Referee in Green Holding Yellow Card

Do Football Referees Support a Team & Can They Officiate Their Matches?

For any football game to be fairly officiated, a referee needs to be entirely impartial. If a referee is an avid supporter of the home team, it could potentially end up making them something of a 12th man. Ultimately, the person in black has just as much power to influence the game as anyone else on the pitch, if not more so. All it takes is a soft penalty or red card decision and their favourite team can enjoy a huge advantage.

Obviously, this should not be allowed to happen but of course many officials do have a favourite team or potentially more than one team. They may not shout it from the rooftops but usually if you dig around enough you can find the answer. After all, it would be unusual for someone who has built a career in football not to have some sort of connection to or affinity for a football club.

So, the vast majority of referees will have a favourite side but football organisations can ensure this does not become a problem. We will look primarily at how English football handles refereeing allegiances but their approach is one you will find adopted across many other nations as it is largely free of controversy.

Background Information Collected

Black Question Mark Folder IconIn the top levels of English football, it is the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) that deals with the training, developing and promoting of referees. At the start of every season, every appointed referee must supply PGMOL with key background information, which is carefully checked over. As part of the form a referee must note down the names of their favourite club(s) as well as a list of all their addresses and any clubs they have played for at youth level.

The reason for not just looking at clubs openly supported is that it is possible to have some positive feeling attached to a nearby club or one you have former links to. You might not outright support your local team but given the choice of them going up or another club, you may well favour the former. As such, even mild support or being open to the accusation of favouritism must be considered because the PGMOL wishes to avoid “unnecessary extra external pressure and scrutiny on referees”.

Location Location Location

Different Coloured 3D Location Markers

A referee’s address history is less important than who they support but it still carries some weight when deciding on fixture allocation. If, for example, you have an official that has lived much of his life in Brighton (but supports a non-Brighton-based club) it is quite possible they are never handed a Seagulls game to referee. Although they may feel no connection to the city whatsoever, it is something that could come under scrutiny should they end up handing Brighton a couple of generous big calls.

Jonathan Moss – Sunderland & Leeds

As it happens, the recently retired Jonathan Moss is a great example of this. Born in Sunderland, his favourite club is the Black Cats but he moved to Leeds for university and then worked in Leeds as a PE teacher at Westbrook Lane Primary School. Incidentally, he ended up sending off one of his former pupils, James Milner, when Liverpool faced Leeds in 2019. His time spent in Leeds, also the place where he later established a record shop called ‘The Vinyl Whistle’, means he never once refereed a Leeds United game over the course of his career.

Interestingly, the official line for the PGMOL, at least back in 2016 was that “where a referee lives is not a factor when referee appointments are considered.” As we have highlighted in the case of Jon Moss though, his time spent in Leeds was most certainly considered. There is simply no way that it was mere coincidence that meant he never ended up refereeing a game involving the Yorkshire club.

Mike Dean – Merseyside

There have actually been some noticeable inconsistencies when it comes to taking addresses into consideration for refereeing appointments. As well as Moss, mentioned above, Tranmere Rovers fan Mike Dean spent much of his career not being able to referee a single Everton or Liverpool match because he was from Merseyside. It was only much later on, during the 2016/17 season, when the PGMOL started allocating him games involving both teams.

Kevin Friend – Leicester

Similarly, you have the case of Kevin Friend who was removed from a Tottenham clash because of his links to then title-rivals Leicester. Friend himself was not a Leicester fan but lived in the area and had been to some matches as a (neutral) spectator with friends. So, as you can see, where a referee lives or grows up can be taken into consideration if helps keep them from facing any negative press including potential accusations of unfairness.

Anthony Taylor & Lee Mason – Greater Manchester

Sometimes though, the PGMOL end up sticking with their official line and hand referees matches close to home. Take Anthony Taylor for example, he lives (or at least lived) six miles away from Old Trafford in Altrincham, Greater Manchester. Despite this, the Altrincham fan has refereed many games involving both Manchester United and Manchester City.

Normally this kind of thing does not cause any issues although there has been the odd complaint. Following a Boxing Day clash in 2013, refereed by Lee Mason, a frustrated Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers said “I was surprised that we are playing in Manchester and we had a referee from Greater Manchester.”

Former Clubs

Referees Cards on Top of Football

Although there are some calls to turn recently retired footballers into referees, so far this has not happened. So, although you will not find professional referees with 10 to 15 years of high-level playing experience under their belts, some may have been involved at a club’s academy before switching their attention to officiating.

To avoid the risk of any controversy, PGMOL may avoid naming an official for a match involving a club they once played for, especially if there were on the books for a considerable stint. Only a minority of referees played for an academy but there are some examples. Simon Hooper was part of the Swindon academy although it is his being a fan of the Robins that excludes him more than anything. As for Jon Moss, he had a stint at Millwall during his younger days and this did seem to have an impact on his match allocation.

