Assistant referees don’t make decisions

There was some consternation just before Christmas when the assistant referee in the Manchester United v Newcastle game appeared to give a penalty, after the referee had already awarded a corner. The first thing to say is that assistant referees do not make decisions. In the Laws of the Game assistant referees have a list of six duties, all of which basically say that they must indicate certain situations to the referee but they are all ‘subject to the decision of the referee’. In other words it is the referee who makes the decision. I won’t go into all of the duties but there are two that have a bearing on the assistant referee flagging for offences. The first one says that ‘assistant referees are to indicate when misconduct or any other incident occurs out of the view of the referee’. This refers to any incident on or off the field of play that the referee should know about. This may not necessitate flagging at the top level, as the four officials are linked by a mike system and can talk to one another at any time. Lower down the leagues, the flag handles may have electronic buttons that send a signal to the referee alerting them to any incidents that are happening. The next duty, which is directly relevant to the Manchester United penalty, says, ‘assistant referees are to indicate when offences have been committed whenever the assistant referee has a better view that the referee (this includes, in certain circumstances, offences committed in the penalty area)’. Normally, in refereeing parlance we talk about the ‘area of credibility’. In other words, where is it on the field of play that the assistant referee might have the best view? The referee runs, albeit very loosely, a diagonal system, so this credibility area will start with the nearest goalpost to the assistant referee and then runs across to his touch line just beyond the half way line, an elongated right angled triangle. In all other areas, the referee or his colleague on the other line will be closer and therefore have the better view. It would obviously lack credibility if an assistant referee flagged for fouls that took place on the other side of the pitch. Although these duties are laid down in the Laws of the Game, most referees have their own slant on them. For example, I have often been asked when lining to wait a second or two after an offence before raising the flag, ‘let me have the first chance’ the referee will say. This should prevent situations where the assistant is standing there with his flag raised whilst the referee is waiving play on. Also, some referees plead that you are 110 per cent certain before flagging for penalty offences. I must emphasise that we are talking about qualified neutral assistant referees who are appointed by the competition and not club assistant referees who are appointed by the individual clubs. The assistant referees on the Premier League and the Championship will not only have considerable experience and training in running the line, they will also have refereed themselves for many years on lower professional and semi-professional leagues. It is only right that their experience is put to good use. Another query has been about when the referee can change his mind after having made a decision. This is covered quite explicitly in the laws. ‘The referee may only change a decision on realising that it is incorrect, or at his discretion, on the advice of an assistant referee or the fourth official, provided that he has not restarted play or terminated the match’. It can be seen that the referee can, if he wishes, the decision is his, take the advice from his assistant referee who is better placed, but there may be occasions when he will wish he hadn’t.

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