The role of the UEFA referee observer

Ray Ellingham, elite referee coach, fitness expert & referee developmental officer at the Football Association of Wales has kindly agreed to walk us through the UEFA referee observer role during an International appointment.

Ray is a member of the technical sub-committee at IFAB (those people who refine the LOTG every year) and is also a highly respected UEFA referee observer. On a personal level, Ray is one of the nicest people you can meet, a keen runner with a wonderful outlook on life and a very cheerful disposition. As an ex FIFA referee himself, he understands the problems and pressures faced by our current FIFA referees and is someone who sees his role as an observer not as an opportunity to just be critical but as a vital learning tool for the referees. “Learn and enjoy” is his motto. That doesn’t just apply to his referees, that applies to everyone in football, Ray is always willing to talk to you and explain the intricacies of the Laws of the Game for example or talk to you about refereeing in general, with the aim to help you understand their role, their dedication and perhaps leave you appreciating and respecting them a bit more than you did before. I will add that Ray is very humble and modest about the positive role that he plays in all of his different roles within refereeing.

Often the referees are a bit fearful when they first meet the observer, especially the younger referees who want to work their way up to the elite category, he is the man who in many ways can make or break them. Consistent high merit marks are vital for any referee wishing to progress up the ladder and Ray is the kind of observer who goes out of his way to put the referee at ease before the game, he says “There is nothing worse than a referee going on a pitch and worrying: ‘Where’s the observer’?”. He wants and needs them to relax, he wants to watch them at their best, a referee worrying about marks is more likely to make mistakes because their focus is on worrying about making a mistake, which always invariably leads to silly and unnecessary errors, that the referee would not make if he was relaxed and confident prior to the game. The very best referees are the ones who never stop learning and trying to improve and this is a quality that UEFA look for in their referees.

Recently Ray was the designated UEFA referee observer in the game between Mol-Vidi v PFC Ludogorets in the Champions League 2nd Qualifying Round 2nd leg and was assessing match referee Manuel Schüttengraber, from Austria.

Please note: This article will not contain any transcript of the confidential conversations, referee mark or observations made by Ray during the match but is designed to demonstrate how much preparation goes into a game on the part of the match officials and the extended match officials’ team for both interest and education purposes.

First of all, Ray, could you please tell us a bit about all of the different roles involved with the referee team during these appointments, how they differ and what their role plays in the referee’s match day and development

The Referee Liaison Officer (RLO): Berettyán Péter

The RLO is provided by the host nation. His job is to look after the team of match officials and the referee observer from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave. The RLO must not have any affiliation with the host club and must have a background in refereeing with the home Nation Federation. We had Berettyán Péter as the RLO for this game. He is currently a FIFA listed assistant referee on the NB1 and is part of Vad István’s regular European match officials’ team. He is therefore a good choice for the role as he understands first-hand the pressures of travelling to a different country to officiate in a football match.

The good RLO, which most of them are, will send an email to myself as the match observer and to the match officials just to introduce themselves. They will double check that everyone has the correct flight times and although we know what hotel we will be staying at they are likely to include a bit of information, distance/travel time from the airport and the ground for example, and just a bit of general information. They often include a photo of themselves to help us identify them when we arrive.

When we arrive at the airport we are normally met by the RLO, or maybe a 2nd RLO will help out. It might be that I arrive when the match officials are already at the ground training so the RLO would be with them and sometimes flights can be delayed or cancelled which throws the schedules out a bit. This time the match officials original flight was cancelled so the schedule was thrown out straight away! As it disrupted who was arriving when, Péter was assisted at times by Németh Ádám, who is also an RLO in Hungary. The RLO will have identified a suitable local restaurant for dinner, where he knows that the team will not receive any harassment for being who they are basically.

The RLO will remain on hand to the referee team from the moment they arrive until they leave. Aside of the travelling to the and from the ground, he is the ‘go to’ person. If time permits he might arrange some sightseeing for example although this does not happen as much as it used to. Things are run much more professionally than in the past and trips abroad for a match are no longer treated like a mini holiday!

