The Encylopedia of British Football


In football games in the first-half of the 19th century were played without officials.The Football Association was established in October, 1863. The aim of the FA was to establish a single unifying code for football. This included an attempt to deal with disputes about rules and infringements during games. On 8th December, 1863, the FA published the Laws of Football.

It was now clear that officials were needed to enforce these new laws. It became fairly common for two umpires to be appointed to referee the game - one nominated by each side. These umpires only made decisions when appealed to by the players. Umpires were first mentioned in the laws of the game in 1874.

As the game became more competitive, the number of disputes about the interpretation of the rules became more common. Gradually, a more objective official, the referee, began to take control of games. He used a whistle to control the game.

Francis Marindin established himself as one of England's greatest referees. He played for Old Etonians and Royal Engineers before retiring from the game. Marindin officiated in eight FA Cup Finals between 1880-1890. He was considered "one of the outstanding referees who really knows the rules".

It was not until 1891 that the Football Association decided that the referee was to be the sole judge of fair play. It was no longer necessary for players to appeal to the referee for a decision. He could now award free-kicks at his own discretion.

Each club could still nominate a umpire to help the referee. They were now banished to the touchlines. These referee's assistants became known as linesman and carried flags to indicate decisions. Neutral linesmen for important games were not introduced until the 1898-99 season.

The early referees and linesmen were usually non-playing members of football clubs. Controversial decisions often resulted in claims being made that the referee or linesmen had been influenced by club loyalties. Gradually they became independent officials with no close links to football clubs. In 1908 they set up their own Referees' Union.

John Lewis was considered to be the best referee during the early period of football. He refereed the FA Cup Finals of 1895, 1897 and 1898. He later wrote that he was the victim of a great deal of hostility: "For myself, I would take no objection to hooting or groaning by the spectators at decisions with which they disagree. The referee should remember that football is a game that warms the blood of player and looker-on alike, and that unless they can give free vent to their delight or anger, as the case may be, the great crowds we now witness will dwindle rapidly away."

Primary Sources

(1) Len Shackleton, Crown Prince of Soccer (1955)

I would not advocate the introduction of medical examinations for referees at the age of 47, because that sort of idea could spread to players, and if that happened, I might not be allowed t:o play at all. No, any physical failings would surely be noted by those who report on referees: it is not easy to hide lumbago, failing eyesight, gout or middle-age spread!

What about the standard of refereeing in the Football League? I think it could be improved but, comparing it with standards in other countries, we have not much to grumble about. With a few exceptions, foreign referees are very, very poor.

There are some queer ones in Britain, too, and without mentioning names, I feel they all fall into certain categories, consistently making similar mistakes.

First let us take the "two wrongs do make a right" type. This is the fellow who omits to award a penalty, free kick, or what-have-you, when he should-then, a few minutes later, gives one when it is unnecessary. In his interpretation this is a compensatory wiping of the slate, but I call it mental cowardice.

Another coward is the "no penalty at any price" type. He is on view almost every week, awarding free kicks anything from one to twelve inches outside the penalty box, when it is plain to everyone that the transgression took place inches-perhaps feet-inside the box. His usual excuse to himself is that the offence did not warrant so serious a disciplinary move as a penalty kick, yet the laws of the game make no provision for such doubtful discretion.

A group with whom I have had several altercations might be classified as the "anticipation is everything, whistle-happy" types. Let me explain. Playing for Sunderland once, I managed to break through on my own with the ball, walked it round the opposing goalkeeper, and just as I was about to run it into the goal, stopped the ball on the line and shouted to him, "Hey, George. It's not over the line yet." There he was scrambling on hands and knees in the mud, trying to reach it. Meanwhile the referee, from some distance away, had blown his whistle and pointed to the centre, awarding a goal. Not making allowances for people like me, that referee naturally expected the ball to enter the net once I had rounded the goalkeeper, but his anticipation and eagerness to blow the whistle caused a goal to be given before it was scored.

