Reffin’ Hell: Officiating & Unconscious Bias

From time to time we can all be found guilty of being biased towards our own club, in my case it’s the Villa. In the eyes of many fans, their club can do no wrong.

With news of Premier League clubs being given the green light to stage friendlies ahead of the league restart, an interesting caveat has emerged; no official referees will be involved, meaning members of the club’s coaching staff will take charge.

Instantly, the image of Sunday league football comes to mind. Unwilling linesmen with packets of cigarettes tucked into their socks, rarely up to speed with the game. However, I don’t think this will be the case for these friendlies.

The concept of unconscious bias is rarely discussed regarding professional football. Officials must announce their allegiances and are prohibited from officiating, in any form, for their club’s ties.

However, for the past five years, I have been officiating academy matches at Bodymoor Heath. I have refereed and been an assistant referee for matches ranging from Villa’s U7s up to the U18s. During this time I have officiated games involving many of the current U23s side.

At a young age my grandparents would take me to Bodymoor Heath to get my autograph book signed by the players, so to walk into the academy building, sign in and sit in the officials’ dressing room was a proud but strange moment, one I won’t forget.

To have run around on the pitches there hundreds of times is something I am very proud of and feel lucky to have done so. However, this feeling wears off and the responsibilities and workings of being an official quickly take centre stage.

Something I have been asked by friends before is ‘How do you manage to stay unbiased?’ This is a difficult question to answer. Although I am not refereeing at the elite level, it is top-level academy football and the standard is very high. Therefore, the responsibility and duty take over. When I’m officiating I don’t see claret and blue as my beloved Aston Villa, I see it as just another team and any sense of bias rarely takes place.

I have officiated several second-city derbies at Bodymoor and although the tension and atmosphere doesn’t quite reach the levels of Villa Park or St Andrew’s, there’s certainly an added intensity and sense of importance. You can sense it in the players, the coaches and the fans/parents as soon as I blow the whistle for kick-off.

During these matches I have felt myself possibly overcompensating on decisions. Self-analysing the question: is this because I don’t want it to seem obvious that the referee is a Villa fan? Probably. However, this doesn’t mean intentionally giving decisions in the blue side of the city’s favour. I wonder how the Birmingham City coaches would have felt if they were to be aware of my allegiances towards the Villans.

I’m confident in saying that these allegiances have never got in the way and never will. I am paid to do a job and professionalism takes centre stage, but it can be quite difficult when you’re receiving criticism and abuse from one of Villa’s supporters; ‘I’m one of you’ crosses the mind, but never the lips.

During my time on the pitch at Bodymoor and around the academy building I have met several first-team players – notably eating beans on toast with Micah Richards and Alan Hutton on a Sunday afternoon after a match. At this point – and this point only – did my allegiances show their true colours.

However, I have to admit, hearing ‘Were you out last night lino?’ in a scouse accent, and turning around to see Jamie Carragher topped this ever so slightly.

It will be interesting to see how these Premier League friendlies come together and what the outcome will be. Will any last-minute dubious penalties be given as an assistant coach looks to give their team a confidence boost before the restart of the season? May we see player and coach relationships break down as fouls weren’t given or a deserved booking failed to be seen?

I have found in my time as an official at the academy that I am one of only a few to be a Villa supporter and I imagine others find officiating there easier and less pressured than I do. It’s a strange concept, as none of the coaches know of my fondness for the club, nor do the players or supporters, but somehow due to my obsession with the club and everything about it, as a referee I feel great responsibility in having such power on the pitch officiating the club’s greatest prospects.

Many academy players have attitudes you don’t have to deal with quite as often in the local leagues but I don’t pull any punches on the pitch when officiating and this style has seemed to serve me well over the years. Still, if you were to say to my ten-year-old self that one day I would be sending an Aston Villa academy manager off, I wouldn’t have believed you.

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