Referee Taking Cards Out of Pocket

How Many Referees Are There in the Premier League?

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All across the world, you can easily find football fans moaning about a particular decision a referee has made. The Premier League is certainly no exception to this as referees end up taking a considerable amount of criticism over the course of a season or even any single match. It is important to remember though that the referees responsible for Premier League matches are among the very best the country has to offer. These are all people with years and years of training and match experience, who always try and officiate a match to the very best of their abilities.

Just how large is this exclusive pool of Premier League referees though? As well as answering this question, we will look at other key questions like how are Premier League referees are selected and why matches are not evenly distributed among them.

The Selection Process

To take charge of a Premier League match, a referee needs to be part of what is known as ‘Select Group 1’. It is down to the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) to decide who is invited into this group. Once in the group, referees tend to stay on until retirement. Occasionally though, demotions do occur due to poor performance (such as Stuart Atwell in 2012, though he returned in 2016). Appointments typically work by promoting the standout officials from Select Group 2, the group of referees primarily appointed to cover Championship matches.

While you occasionally see some players transferring up several divisions, for example Jamie Vardy who swapped the National League (Fleetwood) for the Championship (Leicester), this does not really happen with referees. Instead, refs will steadily work their way up the ladder, gaining promotions providing they continue to impress. It is for this reason that it is extremely unlikely you will find a young referee in charge of a Premier League contest.

Level Leagues Covered
Select Group 1 Premier League
Select Group 2 Championship
Level 1 League 1 & 2
Level 2a National League
Level 2b National League North/South

This tiered system continues all the way down to Level 10 with the lowest level being non-active refs and level 9 being trainees. It is important to note that we are strictly talking about refereeing at this stage. For assistant referee work, you do not need to be a Select Group 1 referee, but you will need to be a Select Group 1 Assistant Referee. Given their different skillset, there is a clear distinction between the roles and you will not usually find people doing both at the highest level.

How Many Premier League Refs Are There?

For the 2022/23 season, the Premier League had a pool of 19 referees to call on, as well as 30 assistant referees. Most of the 19 were simply continuing at this level but Tom Bramall was a new addition for the season, having done Football League matches prior to this.

Chart That Shows the Premier League Referees for the 2022/23 Season

Referee data courtesy of, total matches accurate as of 4/10/22

As three referees retired at the end of the previous season, this does mean there was an overall drop of two referees compared to 2021/22. So, the exact number of Select Group 1 referees can fluctuate slightly year on year. As a general rule though, expect it to be around 20.

Why So Many Refs?

Referees Cards and Whistle Lying on Grass

Given that each round of Premier League fixtures features 10 matches, and thus requires 10 referees, you might be wondering why PGMOL has a pool around twice that size. There are a number of reasons for this though. Firstly, it is good to have additional refs to call upon in case of sickness or injury. They also benefit from a decent break in between matches as they do cover a lot of ground in 90 minutes, typically between six and eight miles.

Secondly, bear in mind that Premier League referees can also be picked to officiate lower league matches or be on fourth official or VAR duty for a top-flight match. Over the course of the season, none of them will end up simply being the main match-day referee for Premier League matches and nothing else. You then have to factor in that referees cannot officiate matches where there is any risk of potential bias. This is a danger whenever a referee is a supporter of a Premier League club (something they are all expected to disclose).

Although you would not expect Premier League referees to let their personal allegiance impact their work, it is hard not to. Imagine if one ref was known to be a Liverpool fan and he was the man in the middle for a contest at Anfield. Mindful that he might be accused of bias, he might end up being extra tough on the home side in order to compensate. Alternatively, his personal feelings could, subconsciously, lead him to give far more 50/50 calls in favour of his favourite side. In this case, the PGMOL would come under heavy fire for appointing a referee that was not impartial.

So, to avoid any controversy, the official stance of the PGMOL is that they “have a thorough procedure for appointments that takes into account personal affiliations and geographical factors.” Another reason for having a sizeable pool of refs is that the PGMOL do not want to immediately throw newly promoted refs in at the deep end. Telling a ref, with no Premier League experience, that they have 38 matches to cover this season, could easily backfire if they end up struggling.

Why Are Some Refs Picked More Often?

This previous point brings us nicely to the reason why Premier League matches are not distributed evenly among all Select Group 1 refs. In the 2021/22 season, no referee took charge of more games than Anthony Taylor (28) followed by Paul Tierney (27), with Martin Atkinson, Mike Dean, Michael Oliver and Craig Pawson (26) all close behind. All these were highly experienced names that were no strangers to officiating at the highest level in England.

