Opinion: Why the FAWSL deserves competent referees

The standard of officiating in England's top flight is an accident waiting to happen and something needs to change.

Opinion: Why the FAWSL deserves competent referees
Vicky Jones and referee Helen Byrne during a WSL match in 2013. (Photo: Clint Hughes/Getty)

Last weekend after Chelsea manager Emma Hayes saw her side fall to a narrow defeat to Arsenal, she called for better referees. Just a few miles away, London Bees boss Dave Edmondson voiced his frustration about the standard of officiating in the FAWSL.

Frustration in Staines and bruises in Barnet

Hayes’ complaint was simple; early in the game Gemma Davison had gone down in the box under challenge from Emma Mitchell. Both the referee and his assistant on the near touchline had a perfect view, yet the Blues were denied a penalty.

In her post-match interview Hayes was understandably upset and blasted the level of officiating at the highest level of women’s football in the country.

We get them from the lowest level, because we’re women,” Hayes told BT Sport after the defeat, frustrated to see her side fall to another defeat and one that may not have occurred had Mitchell’s challenge resulted in a spot-kick.

This isn’t the first time Chelsea have been left feeling hard done-by by the referee. For their clash against their London rivals, the Blues were without captain Katie Chapman as the experienced midfielder had been sent off the previous week after receiving two yellow cards. The match was televised on and when the highlights were made available and analysed, it was clear that neither challenge warranted a card, yet Chapman was forced to sit out the London derby against her former club.

When speaking about the penalty decision on the Women’s Football Show after the game, Arsenal defender Alex Scott was much more measured with her comments, suggesting “that’s football” as she compared the non-call to others the Gunners had been on the receiving end of so far this season.

Her sentiments were echoed by Edmondson; the bad calls and lack of calls seeming to balance out during a game and even during the season. In their match against Sheffield FC, the Bees were awarded a free kick for a 50/50 challenge which seemed to pacify Edmondson, who could have been frustrated to see Sheffield win a free kick for a coming together.

Edmondson’s concerns, however, went deeper than missed calls. His displeasure stemmed from a lack of protection for those on the pitch. After being warned by the referee about his conduct during the match, the former Bristol City boss slumped in his seat and remained quiet for fear of ejection. After seeing one of his players nearly taken out by a boot to the head, Edmondson was demanding something for the high boot and at the first available instance, the referee stopped the game to warn the Bees manager that one more word would see him sent from the touchline.

The Bees laboured through the match, missing key players, half on the pitch barely fit to start. Edmondson told VAVEL that most of the injuries and knocks had come during recent matches, his team on the receiving end of heavy challenges that had left them battered and bruised.

Edmondson’s take was that the referee had “lost control” of the game.   

Katie Chapman sees red against Birmingham City (Credit: Steve Bardens/Getty)
Katie Chapman sees red against Birmingham City (Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty)

The view from the stands

There can be no denying that football is a contact sport but so far this season, up and down the country in both leagues, I myself have seen some very robust challenges.

I’ve seen players cynically hack others down, I’ve seen hands on throats and absolute inaction from those in charge.

When Arsenal travelled to Manchester City, the referee was well below par. He let a poor Steph Houghton challenge go before sending off Jemma Rose – the Rose card wasn’t debatable but the Houghton challenge was.

The game quickly devolved; two or three Arsenal players repeatedly making bad, clumsy and maybe even malicious challenges throughout the first-half. However, play was waved on. The fouls continued into the second-half and the home side began to rough up their opposition, receiving zero protection from the referee they took matters into their own hands. If someone was going to foul a City player, they’d be fouled right back.

The first yellow card of the game was produced late in the second-half and was somewhat comically shown to Alex Scott for, of all things, dissent. To this day, I’m still amazed no player was left seriously injured after the fiery contest.

Conversely, I’ve seen referees blowing up and handing cards out like it was someone’s birthday at the slightest hint of a foul. There is absolutely no consistency across the WSL, and it is truly not good enough.

As well as this, there was a farcical call when England hosted Belgium in a Euro 2017 qualifier - the assistant flagging for an offside at a throw-in. Ignoring that fact that it’s not possible to be offside at a throw, replays also so that the player adjudged to have strayed was onside anyway. An absolutely laughable moment that simply isn’t good enough for the level.

However, this isn’t a problem that only exists in the WSL. You only have to go back to last summer to see how refereeing decisions shaped the final few teams left at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup.

