Our panel, clockwise from top left:
Mark Clattenburg, Chester-le-Street
Martin Atkinson, West Yorkshire
Mark Halsey, Lancashire
Dermot Gallagher, Banbury
What do you enjoy most about being a Premiership referee?
Gallagher My whole week, from when I start out on Monday morning to walking out and doing a match, and then finishing and driving home feeling very satisfied that what I’ve planned for all week has come to fruition. I can’t imagine reaching 48 in any other walk of life feeling as fit and healthy as I do, and having the satisfaction of going out on Saturday or Sunday and taking part in one of the best sports in the world.
Clattenburg I agree. Now that we’re professional referees, there’s an enjoyment in everything we do, from the build-up right through to the game itself.
Halsey Well, we’re all football supporters as well: we love the game, so it’s a pleasure to be in it. People work in factories, getting up at six o’clock and doing 12-hour shifts – we’ve come away from that. We’ve been there, seen it, done it, worn the T-shirt – it just feels good not to be there anymore!
How have things changed since refs went full-time pro in 1998?
Gallagher This year our working week is totally different because we also get Football League games. We’re actually training throughout the week to get a match on a Saturday. And that will tell you how much it means to us – I’d much rather referee at Yeovil Town on a Saturday than be fourth official at Newcastle United. Now I can imagine how a footballer feels when he trains all week and is put on the bench. I can understand why he spits the dummy and bangs on the manager’s door and says, “I want a transfer!”
Halsey We want to referee, we don’t want to be sitting on the bench. When people see you at those [lower league] grounds they think that you’ve been dropped from the Premiership, but that’s not the case.
Gallagher I’m not sure there is that misconception now, to be honest. Managers and supporters do now recognise that we’re refereeing more and more games, and they’re much more appreciative of it.
Have expectations changed too?
Atkinson Over the last two or three years, expectations have grown a hell of a lot. The game is getting faster and faster; players are more skilled; there’s an emphasis on keeping the game going. We put pressure on ourselves to perform too – the fact that you’re now seen as professional, people look at you differently, and you want to perform at the top of your game. A man in the stand sits and watches us referee, but we’re not just judged on that instant perception of the 90 minutes. They then take a video away – they’ll sit and say “that was a soft free-kick, and that soft free-kick might have led to that”, and so on.
Halsey No one else is under as much scrutiny as we are in our jobs. People in the game – spectators, managers, coaches and players – want accountability. And we’ve got no hiding place. If any one of us has a bad game on a Saturday, you can be sure we won’t be doing a Premier League game the following week. Every training session we do, every match we do, we wear a heart-rate monitor which we have to download to Matt Weston, our fitness guru, to check we’re up to scratch. We had letters in the summer telling us lose a certain amount of fat, and if we didn’t we’d be fined.
Clattenburg We even have one of those urine charts to make sure your wee is the right colour on match day!
What’s your pre-match routine?
Atkinson If I’m at home the night before the game, I like to go to the gym at teatime on the Friday, and just chill out. Sit in the steam room, sit in the jacuzzi – not talk to anybody, just try to focus on the game. Think about the teams. Have I refereed at that ground before? Good experiences from that ground... just mentally trying to prepare so that the game will go well.
Clattenburg I’m completely different. I don’t prepare the night before a game. I don’t even think about the game of football until the morning of the match or, if it’s an evening kick-off, the afternoon. I’ll start to concentrate from around about 11 o’clock, so I’m really peaking at around three o’clock.
Halsey I’m the same. If you’re thinking about the game too far in advance you can get all anxious and tensed up.
Clattenburg I used to do the same as Martin in my first year, early doors in my Premiership career, but now I’ve switched off from it because it starts to play on your mind. Then I’ll start pre-judging as well.
Halsey Once Martin becomes more experienced on the Select Group, he won’t think about the games; he won’t think about the players.
Clattenburg Players are very diverse: a certain player will react very differently to one referee than to another. There are players I can react to that Mark [Halsey] can’t, and vice-versa. Thinking about my management skills, I might be making them my friend during the 90 minutes, which Mark could find very difficult; but you can’t prejudge. You can’t tell until the players and the crowd react to you and your style of refereeing on the day – because you can referee differently from one week to another, so there’s no point picking out players who might be difficult to manage.
Halsey Yeah, games are all very different. I think it takes at least four years to earn the players’ respect – to let them get to know you.
Let’s talk about the laws of the game...
Gallagher The laws are like the Highway Code – I don’t say this to be sarcastic – I need to know how to apply the law. I need to know what is wrong, what is right and how to deal with it. I always liken it to driving a car: if I see a red light I never once think “brake, change down gear, stop”, I just do it. And that’s what I do on the football field. I see something, I know it’s wrong, and I react to it.
How well do you think players know the laws of the game?
Gallagher They don’t have to know the laws of the game to play, do they? Knowing the laws of the game might not help certain players who live on the edge, and play better on the edge, and we all know who those players are. A little bit of knowledge might take away a little bit of what they’re trying to do. By and large, most teams need a player who’s going to live on the edge and most top teams already have one.
Halsey They’re not paid to apply the laws of the game, are they?
What about the fans? Are they better informed than the players?
Clattenburg We’re all fans. When I go and watch Newcastle, there may be times where I disagree with the decision, but when I analyse it 10 minutes later, I’ll think, “Nah, he’s got that spot on.” But the genuine fans don’t think that, because they get what we call tunnel vision – they only want to see their team win. There’s a blame culture in this country, and they’re always looking to blame somebody, and fans won’t blame their idolised centre-forward for missing three open goals, but they will blame the referee who’s given something wrong.
