With the standard in the National League higher than it has ever been before, is it time the quality of referees in the division improved too?

By Amos Murphy

King's Lynn Cleeve unhappy with standard of referees

Taking to Twitter to vent his frustration in midweek, King’s Lynn Town owner and chairman Stephen Cleeve criticised a number of refereeing decisions during his side’s recent 4-2 defeat at home to Notts County.

Questioning whether or not King’s Lynn ought to have been given two penalties during the match – despite replays suggesting one of the fouls had occurred outside the box – Cleeve sparked a debate online regarding the standard of refereeing in England’s fifth tier.

Unsurprisingly, the King’s Lynn benefactor’s replies were flooded with contrasting responses. Some were supportive, some were dismissive, but all raised the question: is it time the quality of officiating in the National League improved?

Questionable officiating across National League board

The actual incidents Cleeve referred to in his contentious Tweet, were debatable to say the least.

Firstly, Notts County’s Richard Brindley can be clearly seen cutting across the path of Linnets’ midfielder Ollie Scott, potentially denying the 22-year-old a clear goalscoring opportunity. Whilst the offence may have occurred outside the box, the referee didn’t even deem the foul worthy enough of a King’s Lynn free-kick.

The second of which was less than clear cut. This time the guilty offender being Matt Palmer, whose lazy-ish attempted tackle on Ken Charles doesn’t interest the referee at all. Would it have been a softy penalty? Yes. Have they been given? Also yes.

Ultimately, promotion-chasing Notts County ran out comfortable winners, despite King’s Lynn taking the lead during the clash. But, the debate started by Cleeve will ramble on, way beyond the ramifications of this result.

In the weekend prior to the Magpies visit to King’s Lynn, another video surfaced online of an incident during Dagenham & Redbridge’s 2-2 draw away to Torquay United. Make your own mind up about that one…

National League moving with the times

As many are quick to point out, the quality of the National League is continuously improving. There have been numerous calls for England’s fifth tier to become part of the Football League, with many believing the current two up-two down system should be replaced with a format that better represents meritocracy.

Non-league, at least at Step 1 of the pyramid, has moved on from its’ humble grassroots beginnings, and with the majority of sides in the division operating on a full-time professional basis, is it time officiating was taken to the next level too?

gary johnston torquay

Torquay United boss Gary Johnson wants the National League to become the EFL League Three Credit: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Currently, to referee In the National League, officials must be on the FA’s Panel List, also known as Level 2a – this gives referees full autonomy over fixtures in the fifth tier, be that as the main person, or as an assistant.

By contrast, to officiate in League Two, an extra hoop of qualification is required to go through, with referees needing to be part of the National List – a pool of officials exclusively able to take charge of matches in the fourth and third tiers of England football.

Matches in the National League are played at a same pace, if not quicker than the majority of League Two encounters, so it’s only fair the officials maintained such quality too.

Time for ex-pros to be fast-tracked into refereeing?

So, how is this issue fixed? Well, for starters, maybe it’s time to involve all the ex-professionals sat at home not doing much.

The biggest gripe for current players with referees is they just don’t know the game, but fellow peers would. They’d be able to distinguish the difference between an innocent shoulder-charge, and a dangerous shove to deny a goal-scoring opportunity, as seen in the King’s Lynn vs Notts County match.

Being handed a stepping stone into refereeing, as is the case in other sports like cricket, would mean English football at all levels retains the brightest minds in the game. If coaching isn’t for them, maybe a whistle and cards is instead.

National League product deserves much better

Granted, the standard of officiating in the leagues above the National League is called into repute on a daily basis, with the overall quality of refereeing across England’s top leagues in need of re-examination.

But with players expected to perform at levels beyond the National League, wages being paid at levels beyond the National League and supporters being charged at levels beyond norms for the National League, why should the standard of officiating be that of a quality below the National League?

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