Elite Level Refereeing in Men’s Football: A Developmental Sociological Account – Sharon Colwell


This dissertation earned Sharon Colwell the doctor’s title from the University of Leicester. I say ‘earned’ not without reason, for the sheer amount of work that went into this publication was huge. Wading through reams of old minutes and documents, preparing and conducting tons of interviews and sifting through endless books in stuffy libraries, that’s what it takes to fill nearly 400 pages with scientific production.

Her focus was on the fact that ever since the introduction of the referee onto the football pitch, his role has been perceived by many – inside and outside football – as an ‘issue’.

The first two chapters introduce the questions Colwell intends to address and the methods and methodology she used in conducting her research. In chapter 3 she recounts how, when and why the referee made his appearance on the fields where football was being played. Despite a lack of sources about the earliest history of – the precursors of – modern football, Colwell succeeds in describing this history and explaining, from a sociological perspective – why it was deemed necessary to have a referee on the field. The reason was the plurality of laws in existence at the time, which were constantly being changed and rewritten, their interpretation and the various ideologies about how the ‘beautiful game’ should be played.

In the next two chapters Colwell sets out the rise of football as a modern spectator sport, the various sets of laws being used, the establishment of the FA and the introduction of the referee into the LOTG. Fortunately, more resources are available on this period, and Colwell used them avidly. She was allowed to inspect the oldest minutes and other documents of the FA (and, in a later chapter, the oldest known minutes of incorporating meetings of referees associations), which enabled her to build an image of the dichotomy between the ideas of the lawmakers (the FA) and those affected by the laws – the players/clubs. The FA had ideas about how the game should be played – fair play – whereas players/clubs just wanted to win – at all costs. This caused friction, with the lawmakers responding by introducing ever more laws and instructions for referees, and the players trying to circumvent them.

A following chapter explains how referees were being trained and educated – which actually did not happen, or at least not enough. Colwell considers this fact to lie at the root of the fact why refereeing was – and still is – seen as an issue. She then recounts how referees tried to arm themselves against the aspersions directed at them by starting associations that would look after their interests, with the national Referees Association being established in 1908. Although the FA was initially supportive of the RAs, the relationship soon soured, when the RAs starting becoming more vocal and sought emancipation from the FA, which the referees believed was not supportive enough. What else is new…

The next two chapters address the international rise of football, and of refereeing, and the large role the UK played in this development. The incorporation of FIFA and the love-hate relationship between the FA and FIFA did not help the ‘refereeing problem’. Football had taken off in all kinds of directions throughout the world, with the ‘fair play’ idea fading more and more into the background. An analysis of the various World Cup tournaments played between 1930 and 1994 makes it clear how FIFA responded and what the effect was on the training and education of referees.

Chapter 9 dives into the question why the refereeing issue has managed to take up such a prominent part in the modern-day discussion of football. Colwell’s conclusion is that the increasing coverage of football by radio, television and the printed media has fed the notion that refereeing is an issue. At the root here is the need for pundits – reporters, former players, managers, you name it – to respond to incidents and to entertain the public. And the way the cookie crumbles is like this: incidents are often the result of refereeing decisions. In addition, pundits all have their own ideas as to how football should be played, so it is not unlikely for those ideas to clash with the way in which referees exercise their authority. Taking a live commentary of a match as an example, Colwell explains how this works.

In the second part of this chapter, she returns to the red thread running through this dissertation, but from a different perspective: the clash between consistent refereeing and ‘common sense’ refereeing. She also addresses what many now see as the panacea for the ‘refereeing issue’: the introduction of technology.

In the concluding chapter, Colwell addresses the answers she got from top-level referees about their job and what they perceive the issues facing them to be. Revealing is that they all believe to get insufficient support from their superiors (PGMOL, FA), they are afraid of losing their contracts, so they go along with instructions even though they don’t always agree with them, they acknowledge the conflict between ‘common sense’ and ‘consistency’ and they hate being singled out and heckled over every teeny-weeny mistake by the media.

Value for active referees

None whatsoever.

However, this dissertation is a must-read for any referee interested in the history of refereeing, the issues associated with authority on the field, the divergent views of referees and players (and managers in particular), the clashing of swords between styles of refereeing and styles of football and the conflict between the football authorities and referees. Unfortunately, it is a scientific publication, with a style of writing to match, but anyone persevering after the first two chapters is rewarded with an excellent description and analysis of these issues and lots of historic materials.

Colwell comes to the – in my opinion, correct – conclusion that the refereeing issue is of all ages and has not been enhanced by the increasing financial stakes of modern football. In fact, even in the lowest rungs of grassroots football, with no financial stakes at all, the referee is seen as the problem. Not the ref in person – although it is often taken out on him in person – is the problem, really; the actual problem is the dichotomy between wanting to win and being thwarted by laws and someone enforcing them. The increased media coverage of football has served to highlight the issue. Slow-motion repeats have made it possible for every tv spectator to see that the ref was right or wrong. And even if he was right, there is the interpretation discretion of the referee that gives rise to heated debate. National and international associations have tried to rectify this by issuing ever more complex laws and instructions, aiming at increased consistency. Which, they say, is what ‘football’ wants. But is that compatible with the other large desire by many in ‘football’, which is that refs should in fact use common sense a bit more often? A marriage of consistency and common-sense refereeing is one that many would like to see, but the two are simply incompatible.

Colwell also manages to hit all the right notes in the debate on the introduction of technology. What type of technology should be used? Who decides when to use them? Who will take the ultimate decision? How will this affect play? How will it affect refereeing? And – last but not least – how will it affect the general perception of refereeing? Colwell concludes that even if technology is introduced to a great decree of success, the underlying issues will remain: different interpretations of the laws and different ideas of how the game should be played – and reffed – will always give rise to debate.

A final word about Colwell’s sources, which by themselves make this dissertation worth the time reading. Any referee with a bit of interest in the matter could make an excellent reading list from Colwell’s bibliography, which should send any football/refereeing historian salivating. I hope to find many of the titles in her bibliography and review them on these pages.

Final say

Of great historical and philosophical value, Sharon Colwell’s dissertation is a difficult – though eventually rewarding – read and of no practical value for active referees.

If you want to read Sharon Colwell’s thesis for yourself, please click this link:


Title Elite Level Refereeing in Men’s Football: A Developmental Sociological Account
Author Sharon Colwell
Year 2004
Published by University of Leicester
Pages 391
3.5 / 5     

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