Soft Signals and Hard Lessons

The manager might change (or come back) but the refereeing remains constant. We had another bizarre performance from an official on Tuesday and the late equaliser we conceded came from a very poor decision.

Managers often twist the truth post-match to suit their interpretation of events, but Dean Keates’ explanation of the throw-in decision is the only possible one which is supported by the facts.

Throughout the match the referee was employing soft signals. It’s what cricket umpires do when they’re uncertain about what happened and refer a decision to the third umpire. When they do so, they give a soft signal to indicate what they think is the correct call. If the third umpire isn’t certain that the soft signal is wrong, it stands.

Tuesday’s version of the soft signal was a very different thing. The referee was abdicating responsibility, hinting at a decision to his assistants and inviting them to overturn it. It wasn’t part of a process, like in cricket, it was weak refereeing. This wasn’t teamwork, it was the leader failing to lead. The decisive throw-in decision was a case in point.

1. The ball goes out for a throw-in after a challenge between Jazzi Barnum-Bobb and George Smith, seeming to come off the Harrogate man last.
2. The referee gives a soft signal, awarding the throw to Wrexham. He is closer to the incident than the fourth official with an unimpeded view.
3. He changes his mind and points in the other direction.
4. The linesman follows his lead and gives the throw to Harrogate.

I’m not saying a referee can’t change his mind, and I’m not saying he shouldn’t take advice from his officials (although I did check the laws of the game to make sure the fourth official can actually do this: it was written in an ambiguous manner, but I reckon he can!). The important thing is that the decision is correct.

That’s not what happened on Tuesday though. The officials didn’t know what happened, and the referee allowed the fourth official’s hunch to change his mind. Most refs would have given the throw to us, and the equaliser wouldn’t have happened. Indeed, if the dug-outs had been built on the other side of the pitch the fourth official wouldn’t have been able to influence the decision and Harrogate wouldn’t have got an equaliser from it.

Which is, simultaneously, important and irrelevant. What I said in the last paragraph is certainly true, but plenty more happened after that throw before the ball went in. We defended the throw poorly, and that was what really cost us. VAR wouldn’t have overturned it as the throw was in a phase of play which occurred in the far distant past. As Shaun Pearson said post-match, we need to cut out the mistakes which are costing us. The referee was poor, but that’s no shock in this league. We can only control what we do, and we failed to do that on Tuesday. Hopefully Dean Keates will be able to address that.

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