By Paul Gardner
Peter Walton. A pleasant man, soft-spoken, quick to smile, alert and intelligent. A nice guy. But the wrong guy.
For 20 years Walton was a referee in England -- the last nine of those years at the top level, officiating in the Premier League. He quit that work last year, and now occupies an office in the New York suite of Major League Soccer. He has been imported to head up PRO -- the Professional Referees Organization, the new body that is going to professionalize -- and therefore, presumably, improve -- refereeing in the USA.
So we have Walton -- a man with little experience of the USA and who knew next to nothing about American soccer and MLS -- installed in the highest-paying job that American refereeing has yet come up with. A job from which Americans were shut out.
The wrong guy. Why was Walton chosen for this job? A long story -- I’ll omit the details, let’s just say that, for murky reasons, MLS and USSF, who finance PRO, decided that it needed a foreigner to be in charge. Walton, who was not even on the original list of candidates, got the job on the basis of his refereeing experience. In England.
Definitely the wrong guy. I have made it clear, in previous columns, that I regard this appointment as utterly perverse. The job should have gone to an American. But, above all, it should not have gone to an English referee. Simply because an English referee is bound to bring with him his English attitudes to refereeing, and to the game itself. Attitudes that are out of kilter with the modern game, attitudes that permit far too much physical, even violent, play.
My opinion? Yes -- but let’s settle that issue before we proceed. This is Thierry Henry in 2000, soon after his arrival to play in the English Premier League: “I'm committing wicked fouls that would have horrified me six months ago, but that's how you have to play in England ...”
And you do not -- cannot -- play that way without permissive refereeing. Anyway, the idea that English refereeing is the gold standard is not one that stands up. We do, after all, see those refs at work regularly on EPL telecasts, and we see them make their share of errors, some of them pretty bad.
Walton refutes any suggestion that he is “bringing English refereeing” to the USA. For a start, he insists that he is not your typical English referee: “I’m different -- I’m much more open. I try to look beyond the ‘20 years English experience,’ beyond those horizons.”
How, then, does he view this job? “I was asked to take refereeing forward. I’m setting up an organization to professionalize match officials. MLS has put a great deal into the playing side. The competition and playing standards are growing. The idea is to advance referee training to match that.”
Walton has a two-year contract -- recently extended to three years -- to do this. But his task surely implies that there is something wrong with American refereeing. Meaning that Walton is here to teach from a position of superiority. A notion that Walton did nothing to dispel with his parting words to his English colleagues, whom he described as “the best team of officials in world football.” Which puts everyone else, including the USA, firmly in their -- inferior -- place.
As Walton himself has stated that one of the aims of PRO is to “improve the overall quality of refereeing in the US professional leagues” we need waste no more time on that issue. Walton is here to show American referees how to referee. If there were any doubts about that, they were dispelled when one of Walton’s first moves was to hire an assistant ... from England.
The superiority angle is one that Walton denies, just as he makes light of his scant contacts with Americans: “I didn’t come here not understanding what Americans are.” Disarmingly, he admits to finding the standards of American refereeing “better than I thought.”
When he talks of “advancing” referees, he refers to training methods -- better fitness, and to sports scientists and sports psychologists being an “integral part of the way officials act these days” and so on. Things, I feel, that would happen here anyway, Peter Walton or no Peter Walton. But what about the refereeing itself?
“There are certain ‘best practices’ that apply everywhere,” says Walton, but he also refers, encouragingly if rather vaguely, to the development of “an American-style referee.” A hint about what he is looking for comes from his own style: “I was a low-key referee, and I want our [i.e. PRO’s] guys to be low key.”
We can check on what that means, because it was Walton who chose the man to referee the 2012 MLS Cup final. He chose Silviu Petrescu. An interesting choice. Petrescu, to my eye, is the most permissive of MLS referees. In the first half of MLS Cup I counted 22 incidents where players clashed and one, or both, went to ground. Petrescu made no call in 17 of these, which I think is much too lenient, too permissive.
Walton gives his reasons for Petrescu’s appointment, and they do not include his permissiveness: “He had a very good season, he had good previous games with both teams. I think he was the man for that occasion. I think everything worked out OK.” Correct, all went well.
The choice of Petrescu fits in nicely with Walton’s almost off-hand talk of “little” fouls, ones that seem not to matter -- “you don’t have to call every foul. It’s up to the referee to interpret the severity of a foul.”
Right, the key question being where the bar for severity is set. With English referees -- again in my opinion -- setting it too high.
