The Designated Player: Sympathy for the Devil

Peter WaltonI’m interviewing Peter Walton, the general manager of the new Professional Referees Organization, in his office in New York, and something’s nagging at me. He’s reminding me of someone, or something, that I can’t place. It’s not as simple as his accent — a flat, slightly nasal, Midlands English — though that’s what first alerts me. Nor, having focused on that, is it quite the tempo of his speech: precise, clipped phrases, words chosen with a tidy economy — and always at a pace with which there’s no danger of conversational momentum carrying him into dangerous territory. It’s around the time that Walton says “this year is about evolving, understanding, and collecting data” that it hits me — he’s reminding me of the Health and Safety Executive.

If there’s one unspoken entity that resonates with anyone conditioned by a childhood in England, it’s the HSE. A kind of mild-mannered Spanish Inquisition for the monitoring of loose wires, sand buckets at gas pumps, and curvature of glass tabletop edges, the HSE are more than a legislative body — they’re an undertow of caution that runs through the British psyche, since the first time someone thought to add “Here be monsters” to a parchment map. It’s a kink that means that no matter how far that British child may later travel and rebel, there will always be some part of him that is conditioned to preempt imaginary dangers. Even at Altamont, where the Stones had taken their break from the constraints of buttoned-down, postwar English austerity as far as it could go, to a freewheeling spiral of silk-scarfed, louche bedevilment, they still could not outrun this powerful instinct within them. It’s possibly why in the midst of the murderous mayhem captured in Gimme Shelter, you can clearly hear Sam Cutler, their fellow countryman and tour manager, crying out from the heart in adenoidal indignation, “You’re rendering that scaffolding dangerous!” The phrase, and the instinct it reflected, resonated at such a deep affective level of Anglo conditioning toward a legislated common sense that it even embedded itself within the chemically addled psyches of the Happy Mondays 20 years later.

So anyway, I’m chatting with the new English boss of MLS and U.S. soccer referees and in a Proustian rush of anxiety, I think of the Health and Safety Executive. Sorry. Suddenly finding myself hoping to dear God that the seat I’m sitting on is load-bearing, I cautiously proceed.

Peter Walton arrives at PRO after nine years as a Premiership referee. He refereed his last game in England on a Saturday this March, and on Monday he was in New York. Prior to being a Premiership ref he was an assistant and officiated in several memorable games, from the Cantona FA Cup Final in 1996 to the Euros that same year. He’s reffed Zidane up close (“what a player … “), officiated Brazil games (“Dunga. Red card”), and he’s also lived through an age that transformed not only the game in his native land, but also the professionalization of referees (“recovery time — that’s the main benefit”). It was during the latter process and a sequence of training trips to Ecuador, Venezuela, and Guatemala to deliver FA “master classes” in refereeing that Walton first got what he calls a “buzz” from developing the training culture for his peers. Now he’s been brought in by the joint stakeholders of MLS and U.S. Soccer to do the same in this part of North America.

And in bringing that Health and Safety image up I should say that it’s not that Peter Walton’s perspective or ambition appears limited or limiting (he’s just taken on a decade’s worth, and a continent’s worth, of work) — rather, what’s striking is a particular tenacious sensibility that’s less interested in dramatic face-lifts than in ensuring that the scaffolding is in place for work to start safely. Charged with bringing some of the most unfairly (and occasionally fairly) maligned officials in world soccer up to the standard of “world’s best by 2022,” the approach Walton describes seems measured, sane, and systematic — mixing sensitivity to the existing personnel and monitoring systems, with a desire to set clear standards for improvement. Anyone expecting a gunslinger arriving to clean house (“I’m looking for the one they call … Salazar … ”) may be initially disappointed by Walton’s assessment spreadsheets, “decision curves,” and talk of “cultural sensitivity” — but of those who have voiced misgivings so far, many of these are some of the same critics who are the first to jump down the throat of league management for a perceived excess of rapid innovations. There’s nothing rapid about Walton’s mooted project. I wonder how equipped the new man is for immediately handling the terrible restlessness that underpins American sporting culture — and by extension its commentariat?

“The most immediate challenge has been handling expectations,” says Walton. “The expectation of everybody. They suddenly find they’ve got this company whose sole ambition is to improve the standard of officiating throughout North America, with this ultimate goal that people around the world will look at North America and say, ‘That’s where we want to be.’ The trouble is managing expectation — I start here and it’s almost as if ‘everything is going to change tomorrow.’ But we’re dealing with humans here. We’re dealing with culture. We’re dealing with the league and how the league’s evolving and the playing side’s evolving and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The weight of expectation is perhaps more keenly felt for Walton as an Englishman arriving in North America to do this job. Starting in a period for the sport when the English hegemony at a marketing and branding level is near its cultural peak globally (with North America no exception), Walton’s appointment had the potential to read as an imperial one, especially in a working environment where the practitioners are already under a level of scrutiny that often seems informed as much by cultural cringe as objective analysis. MLS referees, like referees anywhere, have bad games, but there are arguably few other places in the world where each poor decision, let alone game, becomes an immediate local referendum on general standards in the league — beating up on MLS refs is a sport in itself. It’ll be one of the toughest perceptions to shift for the new man, though that’s not how he wants to frame the challenge:

“I’m not here to establish English referees. I’m here to make sure we have good North American referees. The culture and the game we’re looking at on this vast continent is totally different to what I’d be facing in England — for me to come here to try to clone people to become English referees is a non-starter. The type of football they’re faced with, the culture they’re faced with … the climate they’re faced with at times is just so different. So from the onset my idea is to build what’s right for this market. So in the first year, the public, coaches, players won’t see too much difference … this year is about evolving, understanding, and collecting data.”

