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Shedding light on the refs' 'howlers'

While I cannot profess to know just how the Barclays Premier League title race will pan out over the next six weeks, I can assure you of one thing: there will be contentious refereeing decisions in games involving the Manchester clubs and those decisions will be debated at length on your TV screens.

I can also assure you that our on-air discussions will also be as professional and balanced as they could possibly be. While your own team allegiances may mean you might not agree with our experts, I can at least be confident that those experts will be making their judgements based on the best available evidence thanks to a dimension we have added to our broadcasts this season.

We call that dimension 'Dermot' -- Dermot Gallagher to be precise. The former Premier League referee is someone who occasionally pops up in front of our cameras but who clocks in for work every weekend in a behind-the-scenes role.

Dermot sits in our production gallery and watches the games with us. He explains the thinking behind referees’ decisions, he gives his own take on what he might have done in certain circumstances and, as I said earlier, he sometimes puts his jacket and tie on to so he can speak directly to our viewers.

Every Matchday he can be found in our studio going over incidents with Andy Townsend and our pundits, often challenging and sometimes changing their opinions on incidents. By the time we discuss incidents at half- or fulltime, we are at least able to explain why a referee took a certain decision, even if we ultimately conclude that human error has occurred.

Personally speaking, I feel it has brought a new dimension to our studio work and it has also impacted on the way I watch games. When Michael Carrick knocked Danny Murphy’s foot onto the ball in the Old Trafford penalty box two Mondays ago, for instance, I yelled “penalty” but also recognised why Michael Oliver didn’t point to the spot.

Thanks to Dermot, I know that refs are trained to look for the movement of the ball (in this case, a marked change of direction) when it comes to assessing challenges. Replays subsequently proved me right on both counts and meant our post-match discussion wasn’t spent asking for “someone to come out and explain that decision”.

Dermot is there for us because of a smart decision taken by the Premier League and Mike Riley, who heads up the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the organisation responsible for referees in this country. Season in, season out, both bodies have found themselves pestered by journalists and broadcasters asking for clarification of refereeing decisions, preferably as soon as games have ended.

To be fair, the pestering has been justified. Unlike rugby referees who are “wired up”, football referees do not broadcast their decisions (or their discussions with assistants) to the world for fear that footballers’ propensity for foul language might turn the airwaves blue. There was a time when referees gave the occasional post-match interview but the PGMOL and Premier League refuse to entertain any suggestion that the policy be reinstated.

Frankly speaking, something had to change in the media-referee relationship. We had arrived a point where the pundits and public sat on one side of the fence and the men and women in black were hidden away on the other side. From a broadcasting perspective, any discussion of refereeing was more diatribe than dialogue.

That is changing. Referees are spending more time at clubs’ training grounds, sharing technical data, explaining rule changes and trying to nurture a little mutual respect. The Premier League/PGMOL has also been more proactive of late when it comes to addressing refereeing issues.

Goal-line technology will be implemented as soon as possible and I also welcome the league’s recent willingness to share technical data relating to the performance of officials. Earlier this season, it issued the following release detailing the work of assistant referees:

“Last season’s ProZone data shows they got over 99 per cent of offsides right, up six per cent over last two seasons. ProZone analysed over 12 000 offside decisions in the 2010-2011 Premier League for that 99 per cent figure. ProZone is better than TV replay.’’

One could, of course, choose to read that as an admission that linesmen and women get one per cent of decisions wrong. Now those mistakes might be made for any number of reasons: bad positioning, an inability to keep up with lightning pace of the modern player, simulation by the same modern player, or even bright sunshine (thanks to Dermot’s contribution this past weekend, I now know England’s officials are not allowed to wear caps).

Fans (and clubs/players) will always believe officials give decisions against them. That will never change and, to be honest, the debate over bias is probably a part of the game that they would miss if it went away.

That’s a debate for the pub, the living room, the football ground. As far as the debate in the TV studio goes, I would gladly settle for a little more insight and empathy like that brought to us each week by Dermot.

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