Peter Walton is the head of MLS PRO, the organisation charged with improving refereeing standards in North America. We interviewed him over the phone shortly after the MLS Cup Final.
Prost Amerika: A year in, what is your assessment of the state of officiating here?
Peter Walton: The state of the officiating surprised me in terms of the depth of experience the guys have got. I’m pleased with the condition we find ourselves in at the moment.
Prost Amerika: What have you changed or started the process of changing since you arrived?
Peter Walton: One thing I’ve begun to change is.. I’ve looked at the education side of our officials. Being much more specific in the detail driven to them rather than just the generic topics to work around. Making sure we look at detail, then making sure that the coaches that coach our officials have the same educations as the officials themselves. So we have a consistency pattern going through. That may not sound like rocket science but it is something that has not happened in the past.
Prost Amerika: On the subject of education, do announcers, fans and even coaches need more educating in the laws of the game eg “last man” v “Denial of Goal Scoring Opportunity” (DOGSO) and “intent” v “making oneself bigger” in handball rule?
Peter Walton: I don’t know about need to be educated. I think they should be educated better. What you find is that people have pretty settled pre-conceived ideas of what a handball is or what a clear goal scoring opportunity is. They have their minds set and they are set in their ways.
What we need to do is make sure that all of us evolve along with with the world of soccer, and as we evolve along the lines of understanding what a handball is, or what ‘denial of a goal scoring opportunity’ is, then we’re all on that same page together. That’s something I am working on and thus the likes of you and I speak, so that there can be this cascading down of information from the professional level all the way through. But that will take time and there are perhaps individuals who won’t necessarily agree with the message I give. And that’s their prerogative.
Prost Amerika: What are the most valid and the least valid criticisms you’ve heard?
Peter Walton: It’s that word consistency; and that’s very subjective of course because that’s all the rules and all the laws that we work within. What I’m trying to do is to ensure that the guys are consistent between games themselves, rather than consistent between the whole group.
It’s very difficult when you’ve got two games running in parallel but because of the context, one game is different to the other one, it looks as if people are not being consistent. What they’re doing is using the rule to keep control and maintain the entertainment value of the particular game. So it’s very easy to say there’s a lack of consistency. That’s something that’s been thrown at me throughout the season. But we’ll work on that.
Prost Amerika: During the play-offs, many observers what we saw as an experiment with more liberal officiating, letting more contacts pass without whistling. It was deemed a success. Is it a foresight to how MLS may be refereed in 2013?
Peter Walton: It wasn’t an experiment. It was an extension of how the season has progressed. I’m not here to make radical changes. What I am here for is to drip feed different changes throughout the season so it evolves over a number of seasons. What we saw in the playoffs was some great entertaining soccer. That was a testimony to the teams involved and the players’ skill level involved.
I would like to say I take a little bit of credit for how the referees and the officials performed, and how they conduct themselves within the laws of the game. As I said before, the laws of the game are their fundamentals and we can be subjective as to how we decide which law to apply. Our referees have to ensure that wherever we expect something, it’s given and when people don’t expect something, that’s an area we need to look at.
Prost Amerika: Recent events in Holland and at Chelsea have made global headlines, is the security situation for referees worsening?
Peter Walton: I don’t think it is and that’s the honest answer. What’s shocked here is that you got two isolated incidents that have attracted far more media attention than they really should do. What we are endangering ourselves of doing is suggesting that we have an issue where an issue doesn’t exist. You do have an undercurrent of respect and that’s important. But in terms of taking those two isolated incidents, it’s just a coincidence as far as I am concerned which perhaps the media have built up more than they should have done.
Prost Amerika: A 16 year ref veteran told me that there are not enough referees because of abuse. Is referees falling out of the system a problem?
Peter Walton: That’s not just a North American trait. Turnover within the refereeing fraternity is immense throughout the world. If a referee survives the first two years, he’ll survive twenty. The reason for that is of course a) in their first couple of years, they gain experience and b) they are subjected to lower levels of soccer and it’s therefore it’s especially hard for them to control.
Prost Amerika: How can you make entering the system more attractive? Isn’t there a scheme to fast track ex- players?
Peter Walton: Yes that scheme is still in place and if there’s any player out there who sees refereeing as a career, the opportunity is open for him or her to progress through the ranks and I would welcome that.
Prost Amerika: Has anyone ever used it?
Peter Walton: Not to my knowledge in North America but certainly in other competitions throughout the world they have been used, yes.
Prost Amerika: Would you like to see a rule as in Rugby Union where only captains may address or speak to the referee and question calls?
Peter Walton: The captain doesn’t have any rights above any other player. On the field itself, it’s always nice to be able to isolate a perceived senior player so that communications can be easier. In terms of how I see it happening; if there is a senior player – and that player doesn’t necessarily need to be the captain, but one who can communicate with his players, then referees will use that person. But I don’t really want to elevate a captain up to a status where he doesn’t fall within the law.
Prost Amerika: Do you see any other path to eradicating the unseemly sight of players surrounding the referee en masse after decisions?
Peter Walton: In terms of respect in general, our ongoing policy within PRO and I know the competitions has a policy of respect towards match officials, but not only match officials, we’re also talking between player and player; coach and coach, and event down to the crowd. (We want) to create a system within a competition where people in office have daily contact with Supporters Groups to understand respect between supporters.
From that respect campaign – well it’s not a campaign it’s an ongoing education process – there’ll develop some great advantages. I do think a lot of them will cascade down on to the players. So let’s not get hooked on the point of respect being purely down to player against referee or coach against referee even within the football world itself. I’m quite at ease with the way players and coaches and referees respect one another at the moment. Of course there are avenues for improvement.
Prost Amerika: What would you like to achieve over the next 12 months?
Peter Walton: To try and build on the foundations we have put into place this year. I’m going back to that word consistency. I’d like to see the clubs and referees getting close together to understand those issues. I want to see them getting close together outside the cauldron of match days. So I’d advocate referees visiting clubs and coaches giving talks to referees so that we can understand one another’s issues.
So that on match day, the wider audience will be aware and understand just what our referee or our assistant does what he does; and the refereeing understanding just why a coach and players behave in terms of pressurised situations. I do think there needs to be an ongoing program to bring all sides together. We’ll always have our differences because that’s the state we are but I like to think in the next 12 months, we’ll see this evolving into a family of soccer instead of him and her situation.
Tomorrow: What We Think - Our editorial on the issue of respect for referees.