Referees gave ‘significantly more cards to away players’ in front of crowds than during the pandemic


Referees gave ‘significantly more cards to away players’ in front of crowds than they did during the pandemic, according to a study which could change the way football is officiated

  • Referees gave ‘significantly more cards’ to away players in front of full crowds 
  • The pandemic offered a chance to look at home advantage in football games 
  • A scientific study found that lower league referees were more swayed by fans 
  • League One and Two officials do not get the same support as top-flight referees 

Referees gave significantly more cards to away players in front of crowds, according to a scientific study of England’s professional leagues.

The issue appeared to be more prevalent at League One and League Two level, likely due to a number of other factors impacting on Premier League referees.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, matches were played behind closed doors for the first time, offering a unique opportunity to look at the influence of home crowds on match officials.

Experts compared the actions of the person in the middle during matches with a crowd against those without an attendance.

There was no home advantage in cards awarded by referees in the top four divisions during 2020-21, but referees awarded significantly more cards to visiting players when adjudicating in the previous ten seasons with a full crowd, up to and including the 2019-20 campaign.

Project lead Alan Nevill at the University of Wolverhampton worked with experts on officials in sport, Dr Tom Webb and Alastair Pearson from the University of Portsmouth, for the study, which was published in the Journal of Global Sport Management.

Dr Webb, who formed the Referee and Match Officials Research Network, told Alpha Galileo: ‘Our findings provide powerful evidence that home crowds can manipulate all but the very best referees to be their twelfth man.’

A scientific study found that referees gave more cards to away players in front of full crowds

Behind closed doors games in the pandemic offered an opportunity to study home advantage

Behind closed doors games in the pandemic offered an opportunity to study home advantage

Alan Nevill from the University of Wolverhampton, added: ‘Our study provides overwhelming evidence that crowds are able to manipulate professional referees to award significantly more red and yellow cards to away players (compared to home players), an effect that disappears when crowds are absent.’

The study was called: ‘No crowds, no home advantage in football during the COVID-19 season: Are crowds able to manipulate all but the best referees’ behaviour?’ Whilst they admit that it may seem an ‘obvious question’, their findings could influence the training of future referees at all levels.

Premier League officials appear to be less affected by fans than those in lower divisions – although this could be because they are given help from psychologists, and also have VAR and goal-line technology to aid decision making.

Alastair Pearson from the University of Portsmouth said: ‘It’s clear that there needs to be more advanced and effective training provision for referees that operate outside the Premier League.’

He advises training and guidance to deal with the issue of home advantage, and how to shut out hostile crowds when making crucial decisions in games. He also calls for more financial and psychological support for referees in League 1 and League 2.

League One and League Two officials were found to be more swayed by a hostile crowd

League One and League Two officials were found to be more swayed by a hostile crowd

Premier League referees have the benefit of psychological guidance, as well as tech like VAR

Premier League referees have the benefit of psychological guidance, as well as tech like VAR

‘There should be a wider and more structured mentoring programme for referees at lower levels to engage with more experienced officials and placement at matches in higher leagues as part of their development process,’ Pearson added.

Referees have been crucial at shepherding the game of football since its early days, although the role of match officials has changed significantly over the years. There will be hope that experiences for referees, players and fans alike will improve as a result of studies like this one.

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