Don’t controversial or marginal decisions contribute to the rich tapestry of football, though? Without controversial decisions there would be fewer talking points...
Clattenburg If the game’s exciting to watch and there’s plenty of action and incident, then I could have made four poor calls in that game, but you walk out the stadium and the general fan will say, “What a great game to watch, fantastic.” You do that again in a scrappy game, you’ll come out that same stadium and people will go, “You were rubbish today.” But, unfortunately, the referee doesn’t make the game exciting. Players get paid to entertain; we just manage them.
Gallagher That’s where a referee’s real talent comes in, sorting out what to give and what not to give in a game like that. He knows a game’s rubbish, he knows it’s peeing everybody off – what you’ve got to do is find the fine balance between controlling that game, applying the laws, and not bringing everything around yourself. If 22 players are upsetting the fans – all right, let it be. But you don’t want to be the one who’s suddenly got to pick up the pieces. That is a very special talent to have in games like that.
Halsey We’re in the entertainment business; fans want to see entertaining games.
Gallagher We’re the catalyst between two chemicals.
Atkinson If you’re performing well as a referee, then hopefully the players will perform and the game will flow and everything else with it. But if it isn’t going as well, if it’s scrappy and the players are misbehaving, then we’ve got to get involved. You’ve still got to keep control, haven’t you?
Halsey Players dictate how we referee the game. But I think those referees with natural flair and natural ability – the guys we’ve got here – they’ll go out and express themselves differently to a ‘manufactured’ referee. People know that I like to keep the game flowing, play plenty of advantage – same with Mark, same with Dermot. Martin’s not been on too long so he won’t be in our category because he’s just feeling his way. He won’t referee a game like I referee a game.
What do you mean by a ‘manufactured’ referee?
Gallagher Somebody who has been taught to just see in black and white. Clattenburg We understand how football should be played and the spirit it should be played in. There’ll be times where a tackle will go in, and a ‘manufactured’ referee won’t see why: all they will see is yellow or red. They don’t see the lead-up to it.
Halsey Gordon Strachan said a few years ago, “Referees know the laws of the game, but they don’t necessarily understand the game of football.” But some of us do.
Clattenburg There’s a lot of times in a game, when a player gets upset, I’m thinking, “Why’s he upset? Who’s upset him? What can I do to stop this getting out of hand?”, whereas another referee will let it develop. So the player eventually thumps another player and gets red-carded. Whereas if I’ve sent a player off for that, I’m devastated internally. I’m thinking, “Could I not have prevented that?”
Halsey When you go to a match that’s got a Select Group referee, you watch how much talking we do: that’s prevention. The natural referee will spot the things going on around him before other people do.
Clattenburg We all come from different jobs and backgrounds, but those referees who come down from a management or director-type background can’t use the same management tools that they’ve used in their old job – you have to change to suit the game of football.
Gallagher If I was to get one thing over to football fans, it’s to say, “Accept us as 20 people, not as one; because we’ll never be as one.” And all this talk about consistency, common sense, uniformity with one another... as long as you control a game from minute nought to minute 90, you apply the laws of the game correctly, and the players can go home feeling that they’ve been protected, I think you’ve done your job. How you do it within the laws of the games, within your own personality and your own talent skill – it’s malleable, isn’t it? We’ve got people who come from the police force, we’ve got people who come from teaching backgrounds – they’re obviously going to be different people to a snotty-nosed boy from a council flat in Dublin, who worked on a factory floor.
Are you in favour of technology being introduced to assist referees?
Halsey Personally, I think goal-line technology – was it a goal, was it not a goal? – is pretty basic. But otherwise the game is quite quick in the Premier League and if you do it like cricket, you have to keep stopping, waiting, going up to the man in the stand, then it transfers the decision from you to him.
Clattenburg Rugby League does it, but the massive difference there is that they have a natural stoppage in play to make that decision. Why not go to matter-of-fact to see whether the ball is over the line or not, but not for things like penalties and cautions which are a matter of opinion and interpretation?
Gallagher I’d go further. Any incident where the referee awards a foul or handball against a defender around the penalty area, then there’s a natural stoppage. Nowadays it’s impossible to take quick free-kicks, so that’s going to take anything up to 20 or 30 seconds to restart play. Within four seconds, you can play back and check whether it was in the penalty box – and I would say that makes a massive difference to a decision. I would do that immediately, as from next season.
Clattenburg But if it was a tight call, it might take more than four seconds. What if the camera or the fourth official comes back and says it wasn’t even a foul – that there was no contact at all?
Gallagher I’d like FIFA to have a look at it.
If there was one thing you could change about refereeing, what would it be?
Gallagher I’ll tell you what’s the most frustrating thing in the world to me: the amount of faffing about you get at a throw-in. The referee should be able to say, “You’re the nearest to it – you take it,” because it ain’t rocket science to take a throw-in.
Halsey I’d like to see a change to the situation where you give a penalty and you have to send the player off. I think the penalty’s a sufficient punishment.
Gallagher I feel sorry for goalkeepers, as well, because they’re an endangered species these days, anyway.
Halsey Yeah, because they genuinely come out and make an attempt for that ball. They could be a fraction of a second late – course, the guy goes over his arms; goalscoring opportunity; you give the penalty, you’ve got to send the keeper off. And sometimes it’s so unfair. But that’s the laws – we don’t necessarily agree we them, but we have to implement them.
Interviews: February 2006.
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