Football administration · Referees

Refereeing Mistakes

Howard Webb in November 2008:

But it is not just respect when things are going well, there has to be respect when mistakes are made as well. Any mistake made by a referee is not intentional.


We are only human after all but we want to be as accurate as we can be, as often as we can be.

Howard Webb on 28 April 2009, after awarding Manchester United a penalty two days earlier:

I’ve looked at it again and I think it was a mistake but we make these decisions honestly.


I’m disappointed as I always strive for perfection. I’ll look at the tape in detail later in the week and try to avoid it happening again in the future.

“I never want to have a negative impact on a game and I get no pleasure from not reaching the high standards we set ourselves.

“But show me a man who’s never made a mistake and I’ll show you a man who’s done nothing.

Manchester United were trailing 0-2 at home to Tottenham Hotspur.  After putting away the penalty early in the second half, United came back to win 5-2, thereby maintaining their 3-point lead at the top of the Premier League, with 5 games to play, and a game in hand over their closest rivals.

There have been a significant number of referees admitting mistakes or red cards rescinded this season.  In the Premier League, these include:

  • Rob Styles admitted that a penalty he awarded Manchester United at home to Bolton Wanderers in September 2008 was a mistake.   The score was 0-0 at the time.  United put away the penalty and went on to win 2-0.
  • The red card shown by Rob Styles to Newcastle United defender Habib Beye in their home game against Manchester City in October 2008 was rescinded.
  • The red card shown by Rob Styles to West Bromwich Albion’s Paul Robinson in their match at Old Trafford in January 2009 was rescinded.
  • The red card shown by Mike Riley to Chelsea’s Frank Lampard in their away game at Liverpool in February 2009 was rescinded.  The score was 0-0 at the time.  Liverpool went on to win 2-0.
  • The red card shown by Martin Atkinson to Blackburn Rovers’ goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, in their away game at Liverpool in March 2009, was rescinded.
  • The rescission of the red card shown by Steve Tanner to Sunderland’s George McCartney in the 15th minute of their away game at Manchester City in March 2009.   Manchester City scored a second half goal to win 1-0.
  • Howard Webb’s admission above.

Earlier in the season:

Liverpool’s guide to winning fixtures.
1) Concede 1-2 goals.
2) Wait for ref to wrongly give a player a red card.
3) Score 2-3 goals.

The sendings off may not have been wrong, but were close calls. In every case, the referee could just as easily have awarded a yellow card instead.

This season, Liverpool and Manchester United have largely benefitted from wrong or poor decisions.  Is it any wonder that they are the top two at this stage of the season?

In the above examples, most of the clubs on the receiving end are fighting relegation – Newcastle United, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland.

Is it any surprise that it creates the perception that referees favour bigger clubs?  Alex Ferguson’s comment earlier in the season that Rob Styles “owed [them] one” only serves to reinforce the perception.

A solution proposed on BBC 606:

Its bad enough only 4 out of 20 teams having a realistic chance to win the league because of the monetary advantage these 4 have but add the problem of referee’s perceived favouring of them, and the question for the rest is why bother?.


Why cannot we return to having referees who only visit a ground ONCE per season, there are enough referees available to do that, and if you say you wont get the best referees for the best league, well I suggest, with exceptions, this group of referees is not up to scratch.

NO team gets the same referee twice at a home league game during a season.

Referees may be human, but respect is earned, not demanded. Unfortunately, the circumstances do not allow referees to earn respect.

For me, the fault lies with the football authorities.

The refusal of the football authorities to countenance the use of video technology during a match to resolve highly contentious decisions which are likely to affect the outcome of the game, such as disputed penalties and sendings off, stem from traditionalism and inertia, rather than common sense or the good of the game.

Video evidence would usually resolve the issue, or at least limit the scope of the dispute. By not using video evidence during the match itself, the football authorities allow the issue to drag on well beyond the end of the game.

UEFA continues to bury its head in the sand.

As an alternative to goal-line technology and “potentially disruptive” instant TV replays, Uefa – initiated by Platini – has been looking at a new refereeing system whereby the referee is helped by four rather than two assistants.

My response at the time:

Is the time the referee spends consulting with two extra assistants any less “disruptive” than use of video technology? More significantly, decisions will not be any less contentious.

BBC Sport keeps track of red and yellow cards by each Premier League referee. Perhaps they should also keep count of decisions that are overturned on appeal, admitted by the referee to be a mistake or otherwise shown to be wrong.


4 thoughts on “Refereeing Mistakes

  1. Some high profile refereeing errors in the past week:

    Portsmouth 0 Arsenal 3

    The Dane then grabbed a second from the penalty spot after Sean Davis was ruled to have fouled captain Andrey Arshavin.

    Replays suggested the midfielder might have got a toe to the ball as he slid in on Arsenal’s stand-in captain and Portsmouth were furious with referee Lee Mason.

    In fact, replays clearly showed that Davis won the ball and made minimal contact with Arshavin. Arshavin himself indicated to the referee that it was not a penalty.

    Arsenal 1 Manchester United 3

    Fletcher was given a straight red card for an adjudged foul on Cesc Fabregas in the box as United won the second leg of the Champions League semi-final 3-1.

    Uefa has confirmed that no appeal can be made against the decision, no matter what the referee says in his report.


    Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger also insisted the red card was “very harsh” after television pictures showed Fletcher played the ball cleanly.

    Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1

    The Blues went out 1-1 on away goals after a late Barca strike but had several spot-kick appeals turned down by referee Tom Henning Ovrebo.


    Chelsea were first denied when Ovrebo adjudged Daniel Alves had brought down Florent Malouda outside the area, when it appeared the foul took place in the box.

    … in the second half the ball seemed to strike the arms of both Gerard Pique and Samuel Eto’o in separate incidents.

    Video technology would have resolved each incident immediately. FIFA and UEFA have their own agenda to serve in not wanting to use video technology.

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