Human Errors and Technological Glitches
There’s something irresistibly human about seeing a professional at the top of their game make a mistake. Darren England’s unfortunate “check complete” call during the game between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool had all the markings of a classic blunder: it was embarrassing, it was significant, and it turned the tide of a game. But while many might empathise with an error made after a long-haul flight, it has also raised serious questions. As Oliver Kay for The Athletic pointed out, “Who can blame them for losing focus? Come on, give the guys a break!”
The Bigger Picture: Referee Freelancing
While isolated incidents do happen, this one was set against the backdrop of a far-reaching debate. There have been increasing concerns over Premier League referees being permitted to officiate games abroad, particularly in regions where Premier League clubs have ownership ties.
“The optics? Not great,” writes Kay. Indeed, the connection between Sheikh Mansour and Manchester City is well known, and less directly, the link between the UAE Football Association and City Football Group adds another layer of complexity. This brings in a valid question: Should the Premier League’s officiating body, PGMOL, be allowing its referees to work in leagues that are so closely connected to Premier League team owners?
This issue isn’t confined to the Middle East. Premier League referees have taken assignments in Super League Greece and Japan’s J1 League, among others. But there’s a difference between European mid-week assignments and those that necessitate long-haul flights. “It is quite another to do so in the UAE on a Thursday night, take an eight-hour flight back on the Friday and then find themselves on VAR duty the following day,” asserts Kay.
The Advocacy for Overseas Assignments
Despite the evident concerns, some see value in these overseas assignments. Howard Webb, in particular, has been an advocate, believing in the value of international exposure. He argues that Premier League referees can gain from experiences in different footballing environments. Kay quotes Webb’s stance, stating that he has “supported the principle of Premier League referees taking overseas assignments, believing they will be better for the experience of working in the UAE, or in Saudi Arabia.”
Revisiting Decisions and Priorities
But at what cost does this experience come? Even if we set aside the potential optics problem, there’s a logistical concern. Referees on VAR duty need to be at the top of their game — fully concentrated and free from fatigue. Mike Dean’s admission of dreading VAR duty underscores the fact that it’s far from a walk in the park.
Is the global exposure worth it if it jeopardises the quality of officiating in Premier League games? As Kay aptly summarises, “Referees need to be protected and given the best possible conditions to excel without their authority and integrity being questioned at every turn.”
While mistakes are a part of football – and life – it’s crucial that we minimise the chances of them happening. Especially when the stakes are as high as they are in the Premier League. Maybe it’s time for a pause and a rethink. Maybe, just maybe, Premier League referees have enough on their plates without adding international flights into the mix. After all, in an industry that demands near perfection, the conditions in which professionals operate should be optimal. Anything less just doesn’t make the cut.