In the early years of his career, Moss was involved in a Millwall game virtually every single season. This suddenly stopped in 2012/13 however, and from this point onwards he only ever took control of one more contest featuring the Lions. This was not a league game either, rather it was an FA Cup clash versus Wimbledon. It seems as though PGMOL must have tightened the rules as this cannot be explained by mere coincidence.

Favourite Teams

Isolated Football Fan Holding Red and White Scarf

It is time to move on to the third and final major consideration when it comes to match appointments and that is the team (or teams) a referee supports. A list compiled by the BBC in 2016 showed that all referees had a favourite team although in the case of Roger East, his preference was unknown. In all cases, no referee had managed a game involving their favourite team.

The implied reason for this is that referees cannot deliver a truly fair performance if they have a connection to one of the teams. It is perhaps interesting to note though that this does not apply to players or managers. When Sven Goran Eriksson’s England took on his homeland of Sweden in the 2002 World Cup, there was no accusations that he would treat the game any differently. Similarly, Tottenham signed Matt Doherty from Wolves even though he had (much earlier) made public his love of arch-rivals Arsenal.

When it comes to referees though, affiliations become much more of an issue. It is not because a referee cannot, necessarily, do their job without bias but more that it leaves them open to much more scrutiny than normal. If a referee was allowed to manage a match involving their favourite team, they would be attacked no-end if they handed them one or two big calls that were soft or incorrect. To counter this, they may, possibly subconsciously, be ‘mean’ to their own team to ensure they face no accusations but this prevents the game from being refereed fairly.

So, as you can see, it is a sensible idea for referees to stay clear of their favourite team and this has long been the case, at least in England. At the very start of his career Mark Hasley, a QPR fan, did manage two games involving the west London side, as this was before the time referees had to declare any allegiances. This was over two decades ago though so current rules have been in place for quite some time now.

Rival Teams

Table Football with Yellow and Blue Players

In addition to avoiding your own team, a referee will also not usually be handed matches involving the main rivals of the team they support. Mark Clattenburg was a Newcastle supporter so in addition to not being involved in any Magpies match, he was also never involved in a Sunderland contest. Strangely though, although Sunderland fan Jon Moss was typically not handed any Newcastle matches but there were two exceptions in the 2009/10 season with the Toon Army in the Championship.

Although referees never take charge of a match involving their favourite team, the rule regarding rivals does have a little flexibility. Andre Marriner, an Aston Villa fan, for example did take charge of two games involving West Brom in 2013. Admittedly, Birmingham City are Villa’s biggest rivals but West Brom come in second so there were definite grounds to keep Marriner away from all Baggies matches.

Rivals can also be contextual so if one referee supports Chelsea and the Blues are involved in an intense title battle with Manchester City, the PGMOL may keep them from all City matches. This rule has been applied inconsistently though as Newcastle fan Michael Oliver did referee a game in 2016 involving fellow relegation rivals Norwich. The Canaries, in 17th place, were six points clear with just six games to go though so this may have been factored into it.

Do Referees Lie About What Team They Support?

Fact Check Red Keyboard Button

Is there a chance some cunning referee lies about the team they support so they can secretly ref them and give them some favourable calls? It is possible but it is extremely unlikely and there are no reported cases of this to date. Such an offence, if caught, would almost certainly see a referee completely sabotage their career. Given it takes years of training and practice to reach a professional standard, would a referee risk all this just to give their team a soft penalty a couple times a year? This would be an incredibly difficult thing to pull off anyway since the advent of VAR technology.

It would be extremely difficult to keep the truth from eventually getting out in most cases too. Think of how many friends and family members will know what team a ref supports, and the evidence they have of this. By maintaining a lie, a referee would also have to stop going to matches, which some of them do in their spare time. Even while still refereeing, when his schedule allowed, you could find Mike Dean watching Tranmere matches from the stands. Once he was even asked to step in as an emergency fourth official during a clash with Walsall.

Instances of Alleged Bias

Referee Holding Cards Behind Back

To be clear, the following accusations are entirely unsubstantiated and without merit. The PGMOL is careful enough with their selection to avoid picking officials that have clear reason to benefit one side, or to act in a different way than they normally would. Despite this, you do sometimes find people questioning the decisions or actions a referee makes during a match. In 2022, Craig Pawson (Sheffield United fan) was accused of being anti-Tottenham because he turned to Pep Guardiola and looked somewhat annoyed when Harry Kane secured a late winner at the Etihad.

There was also the pro-Tottenham conspiracy of Mike Dean being a secret Spurs lover because he appeared to celebrate a goal of theirs against Aston Villa in 2015. Admittedly, on this one Dean does do something that vaguely resemblances a celebration, but as he later explained, he was simply happy that he had played smart advantage following a foul. Naturally though, many football fans refused to believe he was simply happy at an excellent bit of officiating and claimed the die-hard Tranmere fan was a Spurs secret agent.