Fed up with merely cheering on her daughter from the sidelines, my wife returned to playing hockey herself this season. On the eve of an away cup match in Tyrone in the autumn, she notified me that her team lacked an umpire and asked (ahem, told) me to cover it.
This caused me a problem. Football was my sport, having reached the giddy heights of the Down Amateur League as a referee. Hockey was my father’s sport but, as the rules have changed dramatically since his day, this only caused a further disadvantage – it wasn’t that I didn’t know the rules, but rather that I did know the wrong rules…
Anyway, a combination of flattery and desperation saw me invited back and I have been umpiring at various club levels more or less every weekend since (the league season was due to end for the team to which I am specifically assigned last weekend but has happily been extended).
Since hockey is presented as football with sticks, what are the key similarities and differences in officiating each? Can they even learn from each other more?
I do not really like the representation of hockey as “football with sticks”, in fact, but plainly there are similarities – two teams of eleven (including, at least normally, a goalkeeper) try to score goals. That offences are penalised by frees, the game starts from the middle with all players except the taker in their own half, and the whole of the ball has to be over the whole of the line to be off the field (or indeed in the goal) also makes game play quite familiar for anyone moving from one to the other.
Some officiating skills are, inevitably, quite similar too. In areas such as presentation of decisions, game management (gauging “temperature” and such like) and even the pre-match chat to both teams the basic skills are the same.
Hockey is (or at least should be) a game of stick skill, with fluent play and filling appropriate space more important than rigid positioning. Therefore the first obvious difference for the official, as I have found to my cost on many occasions, is that in hockey the umpire must try to stay (literally) ahead of the game.
This task is made slightly easier by the most obvious difference of all (from an officiating point of view), namely that hockey has two umpires on the field. This was, in fact, originally the case with football too, with each club providing one umpire each and then one off-field official to whom they could “refer” if in doubt – hence the term “referee”. By the mid-1890s, football had brought the referee on to the field and taken the umpires off it to run the lines. Hockey retains the older system, which is a significant advantage in terms of management at amateur level as each club still takes responsibility for providing one umpire; and it is a significant advantage for the official whose fitness may not be quite at the level of a professional athlete, as at least they only have to stay ahead of the game in one half of the field!
Having a fellow umpire does add another aspect of the game to manage, but if done well can be a huge advantage over the loneliness of the football referee. Even though umpires have responsibility in the rules for one half of the field, in practice this can be split diagonally and it is possible to operate as a team for incidents even when they are much closer to one umpire (occasionally it may still be the case that the further away umpire has a clearer line of view). Mastering this, of course, takes more than the few months I have had!
There are a number of other differences. Penalties for the attacking team in the attacking quarter are a lot more complex – both in terms of award and procedure – in hockey than they are in football; offences in hockey seem often to occur on the ground (stick-to-stick, kicking/stopping with the foot, etc), whereas in football particularly in the British Isles they may be at or higher than eye level (holding, pushing at headers, etc); hockey umpires also have a much wider range of sanctions available to control the game (four levels and three cards all of which indicate different types of suspension in hockey, versus two levels and only permanent suspension in football; and in hockey the same card may even be shown to the same player more than once). Also, the basic signals used by officials are similar but hockey has rather more and is stricter about their use.
A marked difference is match timing: in hockey, the whistle must be blown to end the half/match absolutely on time (although in certain circumstances, despite the whistle, play continues until a set piece is complete); in football the referee has a lot more discretion and it is possible and indeed advisable to wait until an attacking movement is complete before blowing for time; in fact, the football referee rarely stops the (main) watch at all, instead merely calculating (typically in groups of half minutes) how much time is added on by checking the watch at the beginning and end of any stoppage. With its two-umpire system hockey instead has a specific system for signalling time stoppages and they are thus (in theory at least) calculated to the second, albeit with the assistance of extra technical officials at higher levels.
Hockey also has, in my experience, a unique interpretation of “advantage”. The rules indicate that an offence may not be penalised unless it specifically disadvantages an opponent (it appears this has been done to make up for abandoning a previous rule on “forcing” offences); this is a more stringent requirement for applying the penalty than football’s “advantage” which allows play to continue only if penalising an offence would disadvantage the beneficiary. In other words, the application of “advantage” is not so much at the umpire’s discretion and is dictated in many circumstances by the rules, and does not so much depend on whether the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty versus playing on as whether it has been disadvantaged by the offence. This can quite often mean than play continues (or, at least, should continue) when an offence is committed even if the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty to be applied. Exactly how this is interpreted is, of course, subject to debate.
One final quirk is that hockey umpires actually view the game from the other side of the field from football referees. Firstly, as noted above, it is important to stay ahead of the attacking team in hockey (as the other umpire can cover behind), to the extent of going off the field by the goal if necessary. Secondly, hockey umpires always stand and move to the right of the attacking team (hockey must be played right-handed so there is a tendency for attacking play to occur on the right). Football referees have come, however, to run a “left diagonal”; assistants now always run the line to the right of the attacking team, thus it makes sense for referees to position themselves to the left. This was not always so; in the past in some places (including the UK), what were then referred to as linesmen actually switched sides at half-time to protect the pitch and so referees ran alternate diagonals in each half; although the “left diagonal” became established in international competition post-War and was becoming the norm everywhere by the start of the Champions’ League era, it took until this century for the Premier League to insist on it.
