Why an English ref boss doesn't suit U.S. soccer

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.

17 comments about "Why an English ref boss doesn't suit U.S. soccer".
  1. feliks fuksman, March 20, 2013 at 7:48 a.m.

    I guess time will tell. Meanwhile, I personally, disagree with a few of Mr Walton's opinions and suggestions to our referees. Low key refereeing, for example, is great when the players want to play the game, moreover, both teams have same type of players and styles (which is many times not the case), nevertheless, as we see too often, (especially with less skillfull player and more physical minded players (the enforcers), some of the so called famous and over the hill players, many. times trouble players), most want to test the referees early, which is ok; actually great for a smart referee, because it gives the referee a chance to show the players early, what is going to be ok today and what is not going to be allowed.
    Again, my personal opinion (by the way shared by many people I speak with), there is too much dissent allowed in MLS; too many players, are allowed to make a circus of the game, too often too preoccupied with telling the referee what he or she should call or not, instead of showing what he or she is paid to do

  2. Frank Cardone, March 20, 2013 at 7:57 a.m.

    Another excellent analysis from Paul G.
    Is it truly necessary to have not one, but two Englishmen at the helm of PRO. It was one thing to feel this way back in the late 1960's and throughtout the 1970's, but this is an outdated and dangerous point of view for MLS and USSF to take in 2013. I hope I am proven wrong, but I do not see these two men helping MLS present creative, offense-minded soccer while clamping down on dangerous play and unruly behavior. Hiring these two men does not appear to be the right first step.

  3. feliks fuksman, March 20, 2013 at 8:25 a.m.

    Mr Walton's choice of referee for the final I think was good; I have seen Mr Petrescu before and he seemed consistent, fair and with good decisions most of the time.
    As far as the chats with players (EPL style), good luck; unless the league strongly supports this and tells the players that they must do so when the referee requests for it or there will be reprecoutions, again, good luck; I strongly, believe that communicating with players is very important; you should try everything else before using the cards, if possible; Nevertheless, some times, it is not possible, and a card must be shown early, moreover,on rare occasions, unfortunately, even a red card must come out. Safety of the players (especially players who want to play the game) must be the referees first concern. As far as trying to cheat, diving, faking the severity of the fouls, delaying the game, lock of respect for the game, opponents and spectators, there is way too much of it in our present game most of the time. Everybody concerned, (the players, coaches, league officials and referees), should work together to protect our beautiful game.

  4. beautiful game, March 20, 2013 at 9:10 a.m.

    Paul makes a good argument. There are plenty of qualified Americans to head the league's ref department...I'm in agreement that Petrescu has a consistent history of leting the game go to its fullest limits, and many of the 'softer' refs like Toledo are becoming more lenient. Bottom line is that the MLS corp of refs are delinquent in enforcing the rules of the game,i.e., encroachment, proper distance marked off for a free kick, and swalloing the whistle during the cornerkick mayhem, tckles from behind, etc.

  5. R2 Dad, March 20, 2013 at 10:52 a.m.

    I would have liked to hear more from Walton on the state of refereeing in the BPL. Perhaps PG would have gotten a more specific look at Walton's values, rather than this direct approach. What I don't get from this article is how good of a communicator and administrator Walton is, and that's critical. Every year there are issues/trends that must be addressed: an overabundance of excessive force non-calls, wrestling in the box on corners, DOGSO, etc. The position's real worth is determined when a refereeing performance/issue blows up in the media. How is it addressed? How do the referees respond? Is the problem quelled or continues to linger? The qualities required to manage these blow-ups are just as important as assessing at year end and training ahead of the season. I don't believe foreign referees are any better or worse than foreign coaches, but not all adapt well to the US. Having said all that, right behind player safety should be protecting skilled players and I don't know how well the MLS is doing that.

