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Why Swansea City ? : Getting inside the referee’s head
Monday, 8th Mar 2021 10:00 by Keith Haynes & Steph Thomas with Andrew Steiner

In the light of recent events we reproduce our article on bias in refereeing. Absolutely undeniable and backed up by professionals. This was written after the Bristol City away game earlier on this season. The facts though will always be the same. The likes of a ranting Warnock after Saturday, if he has the intelligence, should take note.

Yesterday’s match between Bristol City and Swansea City ended in real controversy as match official Oliver Langford took centre stage in a bizarre penalty award to the robins which snatched all three points from Steve Cooper’s swans. It’s easy to point the finger when these decisions are made, especially when they go against you, so let’s have a look at the psychology of the football referee and search for an answer.

A fairly recent study in to referees decision making and behaviour was endorsed by UEFA so closer comparisons to fairness and ability could be made. Quite simply, After UEFA had provided permission to collect data, the first author contacted the referees who gave informed consent to participate in the study. The interviews were conducted at the 23rd UEFA Advanced Course for Top Referees in February 2015 in Athens, Greece. All interviews were conducted in a quiet environment and under no time pressure. A verbal explanation of the study was given to each participant before the respective interviewee signed a declaration of informed consent in which it was pointed out that the participation is voluntary and that the shared information would remain anonymous unless explicit approval is given to cite certain passages of the inter- view verbatim by unravelling real names. Basically, English was the standard language for the interviews; however, as it was difficult for two referees to express themselves eloquently in English, these two interviews were held in German, which was spoken fluently by the interviewer as well. To increase consistency the first author of the interviews was also a referee.

The case study was released in 2017.


From the entire interview material, the data analysis resulted in 91 raw-data themes that were grouped into 22 lower-order themes and further structured into 7 higher-order themes, namely, (1) descriptive, (2) characteristics of a good elite referee, (3) difficulties in decision-making, (4) prematch preparation, (5) communication through headset, (6) decision-making, and (7) decision-making training. In the following, the number of quotes within a category will be indicated in parentheses. As each quote was counted only once per participant, the maximum number of quotes would be 23. German- held statements were translated into English by the first author, and all the quotes were grammatically emended if necessary.

Prematch preparation as a higher-order theme describes the explicit prearrangement of the referees on an upcoming game. It is subdivided into two categories: understanding the teams and referees’ team.

Understanding the teams

This category refers to specific knowledge about the players and the teams that had been acquired in advance by pre-match preparation. In this regard, many participants brought up to by especially alerted by cer- tain players’ behaviours. “You need to know that number 7, for example, is always doing this. Or Number 2 is always trying to grab one player or to hold or to push. So it’s a lot about preparation, studying the players” Besides the players’ behaviour, pre-match preparation also aims on becoming aware of the team tactics: “We try to study the teams, the way they make the corner kicks, the goal kicks, the free kicks. There is a lot of work that referees do just before the match”

Referees’ team

Also, the preparation of the referees’ own team is a vital aspect of a good pre-match preparation. Hence, many participants underlined the importance of an intensive group discussion a few hours before an upcoming game. “We talked about the teams, we talked about the strategies of the teams. One match for example: Maybe teams on top in the league or on bottom means different strategies. They have to win or the draw is enough for them. And it means they will play different” As well, some referees like to work with their assistants over the week for the sake of an optimal pre-match preparation “When we were watching the Super Cup Final, I was in my WhatsApp Messenger group which I have with my team of six members holding this. We commented the game, we commented situations: Why did this happen, why did that happen? So this is like preparation.

Decision-making training

The last higher-order theme refers to the training of the decision-making process. It is sectioned in five lower-order themes: training in game set-ups, video-based training, desirable tools, mental practice, and visual training. Lets look at a few of these.

Training in game set-ups

It is often tried to increase the quality of decision-making by training in game set-ups. In this exercising approach, young football players create different scenes (like foul situations near the penalty area, offside situations) and the referee or the referee team is supposed to judge them. Many participants reported to do those kinds of practical exercises, however, in total, no more than about twice per season: “It’s very strange for me because in England, maybe two times in one season we would train with players” Instead, the referees mainly improve their decision-making skills during actual matches: “I do not train decision-making skills apart from the actual match” Just a few participants try to improve their decision-making skills together with their referee teams “I’m sure that it is necessary. We check with the pictures and we check with the clips, but the most important thing if you want to improve is practice, practising of the situation as a team performance. “When we do the visual test, they give us good kinds of exercises. So even if you are sitting at a traffic light you are able to think wider than just here, just between your brain and your eyes. To be able to think much further, just looking at you I can see what’s going on here or what’s going on there.

