Monday, December 10, 2018

The Clive Penton Interview

A bit of a departure from our usual interviews sees us talk to one of the Football Leagues most senior officials, Clive Penton.

In a time when referee's are never far from controversy we thought it would be interesting to see exactly how he feels about modern refereeing, what it's like to make decisions in front of a passionate crowd and whether refereeing standards are as bad as we sometimes think. We'd like to thank Clive for being so open and welcoming and also to Jim Ashworth at the Football League for organising this interview. Refereeing must be a thankless job, what makes someone want to put themselves through it?

CP: I started off twenty odd years ago, I played football at a local level and as I was coming to the end of my playing days my Dad asked me what I was going to do next. He was friends with a local referee and we got talking, he suggested I had a go at refereeing. To be honest my first reaction was there’s no way I’m doing that! Eventually though he called me up and asked me if I wanted to do a game one Saturday morning so I thought I’d have a go. As it happens I really enjoyed it so I did a few more and it all progressed from there.

It’s just nice to stay in the game, I’m in my forties now so there’s no way I could still be playing but I’m a football fanatic, I always have been, my boys both play and the wife is a fan as well so it’s great to be involved. How did you progress to the position you’re in now and how long did it take?

CP: I started refereeing in 1986 and this is my fourth season in the football league as a referee and I did four years as a linesman before that, so in total it took nearly fifteen years to become a fully fledged football league referee. Every year we hear of new rules and changes to existing rules for the coming season and that always seems to create a lot of confusion amongst the fans and the media. Do you think these things could be communicated better?

CP: I know in the past that the TV and media people have been offered, as a service from us, the sort of explanations we give clubs each season but I don’t think they really want to know; perhaps it would take away from the controversy too much.

I understand what you mean though, perhaps if fans were all fully aware of these changes then it might make our lives a little easier during games and we might get less stick during a match. That might be true, but at the end of the day the majority of the laws of the game as written as being “in the opinion of the official” so what you think is a terrific challenge I might see as being clumsy and vice versa. During a match we have to instantly decide what is a good challenge, what is a clumsy challenge and therefore merits a free kick, was it reckless and worthy of a yellow card etc and all of these things are a matter of opinion so it’s always going to be difficult for everyone to agree with everything we do. Certainly with the hard and fast rule changes then I think it would be a good idea but it’s something for the FA and the media to deal with. So if we take as an example the offside rule changes over the last couple of years, there’s so much confusion now and nobody seems to understand them fully anymore. Do you ever find yourself thinking “this is just ridiculous” when you’re enforcing them?

CP: All FIFA have tried to do over the years is make football more entertaining and create more goals. It’s very easy for people to say that it was better in the old days with the clear cut offside decisions and it would be great for us to change back, our jobs would be much easier, but the amount of goals being scored would drop tremendously and goal scoring is what football is all about. If we did go backwards I’m pretty sure fans would want to change things back again pretty quickly after a succession of boring 1-0’s I’m sure this must have happened to you, you blow the final whistle and end up walking off protected by stewards to a chorus of boos from both sets of fans and you’ve got both managers screaming at you. What exactly goes through your mind?

CP: There’s those initial few seconds when you realise what’s going on but once you’re down the tunnel it’s all over and you’ve got to move on really. Whenever my friends ask me what’s it like being a referee I get them to have a go, only at a local level or with their kids on a Sunday or something, but every time they come back and say they’ll never do it again.

We have all the same pressures as any official at any level but we’re in front of thousands of people and with much more at stake. It can be very intimidating sometimes and I don’t think people realise the amount of pressure we’re under when we go out there, it’s immense and the further up the ladder you go the harder it gets, the guys in the Premier League for example are under even more pressure than us.

I don’t go out there to ruin a game of football my job is to apply the laws of the game, there are rules that people don’t like but that’s my job and I try my best to get everything right. There’s always going to be an element of human error and we’re always going to get things like the odd throw-in decision wrong but I try to make sure I always get the major decisions right. If you give a throw-in the wrong way on the half way line is that really as crucial as giving or not giving a penalty? You have to try and weigh it up, you’re always going to make mistakes but hopefully they will have fairly minimal impact on the game. Most fans you ask would say standards of refereeing have deteriorated in recent years. Why do you think people feel this way?

CP: It’s down to the exposure the game gets in the media, I can remember when Match of the Day had one camera on the half way line, if there was a dispute at the end of the pitch you couldn’t tell if the referee had made the right decision or not. Nowadays there are cameras everywhere and incidents are re-run so many times that you have nowhere to hide.

There’s no way a human being can have eyes like ten sets of cameras. I could sit in a TV studio and watch an incident ten times then decide what was the right decision to make but you try putting someone on the spot about it. You hear pundits change their mind all the time once they’ve seen a replay over and over again, but we get one shot at it, with one pair of eyes.

We run on average twelve kilometres a game and have to make a decision one way or another every thirty seconds. Add to that the fact your heart rate is really high, the intimidation of the crowd and the media pressure to get everything right and you can start to see how difficult it can be. You have to be totally focused and cut everything out around you, you hear the booing and the shouting but you have to cut it out and concentrate on the game. What is the process for reviewing games, do you watch tapes of each game you have officiated or do you forget it and move on to the next one?