UEFA’s preference is for the same person to act as the Referee Liaison Officer for all the matches played by a club during the season to ensure continuity and the development of experience and knowledge.


The UEFA Match Delegate: Gordon Pate

In non-playing terms, the delegate is the main man really, he is the UEFA representative at a game. His role is mostly off the field stuff, post-match they have very little to do other than to submit their report to UEFA. Their main work is prior to and during the game. They will head up the pre-match security meeting and ensure that the stadium is fully prepared and fit for purpose. If something were to happen during the game, a major incident with the crowd or even a weather issue like a tornado, lightning or even something as simple as the floodlights failing, that may require a crisis meeting to have to take place during the game, they will be in charge of that and ultimately, they will make the decision whether or not the game continues or is abandoned.

Immediately ahead of and during the game, he’ll tend to have a camera or iPad or similar and if there are pyrotechnics or any abusive banners then he will take photos. They might speak to stadium security to have them removed but sometimes there are just too many to make this practically possible, so a careful record would be kept for the report. There is a department at UEFA that deals with these sorts of things and they will send the match delegate a document with images of all the different logos of for example white supremacy groups/black supremacy groups/terrorist organisations and whatever other symbols of hate exist. There will be an interpreter available to the delegate to establish what any written banners are saying to ensure they are not hate speech. The department at UEFA will also include any history from either club, regarding hate speech banners, pyrotechnics, crowd trouble/violence etc to help them out on the day. It is all part of being prepared to deal with any eventuality that the match day may bring. For some games UEFA will also send a security officer who will take a lot of the pressure off of the delegate in this respect, for this game it wasn’t needed as neither club has a bad history. If a club has a history of the fans using pyrotechnics or causing problems, then a security officer will always be appointed to assist the match delegate.

The UEFA referee Observer: Ray Ellingham

My main role is to assess the performance of the match officials. In many ways it is no different to acting as an assessor/observer/inspector in a domestic football league. One main difference is that it is a 3-day appointment and abroad somewhere as opposed to an afternoon or evening in your local league. As a UEFA observer we also adopt more of a coaching and mentoring role perhaps, than domestic assessors. We can spend the best part of 3 days with the match officials and will use that time to check up on their welfare, discuss the forthcoming game with them and provide any support they need.

The dinner the night before the match is interesting, if you have not met the team of officials before then it is an opportunity to observe them. You would look for things like ‘are they a team?’, do all members of the team speak English to the required level, sometimes you will find that assistants in particular will remain very quiet during the meal purely because their English is not of a high enough standard. To be honest as long as the assistants have a fairly good vocabulary then it’s enough, it is far more important that the referee and 4th official have a good command of English. The 4th official is the one who will attend any meetings on behalf of the referee team, so he needs to be able to speak English well enough to understand what is said at the meetings and relay that back to the rest of the team.

(Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Most people are of the belief that a referee’s involvement begins with the first whistle and ends at the final whistle, and football does not enter their head again until the next game, which of course we know not to be true! For these types of matches, the referee team will receive their appointment some 10-14 days before hand. Can you please tell us a bit about what goes on between them receiving the appointment and match day?

In terms of the team of match officials I would expect them to watch at least one game from each team to familiarise themselves with their patterns and style of play and identify their key players. At the very least they should watch highlights of each team’s games for this same purpose. As this was a 2nd leg match it made sense to watch the 1st leg match as it can also highlight any incidents from the first game that could be carried over to the return leg. Something like a bad tackle that caused a serious injury, there is always the potential for some form of ‘revenge’ to occur. Personally, I won’t watch the previous game, but I will familiarise myself with the teams and I will know the numbers from the first game – fouls, cautions, red cards etc. Good preparation is so important. Manuel had an excellent knowledge from the 1st game, he had clearly watched it and studied what had happened. He knew the number of fouls, cautions, corners and had certainly prepared well. Other than preparation I would expect them to speak with their team members, ensure that all of the team are aware of the travel arrangements for example, but they are likely to also have domestic games in the meantime, so they would have to focus on those as well.

