Backing Black

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Do referees favour bigger clubs?

Patrick Vieira, who is on the Manchester City staff, thinks officials are biased in favour of certain big Premiership teams. He recently stated that, “When [Man] United play at home they get some advantages that other teams don’t get.” His comments came after Fulham were controversially denied what appeared to be a clear penalty in their one-nil defeat at Old Trafford. So is there really any truth in this (oft-repeated) claim?

The website debatabledecisions.com offers some good indicators. Disputed referees’ verdicts (free kicks, corners, goals, cards etc.) are looked at by a panel who vote “correct” or “incorrect”. As of March 31, the research shows that Stoke have benefitted most from inaccurate decisions, followed by Bolton, QPR and Wolves – the latter trio being three of the “smaller” teams fighting relegation at the foot of the table.

Arsenal have been most harshly treated by inaccurate decisions, followed by Everton, West Brom and Man City. So it seems that City do have something of a claim in that they are harshly treated, although it’s worth noting that right down with them there in the table of ill treatment are Chelsea, Man Utd, Spurs and Liverpool. So if anything, the decisions have been going against the bigger teams this season.

Some may be surprised to see Stoke as the greatest beneficiaries – especially given their physical, combative style of play. One explanation could be that Stoke’s ground, The Britannia Stadium, houses one of the loudest most vociferous sets of supporters anywhere in the country. When 27,000 people scream for the decision right next to you, it’s slightly more likely to be given. And even though the stadia of Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool are significantly bigger, the atmosphere has been severely lacking in many home games this season. There was a time (the ’70s and ’80s mostly) when the roar from the Old Trafford crowd after a goal was scored sounded like a bomb going off. But these days it’s a somewhat muted affair throughout, as it has been (apart from certain big games) at The Emirates Stadium and Anfield.

A 2007 study at Harvard University also looked at the influence of crowds on referees. It rather bluntly claimed that for every extra 10,000 people in the crowd, the advantage for the home team increases by 0.1 goals – a statistic that seems to be at odds with what has been happening this season. However, it is easier to agree with their observations about the influence of crowds in general. “Referee training could include conditioning towards certain external factors, including crowd response,” researcher Ryan Boyko said. “Leagues should be proactive about eliminating referee bias. The potential is there for a game to be altered because of factors that subconsciously affect the referee.” He refused to name the Premiership referees that were most influenced, but said that the more experienced ones were less susceptible. Going back to Vieira’s claim, the referee in that particular game was Michael Oliver. He was officiating in only his second season in the top flight and, at 27 years old, was the youngest-ever Premier League referee – a decade younger than footballer Paul Scholes.

The bare facts about individual performances are interesting. Look at the referees’ table (the total numbers of red and yellow cards given) for the last four seasons, and the same two names appear at the top – Phil Dowd and Howard Webb. The authorities would claim that there is no such thing as strict or lenient referees as they are applying the laws evenly and reacting to the actions of the players, rather than their own personas and prejudices. But is it really coincidence that the same names keep cropping up? One point worth noting though is that they are equally strict with all teams – they’re severe, not biased.

In the late 1980s, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was asked by a journalist why his team got an unusually high number of penalties, to which he dryly replied, “Because we spend more time in the opponents’ penalty area than other teams.” The same answer was given by Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in the ’90s. It stands to reason that successful sides will spend more time attacking and accordingly get more penalties, although there are exceptions when it doesn’t always work out like that. No Premier League team has scored more penalties in a single season than the 11 that Crystal Palace netted in 2004/05 – a season in which they were relegated.

It seems that Vieira’s claims were borne out of frustration rather than fact. Referees do make mistakes but there really don’t appear to be any pre-determined beneficiaries. And Vieira would do well to read the study from last season where 700 contentious incidents across all 380 Premier League games were analysed. It showed that the biggest beneficiaries of referee errors were his own Manchester City, who would have been a massive nine points worse off had the ref got it right every time.

For Esquire magazine.

For original PDF click here – Refs favouring bigger clubs

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