Crafty Kenny in bed with the Referees
By Tom Gaunt
This week Kenny Dalglish called for greater communication between Referees and Managers, and who could argue. It seems every week another manager is throwing their toys out of the pram. This was a refreshing approach. He did not insult any particular referees but suggested they had not had the rub of the green recently, I think Liverpool fans may agree. He invited referees’ chief Mike Riley to Liverpool’s Melwood training ground and they had an adult discussion and clear the air talks. All very mature. To believe that Kenny merely required some answers to a few questions which were troubling him would be naive. I think this may have been a shrewd move. However this article is not designed to examine Dalglish’s motives, whatever they are I still think it was a smart move. With American owners and with their unproven yet undoubtedly forward thinking Moneyball approach, I wouldn’t be surprised if Liverpool were ahead of the game on this one.
What I really want to discuss is the psychology behind refereeing and whether teams are paying enough attention. From a managers perspective there seems to be two common modus operandi. The first and most prevalent is intimidation. Managers will comment before a match that they do not think they will get any decisions and at times have gone as far as commenting on the individual official. In the same vein managers often condemn a referee’s performance in the post-match interview. Does this work? I think it would take the sort of analysis of data which only Steven Levitt would have the patience to compile, so we will just have to speculate. Many have suggested Alex Ferguson has been a master of this over the years, and this may well be true. It is possible he does have a science to what he does.
The second and less commonly adopted method is getting on the referees good side. Kenny Dalglish may have hoped that through his hospitality and adult discussion the team will be treated more favourably in future. I am fully aware that some hospitable treatment may well go on post-match and behind closed doors but we know this for sure. It seems that current manipulation tactics are rather ill-conceived, or not even given a moments thought. Perhaps it is unsporting or dishonest to try to manipulate the referee but I am not sure we can claim football to have a high moral compass, so I will assume they are just archaic in their approach.
For a multi-billion pound industry I think most would agree football is behind the times, we aren’t even using technology for example. Surely clubs should be doing everything they can to gain an edge in matches and tip the scales in their favour. I am not condoning manipulation of referees but I think it is something which has naturally come into the game, and if teams want to maximize it they need to be more scientific. Over the past two decades since the inception of the Premiership the pressure on referees has increased. Not only in the media but on the pitch. It has become commonplace for players to surround the referee in protest at a decision. Ironically this is most common when a player is sent-off which is probably the worst time as until now I have never seen a referee overturn a red card. The big change I have noticed in the past five years is that refs are changing their mind, seemingly on appeal. This may be ruling a goal out for offside after players have pleaded for him to check with his assistant. The amazing thing is that the goal on occasion is ruled out for offside, when surely the assistant would have flagged. In reality, however, it may be a case that the ref is just giving themselves a little more time as they realise that they may have combined to make an incorrect decision. I think we can all sympathize. What is the point of all this? What it proves is that the referees behaviour and therefore decisions can sometimes be changed by the actions of the players on the pitch. So why not take it a step further.
As previously stated referees are human and therefore just as predisposed to follow the rules of human behaviour like any of us. Just like a teacher may pick on a certain pupil without realizing or a parent may favour one of their children referees are not impartial. Psychology journals are littered with studies on every imaginable aspect of human behaviour. For example some believe we are more likely to be sympathetic towards those similar to ourselves – Suedfeld & Bochner’s ‘Helper-sufferer similarity’ study, for example, looked at how we are more likely to help those who are most similar to ourselves. We will even like someone more just because they have the same name as us. With regards to the Premier League, it may be that referees are more sympathetic towards the plight of British players over foreign players – Phil Dowd was less than sympathetic towards Nani’s horrific injury last season when he was mauled by Carragher. This is a pure hypothetical and I am not saying Dowd does have a biased but it is an illustration of my point.
From my own experience in amateur football in the UAE where we have a mix of predominantly Arabic or predominantly British teams and referees from both backgrounds also, the pattern is clear. There is a massive favouritism towards the referees fellow countrymen or race. This does not make them racist, it is a natural deep-rooted behaviour for many of us. Now these are of course amateur refs doing a good deed for very little money so we can expect a certain lack of impartiality – but if referees in the top league have just 1% of this bias it could be the difference between a team winning or losing a game.
So what should managers or teams be doing? Well I think that there should be a far greater effort made to understand the psychology of refereeing and analyze individuals behaviour. One of the biggest irritations in football today is the lack of consistency from referees. We will then later and completely separately comment that refs are “only human” when in fact these two things are inextricably linked. It is the very fact that referees are human that causes the lack of consistency. This is where I believe managers are missing a trick. It may be the case that behind the scenes they really do have the requisite level of sophistication, but having watched the majority of managers spitting blood and stomping up and down the touch-line like an angry toddler, I very much doubt it.
At a basic level players can be told “Mark Halsey doesn’t take any lip so don’t mouth off too much or you will get booked” and I am sure players can also work this out themselves. The most commonly seen method is that of appealing for everything, and it works. If ten people tell you something you will normally believe them. How often have you seen a ref make a decision apparently on the players reaction? If we dig deeper, however, it may be that some referees favour particular types of players, or are more likely to consult with their assistant on certain decisions. Some of a more fragile nature may even react to constant complaining about a certain decision by ‘evening things out’ later in a game. It might be that by putting an arm on the shoulder of a particular ref as you walk off for half time and sharing a joke they will favour you more later in the match. There are an abundance of proven ways of manipulating people’s behaviour to gain more trust or create a connection, this is an area mainly unexplored in football.
Referees have an extremely hard job and I am not accusing any of a lack of impartiality this would be unfair, but I think there may be room for clubs to manipulate the situation, if they are not already. Don’t be surprised if Liverpool’s luck starts to change a little after their sit-down with the refs.
Posted on September 16, 2011, in *Tom Gaunt, epl, Liverpool, Opinion, Premier League, Referees and tagged Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool F.C., Mike Riley, Phil Dowd, Premier League, Referee, Soccer, Steve Levitt, Steven Levitt. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.