  6. Charles O'Cain, March 20, 2013 at 10:53 a.m.

    Peter Walton was an excellent referee in the EPL. I personally can't think of an American referee in MLS to whom I would feel comfortable applying that descriptor. Choosing him for his present position as head of PRO seems no more unusual than choosing Mr Gardner for his, writing for Soccer America. Both are Brits, though perhaps only one retains pride in his heritage and probably life-long cultural involvement with Association Football (did Mr Gardner really grow up calling it "soccer" , and is his present use of that term really less pretentious than a US-born citizen's use of "football" to designate the same game; does Mr Gardner dream of soccer or football?). The thesis here is that Mr Walton should not have been chosen, and is unlikely to do anything right simply because he is from England. This comes as no surprise to any regular reader of this column. The main point of contention seems to be diving/simulation, which Mr Gardner does not even consider a problem, while Mr Walton recognizes that it is. Dangerous, reckless play is definitely worse, but all danger cannot be banished (if slide tackles are to go, so must contested or diving headers, overhead volleys and goalkeeper punches). Referee-initiated player talks are fine; players mobbing refs and calling for cards is not. Referee judgement regarding which contact to consider foul play is entirely appropriate (would Mr Gardner have called all 22 "fouls" in that MLS Cup first half, and if so who would have stuck around to watch the second?). Having watched performances in several leagues (and now that Collina has retired) I lean toward the German and English as the better officials. Fairness, and not perfection, is what we should expect from both referees and players.

  7. Charles O'Cain, March 20, 2013 at 10:58 a.m.

    And not to mention Soccer columnists.

  8. Martin North, March 20, 2013 at 11:04 a.m.

    The anti-English nature of this piece disturbs me, but that is nothing new hen it comes to Mr. Gardner's writing.

    This piece contains so many fallacies that I barely know where to begin.

    English attitudes to refereeing, he claims, "are out of kilter with the modern game." To "prove" his opinion, Mr. Gardner uses ONE 13-year-old quote from Thierry Henry, a player who came to thrive in England - a land, Mr. Gardner would have you believe, where defending rules and attacking flair (like diving) is disdained. That is, of course, biased nonsense.

    As far as I'm concerned, this "permissive refereeing" that Mr.Gardner so disdains ensures that a soccer game ebbs and flows in a natural way. Who wants to see a game constantly interrupted by free kicks and ruined by needless cards? Does Mr.Gardner claim that serious/dangerous offences are going unpunished? He can't say that because, with the exception of a few missed calls (like this past weekend's incident in the Wigan v Newcastle game), permissive refereeing doesn't mean we are still living in the 1970's, with lunging studs-up tackles and elbows into ribs.

    Some of Mr.Gardner's opinions confirm how out-of-touch he is with the game. Slide tackles are always studs up? He's either blind or stupid. Or both.

    And why is he so critical of anybody who raises the issue of diving? From Mr.Walton's perspective, I can perfectly understand why diving is so problematic. It makes a referee's job exponentially harder when they have to detect whether a foul is genuine or simulation. I don't consider taking a dim view of diving, which makes a referee's job harder and soccer a laughing stock among some potential fans, to be fatuous.

    Probably Mr.Gardner's most ludicrous attack on Mr. Walton is this:

    "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."

    Do you really think it's unusual that he would describe his teammates in that way. When anybody leaves a set of colleagues that they have come to trust and respect, they will more than likely pay them a compliment like Mr. Walton does. To suggest that this implies some arrogance or disrespect to American officials is absurd.

  9. Millwall America, March 20, 2013 at 11:15 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner, it seems perfectly understandable to me that MLS would want to bring the English game to America and would therefore hire an English ref boss. While there are endless debates about which football league is the "best" in the world (whatever that means), there is no debate about which is the most popular. It's the EPL by a large margin. For whatever reason, millions of people worldwide want to watch the English game and the EPL's global fanbase continues to grow. MLS wants to grow in popularity, so why wouldn't they try to do so by playing the game the way it is played in the most popular league in the world? There aren't many people clamoring for the MLS to look like La Liga (other than you).

  10. Eric R., March 20, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    I usually disagree with Paul's analysis, but I must say, this time I tend to agree. I'm not sure what the PRO has done. They started a disciplinary committee, sure. Mr. Walton said last year that they would review the video of carded offenses to decide if additional discipline was merited. But then they started randomly disciplining people this pre-season without any video. So I don't really know what the point is.

