. Despite collective sighs of relief echoing around the footballing world there are still some luddites who oppose the move.
Halsey, however, is not one of them. The former referee believes that goal-line technology should just be the beginning.
“Did it cross the goal-line did it not cross the goal-line? That is a matter of fact,” Halsey said.
“How many times do we talk about offside? Offside is a matter of fact.
“Now we’re not just talking about decisions made in midfield. Little fouls here of there. Just the major key match incidents. I mean, for me, we have many offsides during a game that are contentious that I think we should bring it in for that as well.”
If the issue didn’t already seem serious enough then Halsey went on: “The offside law is so confusing that I think we’re going to have problems with that this season.”
Referees receive criticism from fans for a vast array of things; some justified and some downright ridiculous.
Two issues that consistently crop up in more sensible discussions are whether referees should conduct post-match interviews and the lack of consistency that is often shown throughout the season.
Halsey is an advocate of the idea that referees should come out and speak to the media.
“As long as we talk about an incident or matters of fact in that game; not something that happened two or three weeks ago,” he said.
“And as long as we don’t go leading the referee or trying to catch him out I don’t see a point why the ref wouldn’t come out and speak.
“However, with the general managers that run the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) at the moment that is never going to happen.”
Despite Halsey’s progressive attitude towards technology in football there is an acceptance on his part that the game will always be judged by human error.
On the issue of consistency Halsey believes that what is important above all is that a referee is consistent within one specific match
“We’re all different,” he said. “As long as the referee is consistent within that game and that 90 minutes it doesn’t matter what the referee did last week because we’re all human beings, we all see things differently.”
This was a unusual way of looking at the situation. It seems that what fans want referees to aspire to is a universal consistency. However, Halsey doesn’t see it this way.
“We’re all different, we all see things differently. Decisions on the football pitch are not black and white. It all depends where it happens,” he said.
The impossible job is an apt name for refereeing. If they are not being criticised by fans and pundits then it is managers who are having a go.
Halsey says that he never carried any of these criticisms over into other matches and he sympathised with the media scrutiny placed on managers at times when they are most volatile.
“Straight after games managers are all hyped up aren’t they,” he said.
“I think it’s silly to put a mic in front managers 10 or 15 minutes after a game. They’re on a high or they’ve just lost and they’re deflated because of a refereeing decision. It’s part of the game.”
As football matches progress and the refereeing decisions rack up the ‘men in the middle’ must remain psychologically strong; but what happens to a referee’s mind when he makes a wrong decision? Does he know straight away? Does it affect his performance?
“If it’s happened in the first half in the first half you will know at half time you’ve got it wrong,” Halsey said.
“You’ve got to come out second half and you’ve got to be mentally tough.”
One infamous incident in Halsey’s career that put his psychological strength to the test was when Wigan’s Callum McManaman made a horrific challenge on Newcastle’s Massimo Haidara.
Halsey missed the challenge and McManaman escaped any caution. Reflecting on the decision Halsey said he knew that he had got the decision wrong during the match.
“I knew at half time it was a dreadful challenge and I missed it and got it wrong. Obviously you’ve got to come out a lot mentally tougher and stronger,” he said.
“I remember I cautioned James Perch in the second half for a yellow card and then he committed another challenge that I should have given a 2nd yellow card for.
“Now what’s going through my head is how can I send him off for the two yellow cards when I’ve missed this horrendous challenge?”
This issue comes back to Halsey’s earlier comments about consistency. By not sending Perch off Halsey was, by the letter of the law, making the wrong decision.
However, for Halsey, common sense had to prevail. Was this a case of evening out decisions or do referees create consistency within 90 minutes?
“No we’re not evening it out. What I did was manage the situation. I was just using my common sense. [If I’d sent Perch off] it would have given people a lot more to talk about.”
After well over a decade refereeing at the highest level of football, Halsey has seen it all. So if the veteran referee could change one thing about how matches are officiated what would it be?
“Sending the goalkeeper off for denial of a goalscoring opportunity and the defender off for a penalty.
“Nine times out of ten they genuinely do go for the ball and it’s just slightly mistimed and, for me, a PK is sufficient punishment.
“I don’t mean to say you don’t punish the reckless challenge where he’s deliberately come from behind or stopped him scoring.
“You still punish that with a red card. But the one would be the goalkeeper that genuinely makes a challenge for the ball and the defender makes a challenge for the ball.
“I’d see that changed where a penalty is sufficient punishment.”
Before our time was up I got the opportunity to ask Halsey one question that, as a football fan, has been driving me mad for years.
During corners and free kicks a professional football match can often look like a shirt pulling contest. There’s so many infringements occurring that it seems preposterous not to award more fouls.
Halsey admitted that he too was confused by what to do and that mixed messages has resulted in a state of confusion among referees.
“Last season we were confused,” he said. “Last season I refereed Sunderland Fulham and there was a holding offence in the box.
“I awarded a penalty to Sunderland which TV said was correct decision, the delegate said it was the correct decision but in my evaluation the assessors said there wasn’t enough contact for a penalty.
“There was contact but not enough, so you tell me! What do you do? Mixed messages. Confused.com”
Mark Halsey is referee expert on BT Sport’s coverage of 38 exclusively live Barclays Premier League Football matches. BT Sport is free with BT broadband, to find out more visit www.btsport.com
Image courtesy of SkySports via YouTube, with thanks