The observer arrives the day before the match, along with the team of officials. Please talk us through the day.

UEFA will try to coordinate the various flights so that everyone arrives at a similar time. This of course is not always possible as match officials will be coming from one country, the observer from another and the delegate from a 3rd country. If necessary, as mentioned above, they will have a 2nd RLO available for airport collection so we do not end up sitting around an airport for hours waiting for the others to arrive. The RLO will take us straight to the hotel and get us booked in and shown to our room. Once you are at the hotel you remain quite tucked up, we will have dinner with the RLO and match officials and then get an early night.

The match officials ordinarily have a chance to train at the ground that the fixture is taking place in, when and how is this facilitated?

The match officials will train at the ground during the afternoon/evening before the match. I do get the option to attend with them and watch them train or even train with them, but I tend not to. My philosophy is really to leave the referee alone as much as possible, everything revolves around the referee, he decides for example what time we will all eat. It is his match preparation, I am there to support him, not to interfere or disrupt it. The last thing that I want is for the referee to feel additional pressure because he feels like I am monitoring his every move. I am there to help and observe if the referee needs something from me then he will say so.

What is the typical routine for yourself and the officials on match day?

First thing you will have breakfast with the match officials and RLO. This will tend to be pretty informal. At around 10am you arrive at the stadium, that will be the match delegate, myself as the observer and the 4th official, along with the RLO. The referee and assistants will remain at the hotel. It is up to them how they spend that time. They might go for a swim or a light run, or they might just remain in their room, read a book, watch a bit of TV and rest. Those of us at the stadium will walk the pitch, check the dressing rooms, just to make sure everything is fine. We’ll do things like check the dressing rooms, match balls and the pitch markings although they get redone ahead of kick off anyway. 10.30am we will have the security meeting and the match delegate is in charge of that. It can often be the first time that you have any real contact with them. At the meeting there will be representatives from both teams, fire brigade, ambulance, police, stadium security, any required interpreters etc. Any issues regarding the ground, potential crowd issues would be discussed but myself and the 4th official only stay for the first 10 minutes or so. Our primary reason for being there is kit colours and there can be several issues with those! On this occasion they were fine. After we leave the match delegate will discuss the generator at the ground, the procedure for if a crisis meeting is needed during the game, he will remind everyone about things like racism, xenophobia, betting patterns etc. If the doping people have attended they might come into the meeting. You don’t normally know that they will be attending until about 1 hour before they arrive.

Do referees get tested as well as the players?

No not at the moment they don’t but that’s not to say that it won’t happen in the future. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did going forward and why not? I don’t think referees would have any objection to it if it was brought in at some stage.

As the observer I am unlikely to have any dealings with the doping person beyond a few pleasantries and we may be sat near each other during the game. After the meeting at the ground the RLO will take us back to the hotel. We will have lunch when the referee decides, and the rest of the afternoon will be spent at the hotel. Again, the referee may return to his room and rest, we might sit together and have a coffee and just relax. It will always fit with how the referee needs to prepare himself ahead of the game.

We normally arrive at the stadium about 90 minutes before kick-off. I reminded the team that it was 0-0 after the 1st leg and there was a chance that the game could go to extra time, and in that case a 4th substitute could be used. That had also been emphasised at the meeting in the morning. I’m the sort of observer that leaves the referee alone, when we arrived at the stadium I went into the dressing room with them, made sure they had towels, bottles of water and that sort of thing and then said to them that I was going to leave them alone. I told them I would be in the tunnel area if they needed me and that after they came in from their warm up that I would pop in and see them to wish them all the best ahead of kick off.

Team sheets are now set up ahead of the game on a system called TIME and we get an email about 75 minutes before kick-off with the team sheets. Every observer is different in how they record things in the game. Some people have their own shorthand, I have mine and record things like foul, number of corners against their name. I keep a careful record of fouls against the players name because then I can identify if there is a player or players who are committing a number of fouls and the potential for a yellow card for persistent offending.  On the referee’s page I will record things like one here I have that records “good counter attack position penalty area”, this means I had identified that he was aware for the potential for a counter attack and had positioned himself well if it came about. Some of how you note things down comes with experience, like say a caution, you know it is x team # player for a reckless foul, so instead of writing it instantly you pause and watch in case there is a flare up as a result of the caution and then write it. If you write it instantly you can miss a 22-man brawl starting because you had your head down writing notes.