Big, big calls were routinely made incorrectly to give one side a huge advantage, such as the startling number of penalties awarded for incidents outside of the box. But of course, it’s not just the women who suffer, but men across the spectrum of leagues in the world too, as decisions are frequently called into question in almost every match.

Two cup finals, poles apart

Last November, Arsenal and Notts County squared off in the Continental Tyres Cup final in Rotherham.

The game started on a firm note; a strong challenge from Amy Turner was swiftly followed by a strong challenge by Dominque Janssen. The game was still young and the referee, Jane Simms, seemed willing to let the game flow - neither challenge had been dangerous, just over-zealous.

However, with half-time approaching, Simms retrieved the cards from her pocket and showed a yellow to Alex Greenwood for what looked to be a fair challenge on Vicky Losada. Two minutes later, Simms was once again reaching for a card, bafflingly enough she pulled out the red from her back pocket and dismissed Laura Bassett.

No one could quite believe it, the challenge was strong but never was it a red. For most it wouldn’t even have been yellow, but Bassett was made to walk and Notts were reduced by one. There was no hesitation from Simms, as she immediately blew the whistle and produced the red. There was no second to think or confer with her assistants – who weren’t even mic’ed up anyway.

No matter what else happened that day in Rotherham, that one call had a huge impact on the match – at the time Notts were trailing by a goal and they conceded a second following the scramble after Bassett’s dismissal. There is nothing to suggest that Notts would have managed to restore parity but the molehill became a mountain as they went a player and a second goal down within seconds.

Upsettingly, that one call wasn’t the only thing the officials got wrong. Marta Corredera went into the book after the hour for a sense hack on Greenwood as the fullback broke past her, however it was far from her first bookable offence. Too many fouls were allowed to slide in that match and that final serves as a strong reminder for the low standard female footballers are used to dealing with from officials.

Conversely, during the FA Women's Cup final this year, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of controversy from the referee. Aside from one or two close offside calls, the performance of Sarah Garratt and her team was without fault and it was a rare pleasure to sit throughout a game and not groan at poor officiating.

The cup final at Wembley is a showpiece occasion and the fact it was a London derby - consisting of then-holders Chelsea against the most successful team in the history of the competition, Arsenal - it would have been easy for the match to turn ugly. However, the referee was not the star. She pulled the match back for fouls when there was no advantage and only brandished cards when necessary.

Garratt and her assistants, Lisa Rashid and Lindsey Robinson, proved that it is possible to manage and officiate a game successfully without dispute or a disregard for player safety. So why is it something so many struggle with each week?

Sarah Garratt had a fine FA Cup final but her performance was a shining light in a dull season so far (Credit: Ben Hoskins/Getty)
Sarah Garratt had a fine FA Cup final, but her performance was a shining light in a dull season so far. (Photo: Ben Hoskins/Getty)

Worse than parking inspectors

Being a referee is one of the toughest jobs in football.

You have to be fit enough to keep up with play whilst keeping suitable distance so not to interfere, but close enough to keep a watching eye on the ball. Not only do you have to watch the ball but you have to watch everyone around the ball, as well as keeping vigilant for any off the ball problems. You have to make split-second decisions and snap-calls, using your best judgment – yes there was contact, was it deliberate? Was there malice and intent? It was a foul but was it a cardable offence? Maybe it’s a totting up process. Now you’ve booked Player A, you have to stay consistent throughout the match. Are there any flash-points you need to be mindful of?

There’s a foul in the home box, is it a penalty? The players are in your face and the fans on your back but you can’t bend to their whims.

No matter what you do as a referee, people will find something to complain about, no matter if you do everything correctly and make every call perfectly. If you give the away side a penalty, even if it’s the correct call, the home fans will hound and harass you for the rest of the match. You can’t please everybody but, quite simply, it’s not the referee’s job to please people, but to fairly and correctly officiate.

The dangers

To be diplomatic would be to suggest that it’s swings and roundabouts. Maybe you’re not awarded a penalty for a foul in the box this week, but in a month maybe you’ll commit a foul in the box and the opposition won’t be awarded a penalty. Things have a habit of balancing themselves out for most.

But when referees let bad challenges go they set a precedent in the game, players getting hacked down know they have no protection and players committing cynical fouls know they can get away with it. A match can descend into chaos in no time and players can get seriously hurt.

Thankfully, there have only been a handful of serious injuries in WSL this season so far and most have been from innocuous incidents, but it won’t be long until negligence from the officials in a heated game spells the end of someone’s season.