With the simultaneous sensation of sharks circling around him, and a Sword of Damocles dangling above him, Steve Bruce may be forgiven for not paying heed to a relatively prestigious milestone that will occur with this weekend’s fixture at Vicarage Road. For the first time in the history of the Premier League, a game will be refereed by a foreign national.

 

This Saturday Jarred Gillet will walk out at Watford and make history, in what seems a long overdue addition to the English game. The fact that we have, for so long, appreciated the impact of foreign players, managers, coaches and pundits, makes it somewhat remarkable that we’ve had to wait so long for a foreign ref. This seems only all the more astonishing when you think of the actual quality of refereeing in this country. Although refs are often an unfair (but easy) target for criticism, the job description and responsibilities of football’s middle-man have changed dramatically in recent years, and none of the PL’s current crop have succeeded in mastering the addition of the video assistant.

 

Since the introduction of VAR, the Select Group 1 of Premier League refs (most of whom resemble crusty old science teachers) have struggled, at best. True, they haven’t been helped by the governing bodies, as the definitions of ‘hands in natural positions’ ‘clear daylight’ and ‘straight lines’ seem to be changing week by week, but refereeing as we all know is about more than making sure that the laws are adhered to.

Refereeing is about using common sense to allow the game to unfold at the right rhythm and pace, communicating with fans, players and coaches, and making sure that you are a voice of reason, as well as authority. A shame then, that while trying to navigate their way around the new technology, most of the Premier League refs have borne a pretty vivid resemblance to a secondary school Biology teacher trying desperately to display the periodic table on a brand new interactive whiteboard, while bored students chat amongst themselves at the back of the classroom.

 

Enter, Jarred Gillet. The Australian whistle blower is the record 5 times winner of the Hyundai A-League Referee of the Year award, and was brought to the UK by his post-graduate doctorate study at the John Moores University, Liverpool. He has experience refereeing all over the world, and has spent a year as man in the middle in the Championship, so should be well acclimatised to the pace and dynamism of the English game.

 

What makes Gillet most interesting however, is a video that was put onto twitter by BT Sport (you can see it here). To mark his final game in the A-League in March 2019, a fixture between Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar, Gillet agreed to be mic’d up, so that fans watching at home could be party to all of the conversations held with his assistants on field, and in the VAR studio. Condensed into a 4 minute highlight package, we see Gillet maintaining a light hearted yet authoritative nature throughout the game. He has a colloquial but measured relationship with all the players, and keeps both captains informed of his decision making on the big moments. This is made most apparent when a goal is scored by Melbourne Victory with two very close offside calls in the build up. With everyone almost immediately turning to Gillet to check on his verdict, he first indicates that he needs to talk to his on-field assistant. Having done so, he then refers to VAR, before requesting to look at the monitor so that he can still have the final verdict. Once he has had the opinions of both his on-field and video helpers (for that’s what they are), and seen the replay for himself, he awards the goal, heading immediately to the defending captain to explain his decision. The whole process takes under a minute.

 

We may be a long way from having mic’d up refs in Premier League games, but there’s a lot to be learned from that short 4 minute video. Not least the way in which Gillet manages to fulfil all the duties of a modern referee – from sporting, to social, to technological – with remarkable aplomb.

I believe it would be a great addition to be able to hear what discussion the referees were having, not least because above all else, referees need to be relied upon. And to be quite honest, I’m not sure I’d trust Mike Dean to make me a cup of tea, let alone make an informed, high-pressure decision in front of 52,000 baying spectators.

 

Throughout the recent Euro 2020 tournament it was remarked on time and again how well the officiating staff used VAR to help with the game, not allowing the technology to take over or create confusion. Seamless refereeing, whilst using VAR to its full potential, is certainly far from impossible. Indeed, it’s a change that many fans actually demanded. It seems then, that the main problem with the implementation of VAR into the Premier League, has been the inability of the doddering old science teachers to adapt. I don’t want to blame them too harshly for that, but the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) needs to realise that refereeing is now a different job. And it will only continue change, as will the rest of football. Hearing what the men in the middle are saying would, I believe, be a fantastic way of keeping fans informed, and removing the horrific sense of alienation we all feel when all we can rely on for information is a large screen with big purple letters stating callously and cold heartedly; ‘OFFSIDE, NO GOAL’.

 

It is understandably a tricky job to manage the constant changes and developments in football, but nevertheless that is now one of the principal responsibilities of the modern referee. Keeping fans and players informed, keeping a handle on the high pressure situations, and making sure we all still feel like we know what the hell is actually going on.

 

I wish Jarred Gillet the very best, and hope that this is just the start of an influx of more modern, pragmatic and sensible referees woking in the Premier League, whatever country they happen to be from. I only hope he’s able to keep his focus this weekend, as he’ll probably be witness to a style of football so dull and monotonous, he may well slip into daydream and wish he was back refereeing the Newcastle Jets of the A-League, rather than Steve Bruce’s downward spiralling magpies.

 

 

Ed Cole