We have no contact with the referee during half time. The only time you might is if it is a junior competition and it’s the referees 1st game, you might stick your head in and say well done, keep it going or something similar. At this level you simply don’t go in unless there is a major problem and you might need some clarification.

On this game the news broke about 30 minutes before kick-off that Collina had stood down as head of refereeing for UEFA. They asked me in the tunnel as they were going out for their warm up if it was true and I said yes, and we’d discuss it after the game but not to worry now, just focus on the game. It was a big thing for refereeing and most of us never saw it coming so understandably it was big news. That was it, they did their warm up as usual and got ready for the game to start.

After the game you make sure that everybody is off the pitch safely and you go down into the referee’s room. The data coordinator will be there in the early rounds and he’s the one who makes sure everything is recorded. Manuel had to work hard in the game, there were over 40 fouls, which is a lot, 11 cards which again is a lot. The 4th official is key after the game. He will have recorded the 6 substitutions (possibly 8 if the game goes into extra time), the cautions, the time of the goal and really, he is very important especially at this level of the game.

If the game has gone well and there’s only been a couple of cautions, it’s different to how you deal with a more difficult game. What I tend to do is, however the game goes, the first thing I always do is thank them for their services. One of the things I learned early on is the last thing that you want to do is say excellent well done because straight away the referee will be thinking I’ve had an excellent game and he’s told me that and is already thinking that means he will be getting a certain mark. That is unfair on him if he has made a lot of errors and your assessment will be reflecting that, so I have learned to just say thank you in the dressing room and then they have no potentially false preconceived expectations ahead of the debrief. We are now instructed that if we need to look at anything we must tell them straight after the game so if you need to look at a tackle, sending off, offside or whatever. These would be key match incidents that you might need to clarify, it might be the angle of view from my seat wasn’t good or my view was obstructed. I always say to the referee take your time, the RLO on the other hand is always wanting to get going, the restaurant might be closing at a certain time, so he wants to ensure we get to dinner on time!

We are reliant on either the TV company or the host club getting us a usb stick with the recording of the game or the match DVD, on this occasion they were fantastic, we had it from the TV channel M4, within 10 mins after the final whistle. I do think it is important for people to know that we don’t just look to see if the referee has got anything wrong, we will always look for anything that he has also done well, good positioning, good counter attack, good advantage etc. Once the observer is happy with all of the information at the stadium we would then go back to the hotel or maybe to a quiet restaurant and the debrief should always take place before the meal.

In the debrief if you have to show them incidents, then if you have time you will try to edit them and save them to your desk top, if not it will be a case of plugging in the usb stick or loading up the DVD and fast forwarding to any incidents that you want to go through with them. My opening line will always be along the lines of “I’m happy with tonight’s performance” or “there’s a couple of things we need to work on, but we’ll cover that”. I tend to work backwards, I’ll start with the AAR’s if we have them and then move onto the 4th official. If there were no AAR’s like in this game, then I start with the 4th official.

There may be situations where you’re sitting in the stand and you are a long way away from the pitch so you don’t really know what is going on, I had a game last year in the World Cup where I was sat so far from the pitch, as the national stadium has a running track and we were in row Z and they were like ants! I had no feel for the game whatsoever and I think it’s important that you get the referees side. If we do need to look at an incident you need to remember that all things look worse in slow motion and if you start looking at things 4, 5, 6 times is that really fair on the match referee? He gets a split second. Sometimes when there is only a team of 4 the best view of a tackle or something is that from behind the goal and the referee or assistant referee can never have that angle, so you have to take that into consideration. The debriefs are normally 20-25 minutes, no longer. They’ve just finished 90 minutes refereeing, they are already physically and mentally tired and the last thing they want is some bloke babbling on for 30 minutes or more.