Chart That Shows the Referees Used in the Premier League During the 2021/22 Season

At the bottom end of the scale, you had Tony Harrington and Michael Salisbury who were involved in three matches apiece, John Brooks who managed just one more and Australian Jarred Gillett with nine. All four of these men were newly promoted to Select Group 1 so they were simply being eased into their new roles. Most would agree this is a sensible approach and it’s one the PGMOL has followed for some time.

Although some Premier League referees end up with few top-flight matches to officiate, this does not mean they end up working a part time job. Select Group 1 referees are not restricted to Premier League matches so you will find them doing matches in the Championship, League One and so one instead. If you take John Brooks, for example, in the 2021/22 season, in addition to his four Premier League games he covered 11 Championship contests, and one each in the FA Cup, the League Cup and League Two.


Rows of Empty White Stadium Seats

One topic raised during England’s victory in Women’s European Championships in 2022 was the lack of diversity in the Lioness squad. It was especially noticeable given that English football fans typically see plenty of it whether it be in the Premier League or the men’s national team. The lack of diversity among referees is rarely discussed though, despite it being a definite issue with the game.

The PGMOL does a reasonable job at promoting younger talent, so not all referees are in their 40s, but they are all white men. In terms of ethnic diversity, there has not been a black or Asian referee in charge of a Premier League game since 2008, this being Uriah Rennie’s final game. Concerning sex diversity, women are perfectly entitled to referee at the highest level but this is yet to happen. Rebecca Welch did make history by taking charge of an EFL fixture in April 2021 but this League Two match was a fair way from the Premier League.

Assistant Referees

Football Assistant Referee

We have touched on this earlier but to give it some more focus, for the 2022/23 season there were 30 named assistant referees covering Premier League matches. With two required per match, there is only a 50% surplus rather than the close to 100% that there is for the main referee. This makes sense though given that being the assistant referee is not only less physically demanding but officials running the line come under less scrutiny, especially since the introduction of VAR. These days, if they are to make an incorrect offside call, VAR can bail them out so there is little harm done.

Much like with the man in the middle of the pitch though, there is a noticeable lack of diversity among the pool of Select Group 1 assistant refs. Of the 30, none of them is from an ethnic minority background. It is possible this may change in future though as Akil Howson, the top-ranked BAME official, does hold Select Group 2 status. There is at least some female representation among assistant referees, albeit not too much.

In the 2022/23 season, the PGMOL named two female assistant referees on their Select Group 1 list. One of these, Natalie Aspinall was a brand new addition while the other, Sian Massey-Ellis, has been waving the flag in the Premier League since December 2010. This is the first time ever there had been more than one female assistant referee named. Prior to Massey-Ellis the only other woman to run the line in the Premier League was Wendy Toms but she stepped back from the highest level in 2005.

Fourth Officials & VAR

The PGMOL does not have designated fourth officials, instead they simply use referees from Select Group 1 and Select Group 2 for this purpose. Although Select Group 2 referees can only take charge of Championship matches (or lower), this ceiling is removed when it comes to being the fourth official. It serves as a good way of giving them some Premier League experience in a role which generally does not come with much in the way of controversy.

For the 2022/23 Premier League season there were only two dedicated video assistant referees (VAR), Mike Dean and Lee Mason. These two former Select Group 1 refs do not check the screens for games across the country though. Instead, each Premier League match has its own nominated person to act as the VAR. This will be someone selected from the pool of Select Group 1 referees, or either Mike Dean/Lee Mason. Typically, a referee will only be on VAR duties once during any round of fixtures but occasionally the same ref will be named for two matches.

Lastly, there is the Assistant VAR position, the last of the six officials named for every Premier League match. These are selected from the list of Select Group 1 assistant referees, giving them a break from running the line.

Referee Appointments

Green Pin in Calendar

Premier League teams may only publicly release their line-ups an hour prior to kick-off but this is not the case for naming officials. The officiating team for any match, however, will be published further in advance so it never comes as a late surprise.

Appointments are not set in stone so if there becomes a need to change one of the names, this is something the PGMOL can do, although it is rare. Should an issue arise very late on though, more creative solutions are needed as there are no reserve officials that travel to matches. When referee Mike Jones injured himself during the warm-up ahead of a Tottenham versus Huddersfield match, the fourth official, Kevin Friend, replaced him. This, however, left the fourth official spot empty. To help fill this gap the stadium announcer asked that if anyone in the stands was qualified and willing, please could they make themselves known to a nearby steward.

A qualified Spurs fan was found but in the end they were not needed as Mike Jones was fit enough to carry out the fourth official duties with the aid of a chair.