Walton challenges my observation that English referees prefer to deliver little lectures rather than hand out cards: “Do you know of any league where the referees don’t talk?” No, I don’t. But with English referees it’s not so much talk as those cozy little chats that are a concern. Walton likes the chats -- even when a player who has already been cautioned commits another bad foul: “Talk to the player, calm him down, let everyone know he will get another card if the offense is repeated.” That is permissive refereeing, English style, carried to the extreme.
It makes a mockery of the rulebook. Walton sees things differently. From the point-of-view of a low-key referee. It is the responsibility of the referee, he says, “to make sure that the players know your tolerance level,” and believes that “doing everything by the rulebook, that’s the easy way.”
Which is not nearly as outlandish as it sounds, because judgment is a vital ingredient of refereeing -- and the rules leave plenty of room for it to be exercised.
These are Walton’s low-key views of some of those occasions:
* Encroachment at a penalty kick, where Walton has opinions on what counts as “significant” encroachment (two yards is his minimum), and about the mental pressures involved: “When the referee has awarded a penalty kick he’s already in the limelight. Subconsciously, referees feel that. Making a second decision -- to retake -- they’ll feel it more.”
* On dissent, the rulebook seems inexorable, mandating a caution for “dissent by word or action.” For Walton “It is down to the interpretation of individual officials as to what constitutes dissent. It’s not good for referees to ignore dissent, but we say ‘deal with it how you see fit.’”
* On slide-tackling, I suggest that maybe it should be banned, as it always involves a studs-up challenge. “No,” says Walton, “It’s part of the game, but the referee has to keep one eye on the safety of the opponent.”
* And diving? “Simulation,” says Walton, calling me to task for not using the rulebook word. OK, then, simulation. “The scourge of the modern game,” says Walton. I take a close look at Walton -- no sign of an impish smile. The man believes what he’s saying.
To me, what Walton is saying is fatuous. But this is exactly what I fear from his English background. Only the English have this obsession with diving, only the English talk of it in apocalyptic terms. And only the English wage holy war on it with all the witch-hunting zeal that ensures it will be found, even where it doesn’t exist.
Taken together, the anti-diving zealotry, plus Walton’s other preferences -- ignore the “little” fouls, go easy on rough play by giving short chats instead of yellow cards, permit a generous two yards of encroachment, water down the rule’s demand for yellow cards for dissent, cast an uncritical eye on slide-tackling -- add up to a sizable, and typically English, vote in favor of the defensive part of the game.
Is that what Walton wants from the PRO referees? It’s very difficult, for example, to see how a man who defines diving as “the scourge” of the game -- not “a” scourge, but “the” scourge -- will not require a search-and-destroy attitude from the PRO referees.
Last season we saw Walton acting in a pro-defense manner, when he declared that if there’s any doubt in a case of denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity, then the benefit of that doubt “would go to the defending team.”
Which gives cause for concern, because what MLS needs to be (no secret here, surely?) is a vibrant, attack-minded, goalscoring league, with the emphasis on offense, not defense.
I think I have discussed enough evidence to show that Walton carries plenty of the heavy baggage of English attitudes to the sport -- not just to refereeing.
And that is why I find his appointment so problematic. We have good referees in this country. But of course things can be improved, they always can. Whether we need an English referee, with those English attitudes, to show the way is highly debatable.
I consider him the wrong guy for this job. But he is not to be blamed for being the wrong guy. The blame for making a misguided appointment lies entirely with the bosses at MLS and the USSF. They are the ones who chose to reject Americans and who opted for English-style refereeing attitudes.
But ... the appointment has been made, Walton is in position. Possibly his claim to be “different” will lead him to a reappraisal of his English attitudes? The possibility should be hoped for, any signs of it should be encouraged.
Maybe the signs are there, rather faint at the moment. Let me try to grasp one of them. I asked Walton to let me see the memo he has undoubtedly sent to MLS referees, laying down what he expects from them this season.
“No, you can’t see it,” he replied, “Because there wasn’t one. I spoke with them. I told them, go out and enjoy yourselves. Let the game come to you rather than the other way round. There were no points of emphasis.”
So Walton, who condemned diving as the scourge of the modern game, does not make it a point of emphasis for MLS referees. That is encouraging. In soccer terms, does it mark the birth of a new, Americanized Peter Walton, or at least a de-Anglicized version?
I suppose it could happen. I’d rather like it to -- as I already said, Walton is the wrong guy, but a nice guy. But I remain deeply skeptical.