One thing UEFA have been very good at over the past couple of years is that observers now have more of a coaching role, especially with the younger referees, it’s very easy to be the person sat in the stand and saying that foul in the 11th minute should have been a caution. That doesn’t really help the referee, now you would identify that and say to him explain to me why you didn’t caution for it, what are your reasons and you look at the big picture together, it might be his position was slightly off and he was unsighted so you would then look at that with him and say maybe look here in the 9th min there was a counter attack, your position was not set up quite right and you were slightly behind play this has led to you missing this incident. The advice you would end up giving him would be to do with his positioning as long as a couple of minutes before. We all have days where things don’t go quite right, and UEFA should be applauded for this view, there’s no point in hitting the official with a big stick (figuratively!) because if that is all you do then the stick no longer hurts. It’s about looking at a wrong decision to see what they could have done differently to prevent calling it wrong. It may be that the angle that I had of the incident from the stand prevented me seeing something, as long as they can credibly justify a decision to me then I am happy with their explanation. I might not agree but it will help me understand. What you say in the debrief has to correlate with what goes in the report, let’s say a simulation and on first view I am happy with that but then watch it again and decide I’m not and give him a 7.9. You can’t do that, you have to have the gumption to speak to him to his face.  The delegate and RLO are not privy to that conversation, it is purely the team of officials and myself.

After the debrief you go for the meal and during that you are going to discuss the game anyway as well as just general chit chat. That’s always a late night! Then you go back to the hotel and you may or may not see them the following morning before everyone heads back home.

The report will go into UEFA within 48 hours and then it gets validated, we have to wait for it to be validated. If UEFA don’t think that the written word correlates to the mark, they will send it back, if they think we have supported or not supported a decision and they disagree with that, they will send it back and ask us to look at it again, which we would do. It doesn’t happen often. Once validated the report will be sent to the referee’s national association so the report from this game will go to the Austrian FA and then they will send it onto the referee, although he can actually see it on his account on the UEFA system once it has been validated.

I feel extremely privileged and lucky to do what I do but it can be quite lonely being an observer. As a referee you will have your team and especially the longer serving referees the teams will be very close knit, as an observer there is just you, you are not part of the team. You travel alone and although you do have periods of involvement with the RLO and team of officials you can spend a lot of time by yourself, I like it though and enjoy what I do.

There are times when you don’t really appreciate the significance of what you do, it’s ‘just your job’ and that’s not to say I don’t appreciate what I do but someone might say to me, that law change you suggested is now law and perhaps be a bit in awe of that and I just shrug because it’s what I do. I’m no better than anyone else and I just try to do my best and try and encourage my referees to do their best. I do get invited back to various talks and coaching seminars, so I know I am doing something right, I think it’s because I try to make it fun, educational but fun as well. You have to enjoy it and be willing to listen and learn.

I also do a thing for UEFA called spotting. Twice a year they bring out the rap DVD and there is probably 200 clips on it from Champions League, Europa League and other International games. There are about 10 of us and what happens during the group stages only is that if you don’t have a game UEFA will ask you if you are available to watch a game on TV. So, if you then see something like a tackle that you think should have been a caution we can log in on our laptop where all the games are stored on their system and edit the clip and send it off to UEFA and it’s then up to them if they use them or not. There are a lot of positives included as well, good positioning, good team work, maybe a mass confrontation that the referee handled particularly well, a great advantage. I probably do about 10-15 games/year with that as well and each DVD that comes out you will recognise at least some of the clips you have recommended. That’s educational for the referees.

Thank you very much to Ray for a very open and informative interview and a great insight into what goes on during a UEFA appointment. I certainly learned a lot about how much goes into a single game. It’s a 3-day appointment for the match officials and observer and I think managers & players tend to forget that like them there is a lot of preparation, a lot of coaching, a lot of training for the referees as well. They don’t just turn up 5 minutes before kick-off and run around for 90 minutes trying to ‘ruin the game’ by giving a decision against your team, just like players they are dedicated hard working professionals. Thank you to all of the referees out there for the part they play in the game we all love.