    That said, there are many great leagues in the world where the style of play is less aggressive and still very watchable. Italy, Spain, Brazil, even Mexico. I think as a starting point, Mr. Walton should be allowed to finish what he started, but I also hope MLS eventually brings in "outside experts" from someplace other than than the UK.

    Mr. North (commenter above) noted EPL is the most popular league in the world. He's right about that. But I feel that has a lot more to do with the history of English soccer clubs and their ability to market globally than anything else. I do watch EPL and there are certainly some great clubs out there, but the parity of MLS suggests that to get better quality prospects, you'll need to increase the league's skill. And those types of players take a long time to adapt (if ever) to MLS's aggressive style.

  11. Doug Broadie, March 20, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

    I watched several games this weekend and my general feeling was "Why is the ref even on the field". There was so much hacking and "professional" fouls at mid-field. Roberto Clark, we were told, was out there to "break the rythem of the other team". I would rather watch a game from Italy, Germany, or Spain than a game from England with all it's running around, studs up tackles and the like. I watched the Barca game and it was very entertaining. Yes - fouls were called. In the Seattle - Portland game, I thought that Eddie Johnson had a goal scoring opportunity taken away and now I know why. There should have been a red and a free kick. I think there were about 40 fouls called in that game and ref didn't bother with the other 70 that should have been called. It was a brutal game to watch as the ref didn't bother to put in the control needed for the game and then extend it when the players earned the right to play a little more physical. A coach yelled at me to "Let the players play" and I replied, "I will, as soon as they stop trying to kill each other". I saw more studs up plays this weekend than any other. I must agree with Paul on this column. A rare thing in my life.

  12. A douglas Stone, March 20, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.

    While I am sympathetic to the main thrust of Paul's concerns about permissive refs, I must disagree with his point about slide tackling. A classic slide tackle done from the side with the correct (outside) foot does not involve studs up as an injury risk. For example, if the attacker and defender are running parallel with the defender to the right of the attacker, the defender will go to ground sliding on his left side/leg and sweep his right across the path of the attacker contacting the ball with the top of his boots and with the cleats pointing away from the attacker; in the best case he actually pins the ball against the attacker, who is not contacted by anything but the ball and it is a completely safe play (even if the attacker may subsequently fall because of his contact with the trapped ball at speed). You can't take that out of the game, because other sliding challenges are dangerous and illegal.

  13. David Mont, March 20, 2013 at 3:47 p.m.

    To Martin North: can you please explain how it is possible for a slide tackle not to be studs up? Unless your boots have no studs, that is.

  14. Charles O'Cain, March 20, 2013 at 7:29 p.m.

    David: watch Ryan Giggs. A thousand senior matches, with ONE red card, and it's not due to "permissive" refs. It's one foot tucked under, with the leading foot plantar-flexed, dorsum of foot toward the ball and "tacklee". I don't know of anyone who does it better.

  15. beautiful game, March 21, 2013 at 6:26 p.m.

    To Doug Broadie, on the money bro....the hacking will continue until the quality of players reaches the appropriate standard; however, we have a long time to wait for that to happen.

  16. Jogo Bonito, March 22, 2013 at 4:03 a.m.

    as usual PG is right on top of this one. Hiring yet another Brit is mind-boggling to me. unfortunately it's the norm around here.

    british ref bosses
    british commentators
    british coaches
    british academy directors
    british camp counselors
    british players
    british owners
    british directors

    strange that we would employ so many brits when great britain produces very few players of top international quality and some of the least watchable soccer anywhere.

    i do like the BLP but mainly because of the all the great players from outside of GB. I like history and the production quality of the BLP games.

    i like british many commentators, but i like it when they do british games - not USNT or MLS games.

    england usually cant find a decent british manger for their national team. we'll see how successful RH is

    astonishing really.

  17. Marc Silverstein, March 19, 2015 at 8:27 a.m.

    Mr. Walton is headed back to the FA and starts his new job in August.

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