The problem for Howard Webb is clear and all too obvious: referees are making too many errors on his watch. He has to get a grip on this. He has to prove he not just has the will but the ability to do it. Otherwise he is part of the problem.
Webb, the chief refereeing officer, is generally regarded as a force for good and a reformer but he is overseeing a failing organisation. And when you are in charge the buck stops with you. No matter how long you have been with an organisation. That is what leadership and accountability means.
Mike Riley, Webb’s predecessor at the PGMOL, might allow himself a wry smile at this point given one of the reasons he was forced out was because the Premier League clubs were making too many complaints about what was happening under his watch.
But Riley needed to go and Webb’s remit is to try to improve the regime he has inherited. That clearly takes time. But in the meantime it is unacceptable for credibility and image to be eroded as much as it has done. Integrity is now in question and when that happens the game is in danger of collapsing.
It is remarkable that the self-styled best league in the world, and certainly the richest, the Premier League, has allowed a situation where its officials are the subject of ridicule and the charge of incompetence.
That is a strong word but it is undeniable after the failure to allow Luis Diaz’s ‘goal’ at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium which has led to the biggest crisis refereeing has ever faced in this country. Credibility is shot. Faith is gone and the Premier League will be panicking that the ‘product’ will suffer.
It is remarkable that there are simply not enough officials who can be regarded as part of the elite. After Michael Oliver and Anthony Taylor it is genuinely a struggle. So Webb should do what any Premier League club would do in that situation – if there is not enough homegrown talent he should go and import it from abroad. The Premier League has the money.
Instead we are stumbling on with sub-standard officials who give the impression that it is jobs for the boys – an impression that former referee Mike Dean failed to dispel when he recently admitted he avoided making a Var call because he wanted to spare the official, his mate Taylor, “more grief”.
It seems to be the culture – even the language they use when the audio of Var decisions is sometimes released is far too pally and imprecise – and it has to end. It will take time for Webb to train up officials to the required level but there is no point soldiering on with those who are simply not up to. Not if Webb himself wants to prove he can do the job. There is too much at stake.
So wholesale changes have to be made. Referees have to be retrained, if they are capable of improving, or, as would appear more likely, replaced. Sport is ruthless and that means it must be at every level, especially out on the pitch. It extends to referees and not just players.
Trust is hard earned and easily lost. Webb is heading an organisation which is suffering badly from a lack of trust. He has tried to address this having talked about improved communication and accountability and while this is a step in the right direction, and presumably part of a step-by-step plan, it does not go far enough.
‘It is an embarrassment for the Premier League’
Change needs to be accelerated. Webb will presumably go through the failure in the Diaz decision in the forthcoming episode of Match Officials Mic’d Up – where he faces ‘soft’ questions from Michael Owen – but the danger is he will only end up aggravating fans even more.
It is not about PR, it is about competence. The PGMOL can trot out statistics about how high the percentage of right decisions are but the high-profile mistakes, from the failure to allow Diaz’s goal to the refusal to award Wolverhampton Wanderers a penalty against Manchester United in the opening weekend of the season, overwhelm all of that.
It is frankly an embarrassment for the Premier League. The failure to get to grips with Var, to implement a workable system, to have enough specialists who can even actually competently use the technology, is inexcusable.
Webb has done a good job so far in giving the impression that he will reform and improve things and there has to be faith that he can. But what happened at Tottenham must be the tipping point for a far more radical, accelerated level of change. Otherwise Webb becomes part of the problem and not the solution we hoped he would be.
It is not about technology. It is about having better officials and it is up to their boss to find them and sort that out.