Hockey is inclined to change its rules more often that football changes its laws (as distinct from interpretations of them).
It is possible to watch football from the beginning of colour television and notice very few differences – the laws around goalkeeper possession (there was once a requirement to bounce the ball when running with it and subsequently an outright restriction on significant movement with it in the hands, both of which were effectively abandoned alongside the introduction of the “back-pass” law in the early 1990s) and some restarts (notably the kick-off) have changed, and gradually more substitutes have been allowed, but very little else is noticeable. There have been some technical changes (the ability to score a goal or own goal from certain restarts); bookings and sendings-off are now more common; and at top level there is now a board to mark how much added time will be played as a minimum (and there is a lot more of this than there used to be). Alongside gradual liberalisation of the application of the offside law over the past three decades, that is all.
Hockey, on the other hand, has changed markedly. My father played in an era when it was still permissible to stop the ball with the hand (which is still legal in ice hockey); but then he also played on grass and the game has changed profoundly since the surface changed. Rules around playing the ball above shoulder height, certain forms of obstruction and, most notably perhaps, offside, have been abandoned; the procedures and requirements for penalty corners have changed markedly; technical rules have come (and sometimes also gone) to try to promote skill and adapt to changed techniques while restricting danger, with varying degrees of success. Temporary suspensions (“sin-bins”) were long allowed in hockey but have been expanded; rolling substitutes have become the norm. Frees may now be “auto-passed” (it is not necessary for the taker to pass the ball; they may simply continue to play it). The exact rules around the taking of attacking free hits particularly in the attacking quarter of the field (alongside the recent abolition of “long corners”) change frequently.
At amateur level, at least in Northern Ireland, the sports are also structured differently. Hockey umpires at club level are volunteers, but assigned to a club (with all the camaraderie that comes with that). Football referees are paid (well, at least, compensated) per game, but have to make do with the odd referees’ meeting for the social side. In Ireland, where there is a marked shortage of qualified hockey umpires coming through, some thought is now being given to compensation.
Compensation for football referees is not the norm everywhere either, however. A league I briefly refereed in in southern Germany in fact always had two matches played after each other and the nominal home club for each provided the referee for the other match – meaning that referees were assigned to teams but went without compensation; in others words, the system was much closer to hockey in Ireland than football. (Thus I personally would be wary of going the compensation route for hockey umpires, as it is not clear it is necessary if clubs take some responsibility for development; that said, interestingly, both refereeing and pitch standards were markedly lower in Baden-Wuerttemberg than in Northern Ireland!)
Football has already decided to learn from hockey and other sports by introducing “sin bins” and rolling substitutes to the laws of the game; these are not yet permitted at the highest level, but that is surely a matter of time.
There are also proposals for football to borrow hockey’s “auto-pass” at free kicks; that may be more complicated, as it is easier in hockey to assess whether the ball has been stopped before the free is taken than it would be in football. (Football also briefly experimented with “kick-ins” from the touchlines some years ago, effectively making the return to play from the side the same as the general return to play after an offence as in hockey, but this was swiftly abandoned.)
As with rugby, hockey also gives more responsibility to the captain of each team. Football would surely gain from something similar, making captains the primary or in many cases sole point of contact between a team and the officials may improve game management and respect considerably.
It is perhaps less obvious what hockey has to learn from football (since hockey folk have vastly more exposure to football than the other way around, it is probable that it is more inclined to learn from it). From the angle of the communications professional as much as the sports enthusiast, I would tentatively make one suggestion: hockey should have Laws, not just Rules. The Rules are, evidently, a patchwork of amendments and adaptations going back some considerable time, and it is not always obvious even to experienced officials how they link to each other, what their purpose is, and how they should be interpreted (particularly after amendments); indeed, in some cases, there are details missing which then appear elsewhere (even something as fundamental as the rule around the “Method of Scoring” does not take account for procedures at a penalty corner, which at best amend it and at worst contradict it). Carrying out a fundamental revision, as has recently occurred in football, in this case to lay out clear Laws of the Game (which would only rarely be amended) alongside regulations (which could be adapted more readily, even across different levels) would surely make the game easier for players and officials alike to manage, while also enabling more thorough consideration of concepts such as “dangerous play”, “contact” and “misconduct”.
Ease of officiating
Which one, after all this, is easier to officiate? There, I remain genuinely undecided. In some ways hockey is the more pleasant sport to officiate because officials remain associated with a club, and thus with the camaraderie that goes with that – football is a lonelier operation altogether! On the other hand, the Laws of Association Football are broadly simpler and easier to apply consistently. Perhaps the best bet is to try both…