Serving up pitch and chips

As the financial stakes in top-flight football grow, the referee’s decision-making becomes crucial. So referees armed with micro-TVs and goalposts fitted with inductive loops have got to be a good thing – haven’t they? Mike Evamy has doubts

Designers and engineers used to making computers likeable to humans may soon be grappling with a much more volatile kind of relationship: the love/hate war that exists between a football crowd and the referee. There are plans afoot (sorry) to arm the man in black with a suit of electronic gadgets, designed to improve his decision-making power and to help explain his adjudications to the gallery. If these devices get the nod from the Football Association, our football grounds could become hotbeds of electronics and information displays. The half-time portion of chips will be as of nought compared to the number of microchips nestling in parts of the pitch and players’ kit.

There’s no doubt that referees need help. They might welcome psychiatric help in dealing with their Norman No-Mates status in the professional game. But, more to the point, they need a hand with making decisions in the heat of a game. Football is not what it used to be. The game has become much quicker. Players – those at Chelsea, at least – have learned new skills and patterns of movement around the pitch. Referees have to keep up with the pace and sophisticated tactics of the top clubs. They used to be mildly rotund middle-aged bankers from Hemel Hempstead; now they are half the size of Paul Gascoigne and younger than many players.

They may be fit, but they still make errors, and the omnipresent eye of the media ensures they are found out. The perception, says the Football League’s referees’ officer, Jim Ashworth, is that decision-making is getting worse because attention is so fixed on officials’ mistakes rather than their achievements. “TV commentators rarely say ‘Oh, what a marvellous decision by the ref, let’s see that again’. We never see that, do we? We see, ‘that was a very close offside, let’s see it again… Oh yes, the linesman was absolutely right.’ It tends to be a surprise that they haven’t got a decision wrong.”

The pressure is compounded by the colossal stakes played for in the top divisions. Referees take the blame if the consequences of a bad decision turn out to be significant, such as in the struggle to avoid relegation. Some claim that the livelihoods of managers and players, and the financial stability of clubs, can be jeopardised by poor refereeing. “Referees are making decisions now which are often described as ‘million pound mistakes’,” says John Williams, senior researcher at the University of Leicester’s Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research. “Imagine it: when we come to the last Sunday of the season, someone somewhere will say that a mistake by the ref in the final game has cost them 8m.”

Most observers acknowledge that some technological assistance for referees is overdue. If millions of armchair football spectators can judge whether a ball has crossed the goal-line, shouldn’t officials have the same facility? The 1995/96 survey of Premiership supporters by the Sir Norman Chester Centre revealed a majority (58.7 per cent) of fans in favour of experiments with “video aids” for crucial decisions. Club by club, there was even more support among followers of teams who felt themselves hard done-by in recent important matches. Fans of Wimbledon, Southampton and Blackburn all felt themselves to be more unlucky than most (and what kind of football-lover would argue with that?).

A system to detect balls crossing lines is just one of the ideas the FA is studying with the aim of reducing errors. Professor Nigel Allinson of the electronics department at UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology) has prepared a first-stage report which suggests concepts for systems that might warrant development. More used to working on molecular imaging systems, the intricacies of the offside rule are a new challenge.

His suggested solution for adjudicating goals is to bury an inductive loop – the kind used in shop doorways to detect shoplifters – in the goalposts, and to line the inner surface of the ball with a metal coating to trigger the system and register a goal. Which means Geoff Hurst would have had to convince the goalposts, rather than a Russian linesman, that England’s infamous third goal in 1966 was legal. For touch-and-go offside decisions, Allinson suggests a system involving an under-pitch electronic network, close-fitting radio-transmitter tags carried by each player and an additional microchip inside the ball. The positions of players and ball would be picked up by the network and a high-speed computer would replay the incident to a fourth official. But offsides are split-second decisions which either stop the game or don’t – replays after the fact would be useless. Fans will also ask whether the computer will be able to detect whether an attacker or defender touched the ball last – a critical issue in offsides. And what happens when one of these intelligent balls ends up on the roof of the stand?

The gadgets most likely to be developed are micro-TVs that would be carried on the arm of the ref, and a system that radios the time on the ref’s watch to the stadium clock. The screen would offer officials a chance to base decisions on action recorded by one of a dozen or more cameras, but they would still need to make their own judgments about the intentions of players involved in incidents. The clock concept would allow players and spectators to see exactly how much time the ref has added for stoppages at the end of 90 minutes. Allinson has proposed that UMIST develop a prototype for the FA. “You have to make sure the radio link is very secure, which you can do by coding the information, which will prevent, say, 30 000 Millwall fans from blocking the transmission. Out of 50 000, one is going to try and be clever.” No, not at Millwall.

“Also, you have to be careful in designing the interface you give the ref: if the buttons are tiny and he presses the wrong one he might reset the clock.”

Either product would offer interesting exercises in human factors, control design and interface design. They would have to be robust, high-powered and instantly intelligible. Football crowds are not tolerant of delays, especially by the ref, which places a heavy responsibility on designers to produce streamlined, highly efficient systems.

Since Allinson’s discussion paper for the FA was outlined in The Guardian, he himself has received the kind of treatment usually reserved for refs. “I’ve had strong e-mail from fans saying how technology would ruin the game.” Stop-start football would be unwelcome; football is a live, spontaneous game that has already been sufficiently changed by visual media.

Fundamentally, fans feel that mistakes are part and parcel of the game. “The argument is that technology would stop refereeing mistakes,” says Allinson, “but I don’t think it would. It would allow the decisions to be based on more solid information, but it wouldn’t make decisions less controversial. Take, for example, Linford Christie’s false starts: the technology told him he was jumping the gun, but it was still controversial…”

The pressures on referees are huge, and intelligently-designed systems could help them. But the chance of human error, and of controversy, is an important part of the sport’s fascination for fans. If it was removed, we may never again hear Greavesie say “It’s a funny old game, Saint”. And what a terrible loss that would be…

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