Of the potentially meaningful stats to have emerged so far, the results of the standard referee monitoring are perhaps the most interesting:

“Out of 256 games so far this season, we’ve had 47 (below standard games) — 18 percent or thereabout. That’s a benchmark. That’s all it is … I manage by exception. I gather the reports on a Monday morning and look for below-standard performances that I then personally review and if needs be feed back to the referee’s coach.”

So what are the criteria for assessing performance?

“Each game that we operate in we have three avenues of information coming back in to me. One is from a coach, who will usually be an ex-referee from the North American system (there are currently 27 referee coaches working with PRO). Each referee has a coach assigned to them who watches the games and gives me a critique against a set bunch of criteria. Secondly, we have a command center here in New York that relays the games live, and each Saturday or Sunday I’d have two or three people in there collecting data about how the TV projects key match incidents, managing of players, quality of fitness — to give me a parallel report to the coaches. And the third source is from the MLS match evaluator — who is nothing to do with PRO — who as well as their report on the general running of the event for the league, also gives me an understanding about the empathy of the referee towards the players, how they deal with the technical area, how they use their own personality to impose themselves — rather than technical data about the application of law, it’s more a generic question of how does this person fit into this entertainment business.”

The latter phrase seems a curious choice of words, but in fact this is one of two times Walton mentions the entertainment business. The second time is when I push him not just on the model for information flowing to him, but on the feedback from referees to journalists and the public regarding controversial decisions. At this point he draws a distinction between information on the application of law (which he sees as helping referees do their job by fulfilling an educational role) and media requests to justify subjective opinion, which is (rather more dismissively) “a matter of entertainment.”

That question of referee feedback is another challenge with a particular local quality to it. A peculiar trait of MLS compared to other leagues is a general expectation of transparency and media access to players and club officials, within a league that still needs all the publicity it can get. MLS has also grown up in a digital age where the speed of reaction time and distribution of that reaction is becoming exponentially quicker. A careless remark near a microphone, let alone a bad tackle, can be tweeted, debated, and mob adjudicated before halftime. And from the outside there seems to be a corollary between the events that cause the most visible furor and the extent of the retrospective actions of the MLS disciplinary committee. The actions of the latter are another story, but somewhere in the mix are the match officials themselves. And despite the fact that a mechanism exists where within 30 minutes of the final whistle a nominated pool reporter can ask up to three questions of the referee on the application of law in key decisions, in the open-source world of MLS, even this relative openness tends to be regarded as a bottleneck.

Walton doesn’t worry himself unduly over this (“Do your job on the day — don’t second-guess yourself”) — as he sees it, the most concerning challenge of his new job is not cultural, but geographical:

“This is a vast country. If I call a meeting in London I can have everyone there in three hours. I call a meeting in Manhattan, it can take two or three days.” He cites the importance of face-to-face meetings being vital to creating the trust for dialogue, though — particularly with the MLS coaching corps. “My air miles are going through the roof — because it’s really important that people see “Who is this guy who sits in New York and does the role he does?” — That’s why I went x amount of thousands of miles to see Bruce (Arena) for 40 minutes, rather than just pick the phone up to him. Because we need to have a relationship and some trust, and I need to be able to say, ‘When I give you an answer you don’t agree with, you still have to accept it’ and for them to still feel able to ask the supplementary question.”

Putting to one side the difficult mental image of Bruce Arena struggling shyly with whether to ask a question of an official, supplementary or otherwise, I become dimly aware that I’ve been ushered calmly through our own exchange with barely so much as a final warning. Trying to summon my inner Rafa Marquez to see if I can get Walton to react, I glance round the room and notice a can of the spray that MLS refs use to mark the placement of free kicks and defensive walls and ask him what he thinks of it.

“I like it! I didn’t at first. I thought it was a gimmick that was just being used to appease other people outside the game, and when I got here it was probably one thing I was going to take away. But within two weeks of arriving I was phoning my colleagues in England up to tell them they were missing a trick. And in fact we had a visit mid-season from David Dein, who sits on the FA Council, and is an ex-vice chairman at Arsenal, and I gave him a little spray to take home and I told him ‘This is good stuff’ — so hopefully you’ll soon see it appearing in leagues around the world.”

If it shows up in England it’ll have to get past Health and Safety first. You could have someone’s eye out with that.

Walton smiles and ushers me out. As he does so, he is insisting that a good referee is someone whose name you struggle to remember.

Pleased to meet you — hope you guess my name …

Graham Parker leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for The Howler.

Filed Under: Graham Parker, MLS, Soccer