Understanding bias

Swansea Independent is lucky to have at hand a very well versed practitioner in psychology and understanding the impact of situations on your decision making. In recent years we have all heard about bias, unconscious bias and it’s affects on the human mind.

Steve Cooper confronts Langford post match yesterday

So, what is unconscious bias?

Bias is a prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institution and can have negative or positive consequences.

There are differing types of biases
Conscious bias (also known as explicit bias) and
Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias)

It is important to note that biases, conscious or unconscious, are not limited to ethnicity and race. Though racial bias and discrimination are well documented, biases may exist toward any social group. One’s age, gender, gender identity physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, weight, and many other characteristics are subject to bias.

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organise social worlds by categorising.

Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.

So think about the referee and their mindset, as we have read referee teams will talk pre match, often days before the game, they talk about players, behaviours and their expectations. This is indisputable, it’s in the study in this article. The problem here is there will almost certainly be a pre match expectation on the officials based on what they know and what they have previously experienced. Indeed, what they have discussed. It’s obvious to anyone that already the bias against individuals, players or managers has started. Vinny Jones when playing for Wimbledon comes in to a referee’s conscience as a hard player but also nasty at times, confrontational and uncooperative. Will the referee treat him the same as Harry Kane as an example, or if they were privileged to officiate him, Pele ? It’s impossible for them to be treated the same, therefore bias once again raises its head. In yesterday’s game Oliver Langford officiated well during the first half. So what went wrong for him and / or his officials at halftime ? Obviously comments are made by each sides coaching and managerial staff as the players leave the pitch, did this inspire Langford to change his approach ? I’m sure in some referee’s minds that type of confrontation will cause mental impact issues. Then there’s the half time break where the officials all meet to discuss the game. In yesterday’s game nothing untoward had happened, no aggression other than natural competitiveness. By the end of the game half the Swansea side had been booked, Roberts, Smith, Fulton, Grimes and Ayew. Players who influence the swans moving forwards. The bookings do have a mental effect on players, shy to maybe put in another tackle for fear of being sent off, as an example. At no point did any of these tackles point to anything other than competitiveness or over use of verbal interaction. These decisions by Langford to book a lot of Swansea players changed the game. The swans dropped back more and testament to the back three, Bennett, Cabango and Guehi, none of them were booked or spoken to severely. So the whole midfield is under duress due to poor officiating which ended in the bizarre decision yesterday.

How could that have happened ?

For us here at Swansea Independent by the time Wells was gifted the home sides penalty the robins had succumbed to numerous injuries. Langford saw this of course, did he unconsciously become sympathetic to their plight ? An extremely technical display by the swans was seeing them through to the points before Langford made the penalty decision. It’s impossible for any person reviewing the penalty to say it was an infringement by Roberts, and of course the referee refusing to talk with Steve Cooper after the game displays an arrogance as well when all he required was an explanation. Whatever the reasons for Langford’s decision making during yesterday’s game neither manager was any the wiser for the game changing decision.

Robins boss Dean Holden was relieved and post match stated, I'd have been disappointed if (the penalty) was given against us I have to say but, having said that, we had a stonewall penalty on Tuesday night on Tyreeq Bakinson which wasn't given, and they do say it evens itself up. But I didn't expect it to even out four days later, I have to be honest."

So - do we really have to rely on "Things will even themselves out theory" when a referee makes an horrendous match changing decision for no apparent reason ?

Swans manager Steve Cooper commented post match The lads are really disappointed with a point because of the nature of the equaliser and the decision on the penalty. I thought it was a decent game to be fair. I liked our performance coming away from home and trying to be as positive as we were, committing bodies forward when we could. We got the breakthrough, a great finish from Jamal, and we looked really settled in the game.If anything, I thought we were going to win the game by another goal and see the game out."

You are allowed videos now on the bench so we are seeing it back straight away, hence we were so incensed on the decision," Cooper said.

"There's nothing you can do. I have tried to go and see the referee and he won't see me. I don't know why."

Wells scores from the spot yesterday
Referee Langford doesn't spot it should have been retaken.

What can we draw from the case study, psychological impact and bias ?