CP: We’re entitled to a copy of every game on video and personally I always ask for it. I don’t always watch the whole ninety minutes but I’ll pick out anything key that people have complained about or if there’s something I wanted to clarify for myself. Say for example if there’s a game with no cautions then all of a sudden you give five in a ten minute spell, then I’ll go back and watch that bit to see if it’s anything to do with me or just the tempo of the game changing. I look at key decisions and study my positions, could I have been wider? Should I have been infield more? Were there players in front of me blocking my way? I find it useful to analyse these sorts of areas and try to learn and improve for next time.

When a player comes off the pitch they can be pretty sure whether they’ve had a good game or a bad game, I can come off and it might not be until I watch the video that I realise I’ve missed something or I know for sure that I got something exactly right. I imagine it’s important to gain the players’ respect, what ways do referees do this?

CP: It is very important and, to be fair, most players are fine, I talk to the players throughout the game and most referees do. You might not see it from the stands but there is constant communication going on and that’s a very big part of the game. If a player says to you that you got a decision wrong, it should be their throw-in etc, then more often than not they respect you more if you say “you might be right but let’s move on.” If you try to belittle players and always insist you are right then you can lose their respect. The most important thing is just to be honest, if in the cold light of day I’ve made a mistake I’ll put my hands up and apologise. One of the best referees of recent times has been the former player Steve Baines, do you believe there should be more ex pros as referees and why do you think so few go through with it?

CP: If you turn that round on its head and asked the players how many of them  would like to go into refereeing when they retire I bet not many would say yes, if any! Everybody thinks ex players will make better referees but I’m not so sure, once you step onto the pitch then you’re no longer a footballer and the players there will see you just as the ref not an old mate. Someone like Steve Baines might have had a good rapport with the players because he knew them, but that just all goes back to man management and personally I don’t believe you have to have played the game professionally to achieve that level of respect. Pierluigi Collina is held up as an example of how to referee, why do you think fans and the media hold him in such high esteem?

CP: Well I think he’s a very good referee first and foremost but what helps him is he commands so much respect. It is very rare that you’ll see a decision of his questioned by the players because over the years he’s built up that level of respect. It’s like with players, there’s plenty that play the game but they can’t all be as good as David Beckham, in refereeing terms there’s always going to be someone who stands out from everyone else and he is that person. When you watch him he’s so calm, he has that aura about him and the players respect him worldwide. Anders Frisk recently quit refereeing because of the abuse he received after the Chelsea game, have you ever felt that frustrated with the game?

CP: Obviously as an international referee the pressures he’s under are really immense and I’ve not experienced that sort of level but if things get to the stage where your family are being involved then I think that’s just clearly wrong. None of us go out there to ruin the game we just try our best to do an honest job. If someone loses because of one bad decision we make then you have to hold your hands up, but it’s over, you can’t change it and you have to pick yourself up, get out there and try to do better next time. You always hear of the referee’s assessor in the crowd, can you explain that process to us, what happens with his report on your performance?

CP: Well we get assessed every game and the guy watching will file a report on our performance. That goes to the Football League and we get a copy as well. It’s categorised into different sections on one side and the back is a full written report about how you handled the game, any plus points about your performance and any areas you need to improve in.

Anyone who thinks nothing happens with the assessors’ reports is wrong, they file it with the Football League and if we do something wrong then believe me we get pulled up on it. If the same problem happens too often then our superiors will start asking serious questions. Refereeing is very competitive, if I don’t perform there’s plenty below me who want to take my place! Where do you stand on TV replays? Are you happy if it’s something that will help you do your job better or do you want to retain full control of the game?

CP: I think for goal line replays it can only be a good thing, whether or not the ball crossed the line is one of the most crucial decisions you might have to make in a game, and often, in a crowded penalty area, it’s the hardest as well.

For other areas of the game I’m not so sure, if you have another official sitting in the stands to help you with decisions, will it really improve things? How many times do you see pundits on TV watching the same clip over and over and trying to decide if a foul took place in the area or just outside? So just having a TV replay doesn’t mean the right decision will be made. At the end of the day so many decisions are down to the official’s opinion that having someone else there watching it isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem.

That said if you told me that we could have every decision clarified through a video replay then I’m going to say great, because as a referee I want every decision to be exactly right. The downside of that of course would be the game would last four or five hours. Also referees have their careers on the line at times so if you give them the option to refer the decision to a guy sitting in the stands with a TV screen then they’re going to take it every time! The attitude from refs is likely to be that if they’re not sure then why should they risk their reputation when there’s a guy sitting up there who can decide for them. I think you see that in Rugby League where almost every try decision is sent off to the video referee. I’m sure it might be good for us and make our lives easier but I don’t think it would help the game in the long run.

Also do you only have this technology in the Premier League and some of the football league clubs? They’re the only ones that are likely to be able to afford it. What about the Conference clubs, the Ryman League, the Dr Martins Leagues etc? Will it be fair if they couldn’t have the same advantages just because they couldn’t afford it?

I understand the debate because at the end of the day we have to get the decisions correct but would technology improve that? I think it would in principle but to the detriment of the game.

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