I had a similar experience in a match when Sunderland were being well beaten with only a few minutes left for play. All on my own on the left-wing, I received a pass and, with nothing more important on my mind, decided to "try something on". I rolled thc ball along the touchline with the inside of my right foot-it was like a police test for a drunken man, but I was sober enough and, although I swear to this day the ball did not once cross the line, the linesman's flag and the referee's whistle gave our opponents a throw-in. A ball running along the touchline is expected to go out of play so, on that assumption, up had gone the flag.

Anticipation is a great virtue in a referee providing it is not overdone, which brings me to another officious official, the "I'll stop any trouble before it starts" type. This one is probably the number one culprit when matches are spoiled for spectators and players, the one who assumes he is handling twenty-two cut-throats when, as everyone knows, we modern professional players are the gentlest of souls.

He is usually an early starter: within a minute or two of the kick-off he will blow for a foul, rush up to the offending player and, armed with the deadly, pointed finger of accusation, murmur a pleasantry like `Just try that once more and you're off the field. I know all about you, so behave yourself.' It happens often; in fact a reporter friend at one match-it was a clean game, too listed the number of times the referee reprimanded players and showed me the totals of eleven (first half) and six (second half). The official had even spoken to players without penalizing them.

Of course, I realize the necessity for discipline-especially in local derby matches - and it is no help to a referee endeavouring to keep twenty-two players under control when some of us try to make his duties even more complicated than necessary. That reminds me of one meeting between Newcastle United and Sunderland in which I played. Newcastle's goalkeeper was Jack Fairbrother and we still laugh about the time he gathered a ball just as I was running towards him. I aimed a mighty mock kick at Jack and jumped over his head. The whistle blew, up scooted the referee who, finger outstretched, admonished me, "Raise your boot once more to the goalkeeper and off you go." Jack thought it was funny but, with a hurt look on his face, told the ref., "Never mind the next time: he ought to go off now. Shackleton's a killer."

That whistler had seen what looked like a nasty incident and, quite rightly, had stepped in with his warning; but he must have received a shock when big Frank Brennan took him aside to tell him, "They're pulling your leg, ref. Those are the two best pals in football."

(2) Wilf Mannion, Association Football (1949)

Most abused and maligned official in a football match is the referee and frequently the abuse is entirely unwarranted being hurled at him by spectators who, to say the least of it, often have but only a rudimentary knowledge of the rules for all their enthusiasm.

But that official can surely mar a game by playing too closely to the rules without allowing for "advantage" to the player he thinks has been wrongly dealt with. But the position is of exceptional difficulty, let that be clearly understood.

Too much whistle can ruin the best game; too little can just as surely spoil it too. Where is the happy medium? It is hard for me to say, since, as a player, I am almost bound to be biased in my judgment.

Referees can be too strict... and they often are far too lenient. Some come to the dressing rooms before the game and make it clear that they will severely punish offenders or anyone who imagines that they can dispute each and every decision. Others merely come along and upset the players by dictatorial methods before the game commences at all.

Referees ought to be chosen as much for their ability to control men as anything else; and they must be able to treat players as men and not as disobedient children at school.

Showmanship in refereeing is all well and good as long as it does not mean making a player feel small in front of a large crowd of spectators.

A good referee need not halt play for any offence while he administers a classroom lecture to an offending player with much wagging of the fingers and repeated pointing to the dressing room. He should have such faith in himself that all that is required is a word in the player's ear which cannot be misunderstood. "Next time, my lad, you will be sent off"; that is sufficient so long as he actually does order a player off next time that offence is committed.

That sort of referee soon becomes known and players treat him with respect. The type who continually threatens and never does anything is equally soon known to all and, regretfully, treated accordingly.

I do not advocate the sending off of players for offences committed in the heat of the moment. We are all but human and can do things which we instantly regret. The average player is not often guilty of this sort of thing. The regular offenders are the players who want dealing with and referees know them as well as their fellow players do.