Keith Hackett began refereeing in 1960 and eventually retired in 1994 after taking charge of hundreds of matches in the First Division and Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup finals and numerous high-profile international fixtures. There’s one game, though, that he’s still disappointed to have missed out on.
“I think refereeing a World Cup final is the pinnacle for any referee,” the 74-year-old says. “You know, I didn’t do that but two English referees who I know extremely well – Jack Taylor and Howard Webb, achieved that.
“But I think every English referee dreams of officiating the FA Cup final, because it’s our own national competition. I did the 100th FA Cup final and its replay at Wembley. It was Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester City. It’s still regarded as a classic game – that Ricky Villa goal for Spurs is something that’s shown every year.”
“Heading to Seoul in Korea to referee the Olympic Games semi-final [in 1988], going to the Azteca Stadium and refereeing the World Youth Cup,” he continues, listing other career highlights. “I had 10 years on the international panel, I visited over 50 countries as a referee and had some pretty big games. Sometimes when I sit back now I think, ‘wow, what a lucky person I am.'”
Of at least equal significance to Hackett’s on-field officiating was his time as head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL). It was he who oversaw the professionalisation of the occupation in England, a change he believes was long overdue.
“I think the biggest change in football, apart from the spectators and the grounds, is that the game itself has sped up. When I was the boss at the PGMOL, the Premier League said that the speed of the game had increased by 40 per cent.
“The reason we brought in professional refereeing – and I was very much a part of that group that introduced it – was sports science. We brought in improved training and recovery, and made sure the referees were eating correctly. We brought in vision scientists to make certain depths of vision clear. Peripheral vision was required at the highest level and we brought in a performance and analysis system that allowed us to look at every decision that was made. We could view it, get together on a regular basis and discuss it.
“Basically, professional refereeing has equalised to some degree. As a businessman during my [non-refereeing] time, I wasn’t as fit as the referees of today. But I still criticise referees in the Premier League because they don’t demonstrate that fitness and we sometimes see that they aren’t in the right position at the right time to see an incident. For me, that’s a question of work rate and performance that you have to improve.”
Aside from physical requirements, what makes a good referee? Hackett believes that, above all else, officials must be brave if they are to succeed in the modern game.
“They ought to have the courage,” he says. “They must have high levels of integrity and they should know how to communicate well too. You know, they’re managing an event. It’s not just about applying the laws of the game, it’s about managing the occasion and the players. The public needs to be aware of what the ref is doing and he can do that through good signals.
“But I’m quite clear that if a country is to advance in refereeing, it has to have a professional model of the very highest level. I remember when the people from MLS asked me to come over to New York and tell them about the idea – and they’ve now got professional referees there. They’re highly delighted with the advances that the referees have made.”
Hackett also believes that referees today require most assistance from technology. He was impressed by the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at the World Cup in Russia, but is critical of the Premier League’s failure to introduce the system for the 2018/19 season.
“I’m a big supporter of technology. If you look at my background, I introduced the communication kit into refereeing and I started the process of goal-line technology. It took six years to bring that into operation. In that sense VAR is a no-brainer for me. It needs to be in. And I’m really disappointed that the Premier League, which is normally at the forefront of the game and is the most viewed competition in the world, decided not to bring in VAR.
“The referees are severely exposed for their decision-making because there’s a minimum of 22 cameras in a Premier League game. They sometimes show the angle that referees don’t have. It just exposes the referee and they’re under pressure to get the decision right. But the balance now is such that television and technology, with slo-mo and wonderful cameras, can expose the referees. For me, the introduction of VAR is a no-brainer. It should be in now.”
Hackett stresses that VAR would not lead to perfect refereeing decisions, but he insists it would at least move football closer to that goal.
“It isn’t utopia and it won’t get everything 100 per cent right,” he says. “But in the World Cup, it moved from 93 per cent to about 99 per cent. And that’s what I would like to see in the Premier League.”
He also brushes off concerns that the introduction of VAR would damage England’s top flight by slowing games down.
“Let me give an example,” he says. “A couple of weeks ago, one of Cardiff City’s players was taking long throw-ins. It was a wet day. He took his time to get the ball. He was moving from the centre to the touchline. Then he used the towel to wipe the ball and the statistics that were produced in that game showed an eight-minute delay.
“I’m not worried about the time. I think the important thing is to get the result right. If it’s a penalty, make certain that it’s awarded. And if a player has committed a red-card offence, off he goes. The process [at the World Cup] was quite speedy and quicker than I thought.
“You know, I saw the use of systems like VAR in cricket and I’ve watched it in rugby union and I think we’ve now got used to VAR and the replays, if you like. It forms part of the entertainment and at the moment the gap that we have got is that I can sit at home, watch a game where they’re using VAR and know what’s going on because the person doing commentary is keeping me informed. And I can see the sound clips.
“That’s all that’s got to be done with VAR at this moment in time. Show the incidents on the big screens in stadiums, while the referee is looking at it and while the VAR is looking at it. Why are we not keeping the audience informed in any way? It can become a part of the process and the entertainment.”
UEFA have tended to be conservative when it comes to technology, instead choosing to employ additional officials behind the goal in the Champions League and Europa League. Hackett isn’t a fan.
“The guys who stand behind the goal are a waste of space,” he says. “Introduce VAR and put your money into it and get rid of those two behind the goals. They should be paying to watch the game – they’re just watching the game from there.”
Although Hackett acknowledges that today’s referees require additional support to help them make better decisions, he’s still frustrated at the overall standard – particularly in the Premier League.
“In my mind, I’m a perfectionist,” he says. “And there are games that I see week in, week out where I get disappointed because of the errors the referees make. I think there’s a lot to be done to improve the standard of refereeing. The current standard of refereeing in the Premier League is low compared to how it was before I left as the PGMOL boss. There are certain referees currently on the panel who, if I were the boss, wouldn’t be on the panel at all.
“I think the best referee at the moment is Michael Oliver. And we have a very mature referee in Martin Atkinson, who seems to get better with age. We also have referees who ought to hang up the whistle. Lee Mason is one. I worry about them bringing Simon Hooper on. I think there are referees who are better than him. And I don’t think the process is as transparent as it should be.”