Howard Webb: Referees chief on dissent, Turkey referee attack and why football must keep technology

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Howard Webb is a busy man.

The man appointed to lead England’s top referees 12 months ago – with a pledge to be open and to “pull back the curtain” on officiating in the Premier League – has been in the headlines more often than he would like.

There are positives, not least with the announcement that Rebecca Welch will become the Premier League’s first female referee and Sam Allison the first black referee in the top flight since Uriah Rennie in 2008.

But all too often, Webb is addressing awful mistakes. Mistakes like Manchester United keeper Andre Onana escaping punishment despite punching Wolves striker Sasa Kalajzdic on the opening weekend of the season. Mistakes like Simon Hooper not allowing Manchester City a clear advantage earlier this month against Tottenham.

Arguably worst of all was the video assistant referee (VAR) ruling out a Luis Diaz goal for Liverpool against Spurs – an incident that sparked weeks of debate.

Webb sat down with BBC Sport at Stockley Park and spoke about the refereeing world as he sees it.

 

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Howard Webb on a ‘pivotal moment’ for refereeing

Do you dread weekends?

“Of course not. Most games pass smoothly and the officials do a really good job. They are all highly trained professionals doing a challenging job they are well prepared for.

“It’s not just the matches on Match of the Day. We have games to deliver in the Premier League, EFL, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship. Across all those games there are going to be talking points and situations that split opinion.

“There will be some errors and they are the ones we can learn from. I look forward to every weekend. It is a challenging role but one I relish and get a lot of satisfaction from.”

Some say standards are worse than they have ever been – do you agree?

“I don’t agree with that. People can have a fond recollection of the past. The game is spoken about and scrutinized more and is probably less forgiving than ever. That factors into people’s perceptions.

“There have been errors that live large. We have to accept that. I always hold my hands up if I get something wrong. Over time, you work to reduce them. But the reality is pretty positive.

“Some of the initiatives in place through extra investment take some time to permeate through. We have seen officials come out of the development group taking charge of their first Premier League games. That is happening at every level.”

What are your thoughts on the attack on a referee in Turkey?

A referee was punched to the ground by a club president during a top-flight match. MKE Ankaragucu president Faruk Koca was later arrested.

“The scenes were disgraceful. We should never, at any level, see that type of incident happen to any participant.

“It is indicative of a problem that exists in the game, where people feel they can challenge officials in a way that is not acceptable. We have seen over time a decline in certain types of behaviors toward officials.

“Just because you don’t agree with a decision, that doesn’t mean it is acceptable to behave in a wholly unacceptable way.”

How are you trying to drive out dissent?

Bookings for dissent in the men’s and women’s professional game have increased by 88% so far this season. Both Brighton manager Roberto de Zerbi and Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta have avoided sanctions for publicly criticizing referees.

“We have seen some real success in the way the participant charter – a set of measures to address issues of player, manager, and fan behavior – has been implemented in the English game.

“There has been a reduction in the number of times the referee has been surrounded and there has been confrontation between the participants and the officials. There is still work to do, and we have had to increase the number of cautions to get those positive outcomes.

“It takes time to change behaviors. We will keep doing it because of the events in Turkey and the need to have a positive direction of travel, not just this season, but for good.

“That is the only way we can set a really strong and powerful example at the grassroots level. We will not back down in that respect.

“We will keep drawing the curtain back on how decisions are made. That is what we can control. Comments by coaches and managers are something that is dealt with elsewhere.”

Should we get rid of VAR?

“It would be foolish to take away a tool that can remove clear errors from the game – almost 40 this season.

“Usually we have seen around 100 situations rectified through the use of VAR. Why would you want to take that away and leave those errors in the game?

“We are always looking for ways we can improve the use of it, through consistent application in the subjective world that football is and the enhanced use of technology.

“I understand delays can cause frustration but sometimes they are unavoidable when you are doing the job diligently.

“It protects the game from some clear errors and the thought of going into some big games without that facility there, I don’t think many referees would want that.”

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