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Home   /   Sin bins: changing the beautiful game, or saving it?

Jeopardising teams? Morphing into rugby? Favouring referees? We analyse how sin bins could save the future of football and why they are yet to be implemented into the professional game.

In today’s footballing climate, amongst a plethora of issues, one of the main concerns is the treatment of referee’s and their officials. Ahead of the current season, Roberto Rosetti, the head of refereeing for UEFA simply declared, “we need referees!”. With a current high demand for referees, he labelled the situation a “vocational crisis”, as less and less football fans are willing to trade their goalscoring boots for the match whistle.

Just like football players, officials have to work their way up to the elite level, however the struggle that grassroot teams currently face in finding eligible officials, will have major consequences up and down the pyramid. Further questions will arise regarding competence and ability of officials if they are able to bypass plying their trade as they receive a fast track ticket towards the higher levels due to the urgent necessity for them higher up. The main thing this symbolises is that the culture and attitudes towards officials needs to change imminently as their treatment can border on terrible at times, clearly reducing the attraction of the profession.

We spoke to ex-referee Tony Butler, who has officiated in over 1000 competitive men’s matches and has become an FA Observer to aid in monitoring up and coming referee’s in step five of English football. Upon reflection of his career and trying to entice the youth to follow himself down the officiating path, he said that, “the beauty of it is that you can referee at levels way above the level you can play at, alongside teaching you people skills, man management and staying fit”.

These positives clearly aren’t outweighing the negatives for the majority of other football fans, as a key statistic that Rosetti highlighted was that across Europe one out of seven registered match officials quit yearly. As the sport as a whole continues to expand, new teams continue to be created yet the trajectory of new officials to host these games is not following the same path.

Governing bodies are beginning to fear this uneven trajectory and associations such as UEFA, PGMOL and FA are beginning to trial new ways to improve the lives of a referee. They have been identifying the sources of the issues starting from the very bottom and subsequently, the FA opened up a new investigation called the annual ‘Grassroots Disciplinary Review’. The review was created to help complete an easy comparison between previous seasons and the most recent review stated some worrying things.

There were 3,636 cases of serious misconduct reported, seeing a 9% rise from the previous season, with 72 of those cases classifying as assault, or attempted assault, against a match official. A rise was also seen in dissent (14.1%), failure to control spectators (2%) and unsporting behaviour (7.8%).

The fact that these statistics are on the rise year after year helps to digest why this ‘crisis’ is happening and why it is so vital for change to happen before this epidemic evolves into a pandemic. Recently interventions such as body cameras and respect campaigns have been created, however it feels as though the perfect solution hasn’t been introduced yet. Or has it?

In the 2019-20 season, sin bins were introduced by the FA in a trial period in every grassroots league and in every league until you reach step 5 in mens football and step 3 in womens. After the successes of the trial, 84% of referees wanted it to continue, therefore it has become a permanent fixture at those levels but is yet to expand further.

Rob Carron, a referee in the Southern Combination Leagues, currently officiates using sin bins and remains a huge advocate for this to continue. “Sin bins do work if they are carried out to the letter of the law, however I hear on many different occasions from officials that I officiate with the different levels of verbal they will apply them for”.

While discussing sin-bins with both Carron and Butler, they highlighted concerns regarding how the professional game would react to the implementation of sin bins. Carron said that, “the lack of continuity in carrying out the laws of the game will result in more complaints towards officials on the big stage”, which was seconded by Butler expressing, “football played on television is not a game but a big money making business and the professional game cannot be refereed in the same way, if teams lose key players for 10 minutes and lose a game through it, this would have consequences for the club, staff and the crowd”.

You only have to look at Rugby to see how sin bins are effective and if carried out in the correct manner can impact the sport in a positive manner. They trialled sin bins in 1997, with Australia’s James Holbeck being the first player to ever receive a sin bin in his country’s game against South Africa. By 2000, sin bins had been written into law and been a permanent fixture ever since, improving the respect and discipline upheld within the sport.

Another referee we were able to speak to was 21-year-old Ollie Bierman, who is progressing through the ranks and has made his way into officiating in step 3. Having used sin bins before being promoted into the Isthmian League, he stated, “there is a clear difference in attitude towards the referees and officials as the deterrence has been removed”.

He also understands that implementing them into the professional game wouldn’t be a straightforward process but is surprised by the lack of ambition by the FA to do so. His beliefs align with Butler and Carron but for him, and many other referees, the end goal is to mirror rugby and incorporate sin bins into the official law.

“A lot more needs to be done before incorporating sin bins into the professional game, it is sort of the final piece of the puzzle”, concluded Bierman.

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