Experienced FIFA official Andrew Davey says Northern Ireland’s referees have never faced a tougher working environment than in today’s game but he insists his team will rise to the challenge.
Earlier this year, Northern Ireland Football League CEO Gerard Lawlor whipped up a fierce debate when he expressed concerns about the standard of refereeing in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph.
He argued: “Refereeing is a threat to the League and one of the major concerns I have for the progression of the League but we have to help and support referees. Players and managers have a part to play in that.”
A number of high-profile Premiership managers had slammed the officiating and Lawlor spoke to his counterpart at the Irish FA, Patrick Nelson, about the burning issue.
With the return of the Charity Shield involving Linfield and Crusaders at Windsor Park today (3pm) and the new Premiership season starting on Friday night, the refs are back in the spotlight and Davey, who is also a Referee Development Officer at the Irish FA, says the heat is on his team like never before.
“The streaming of games and increased media coverage including social media highlights when mistakes happen and it’s there for everyone to see,” said the Bangor official.
“That presents a challenge to us because there is so much media attention on the game. So we need to step up like everyone else.”
Davey added: “It is a massive challenge and we are the worst group of referees that have ever been in the League because of how much we are under scrutiny.
“We try to promote dialogue but like in every working relationship some people will be more sociable and open to conversation than others. That is always going to be the case but we need to have communication with the managers, it has started and we need to progress that.”
It’s widely accepted that players’ fitness levels have improved and the modern game is quicker than it’s ever been.
Davey, who attended this week’s Premiership launch in Belfast, admits the move towards full-time football presents another challenge to the refs.
“The full-time element of the game has made it different for everyone, including the referees,” he said. “It’s a very different game from when I started around 10 years ago.
“It’s a challenge for us, we want to be part of the football family and while we talk about 12 teams in the Premiership I talk about 13 teams as we have a team of officials too. We want to be involved in the growth of the League and how it evolves.”
NIFL CEO Lawlor says he hopes officials will receive the backing they need to remove further controversy from the domestic game.
“I attended a refereeing conference ahead of the campaign, they had their pre-season get-together and I was happy to attend,” said the former Cliftonville chairman. “The refs last season went through a difficult period at the beginning but they finished the season very well and we have to give them praise.
“It’s about transparency, openness and communication. They noticed that and one of the things Trevor Moutray (head of refereeing at the Irish FA) said was let’s build on the solid performances in the big games and continue without controversy.
“Our commitment is to keep working together and supporting refs. It’s one of the hardest jobs in football and I can hope we can all unite to help them develop.”
Lawlor added he hoped the Irish FA would continue to give the refs all the advice and support they required, particularly at a time when the game is striving to become more professional.
“There also has to be a plan from the Irish FA for the future development of refereeing, particularly if we want to have a greater full-time League,” he added. “But I would praise the refs for their performances over the second half of the season and hopefully that continues.”
As the IFA published its ‘A Roadmap For Football – Irish FA Corporate Strategy 2022-27’ earlier this year, Association chief executive Nelson admitted: “We need to support our referees who are in the game, we need to make sure their development and training is as good as it can be and we will work with our refereeing team to make that happen.
“We will also work with other stakeholders such as the Northern Ireland Referees’ Association and it’s important that word respect keeps coming through. We will consider what respect means and the need for a campaign that goes both ways, circles all of football and focuses on refereeing.”
Chris Morrison, considered to be among a group of up and coming referees, will take charge of today’s Shield clash at Windsor.