Influencing officials part of the match-day ritual
Players and managers will always massage referees' egos for their own team's benefit, says Richard Sadlier
Even after his retirement, the extent to which Alex Ferguson influenced match officials is still a hot topic. This follows claims by former Premier League referee Mark Halsey that he exchanged texts and phone calls with Ferguson during his career.
Whether it resulted in favourable decisions for Manchester United is impossible to say, but Halsey was in breach of the rules governing officials in this area. One thing that is known for sure is that match officials are influenced by far more than their personal feelings towards any one manager.
At Millwall, we adopted a multi-track approach to influencing officials. The players would chip away at the referee in their own way during games, while the substitutes would be sent to warm up along the touchline with specific instructions to shout at his assistants. The coaching staff would focus their efforts on the fourth official in front of the dugout, and it was a racing certainty that the fans could be relied on to do their bit.
We had no way of knowing at the time whether any of it worked, but it cost nothing for us all to give it our best shot. It's a part of the game that people don't speak openly about but, subtly or otherwise, it's what players and managers will always seek to do. Like it or not, manipulating match officials is a part of the match-day experience.
It's not about what is within the rules or outside of protocol, it's about finding a strategy that's most effective. I always aimed to build some sort of rapport with a referee as early as possible to get him on side. During the warm-up I would look to acknowledge the officials in some way, mainly to mock them for their running speed or the abuse they were about to receive from the Millwall crowd. In the tunnel beforehand, the official who checked our boots was treated in the same way.
Particularly prior to the kick-off on the halfway line, an exchange would always take place with the referee. It didn't matter what was being said, it was all light-hearted and respectful. The aim was to convince him I wasn't a thug and that anything I said in the following 90 minutes would be worth listening to.
There was one particular referee that I remember having most interaction with on match days. We would always exchange pleasantries when we met in the tunnel before kick-off, usually slagging each other for whatever happened the last time he was in charge of one of our games. He referred to me as 'Sads' as my team-mates did. During games I would regularly mock him for some of his decisions and he would respond with similar observations on how he thought I was doing.
It was all good-natured, but my sole aim was to gain an advantage if the opportunity arose. I wasn't there to make a new friend. If there was a very tight call to make, then surely it would be better if he thought I was a decent bloke rather than a thuggish Neanderthal. Obviously my efforts weren't always successful though, because in all my years of playing the game, he remains the only official to have sent me off.
A spokesperson for the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) said last week how important it is for officials to adhere to the guidelines around contacting players and managers away from match days. On the day itself, however, it is virtually impossible to eliminate the influencing effect of such a concerted effort from so many people. We could never tell if it was having a direct benefit or not, but academic findings would suggest it did.
Even when home advantage, crowd size and game importance were taken into account, studies in the past have shown officials to be statistically more likely to award cards to away teams. A greater number of penalties are given against away teams which researchers say implies officials are subconsciously making calls in favour of home teams, possibly influenced by the home following.
Other studies put home advantage down to heightened pre-game testosterone levels, while environmental familiarity is seen by others to be the dominant factor (academia's way of saying some players 'don't fancy it' away from home). But whatever the primary cause the effect is apparently clear, that match officials are influenced by their surroundings and make their decisions accordingly.
The authorities can't influence the subconscious but it doesn't mean they can't try and regulate the conscious influences and not just ensure that referees are impartial but they are seen to be impartial. Yet, in the wake of some referees enforcing a ridiculous rule, there will be calls that referees should show some personality. Sometimes these personalities will be egotistical, easily influenced and susceptible to flattery. In other words, they'll be just like the rest of us and footballers will always look to exploit that.