Referee Bias in Professional Football:
Favouritism Toward Successful Teams in Potential Penalty Situations

Past studies have indicated that multiple factors may influence sport referees' decisions, such as pressure from spectators and athletes' reputation. Well, yesterday there was no fan participation, however, there was far more chance for the views of the players and management teams to be heard. Was this an issue ?

The Home Advantage Effect

Interestingly, home teams tend to receive less yellow and red cards and have more added time when they are losing. Apart from football, in sports like boxing or events like the summer and winter Olympics where judges make subjective decisions about performances, home advantage can also be observed.

Importantly, research has shown that, since the addition of the additional referees (5th and 6th refs) in European football in the 2009- 2010 season, less biased decisions have been documented. This suggests that the addition of VAR might help reduce this cognitive bias for our referees. Aside from the referee’s decision, home advantage has also been shown to impact team performance.

Andrew Steiner, Psychologist

Of course the intelligence, most basic and cognitive ability of the referee can also be called in to question. Over the years Keith has met and had the privilege of knowing a number of referees, some have been open with the ability to converse and verbalise themselves exceptionally well. Whilst he successfully studied for his FA football agents examination, when I first met him, close contact with a vast range of players, ex players and referees became the norm. It was clear that not everyone had the ability to verbalise themselves in any discussion or forum, thus displaying a less than acceptable standard of communication. If this is to be accepted then we are now looking at the referee’s impartiality, ability to reflect, learn and apply that learning, and then remain unaffected by their experiences personally. It’s impossible by the way to remain impartial in high stakes professional sport, even though we would like to think referees do. So, we have to refer back to what we know and that is a closely fought football match will be decided by the officials. And we have to look at the reasons for that bias, and it’s very evident many games have been decided by the referee.


It isn’t good enough for fans to say that Oliver Langford is useless, he went through an experience yesterday that he must be reflecting on today and learning from it ( if he has that cognitive ability or training) What we did learn post match is that he lost his communication skills, his ability to converse or interact with either manager was not there. Was this Langford not being happy to talk at that point for an unknown reason or did he see Steve Cooper as a more intelligent person to enter in to dialogue with - and therefore was incapable of discussion ?

Let’s make a reference to something we all know about

Remember Fergy time ?

Everyone in football knew about Fergy time, Alex looking at his watch, cameras watching him watching his watch and everyone watching Ferguson watching his watch. If referees are to be believed as to their pre match preparation then they will all be aware of this issue. Does anyone really think that some referees didn’t add time they normally wouldn’t have done when officiating Manchester United games ? Was that based on the fact United were drawing and needed a winner late on ? Have a guess what they won numerous games in ‘Fergy time’ by the odd goal. Ferguson was no people psychology expert, he was made out to be by the media, but he wasn’t. The media just wanted you to believe he was clever. And it worked. He got his extra minutes, won games, and all because the referee knew he would have to be very accurate in his injury time assessment.

Impartiality ? Of course not. Never in a month of Sunday supplements

You can draw your own conclusions here on yesterday, and other startling decisions we have seen as football fans over the years, join us in our discussion forums or comment below. We guarantee that what you say will be read by those in referee circles, and assessors, they need to know what is happening, and by commenting they will find out.

Photo: Action Images

Please report offensive, libellous or inappropriate posts by using the links provided.

Badlands added 16:00 - Oct 25
The swans dropped back more and testament to the back three, Bennett, Cabango and Guehi, none of them were booked or spoken to severely. So the whole midfield is under duress due to poor officiating which ended in the bizarre decision yesterday.

But, how many players were booked before we sat back in all the other games Cooper has been manager?

NotLoyal added 02:30 - Oct 26
The article references the weekends game and trying to offer an explanation for me, you either get it or you don’t. As the article states. Some can, some can’t.

MartinSwan added 11:57 - Oct 26
Excellent article, however I take issue with the comments on unconscious bias. It's not what is described in the article, what is described might be called something like Subliminal bias, something you take in from the world around.

Unconscious bias, is exactly that unconscious, so by definition nothing can be done about it because you are completely unaware of it at a conscious level. Indeed even saying unconscious bias exists cannot be known but only assumed probably as a result of the subliminal or unconscious bias of the individual making the assertion.

KeithHaynes added 13:30 - Oct 26
The case study never lies :-)

Boundy added 19:36 - Oct 26
IMO excellent analysis .

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