One On One with: Keith Hackett

Rated as one of the world’s top 100 referees of all time, Keith Hackett needs little introduction. As a solid referee on the pitch and an advocate for change off of it, Keith has had an influential career. From his humble beginnings in Sheffield, to refereeing in England’s top league, and in football’s largest international competitions, Keith brought a determination and professionalism to his role that earmarked him as one of the best. He led the way in bringing goal line technology and VAR to the English game, brought Prozone in to assist referees, and helped mentor the next generation of referees, including Howard Webb. We chatted to him recently about his career, the changes in technology helping referees and how he would change the offside rule.

Back Of The Net: You were born and raised in Yorkshire as were fellow referees Howard Webb, Philip Don and Uriah Rennie. Why do you think that area has produced so many great referees?

 Keith Hackett: We need to first of all consider Sheffield the city where Football was first played. Sheffield Football Club was formed in 1857, the club is officially recognized as the oldest existing club now playing football in the world…they played under the Sheffield rules and did not officially adopt these rules until 1878. The oldest football ground is in Sheffield at Sandygate Road, still played on by the second oldest club in the world Hallam FC. Many other historical facts are associated with Sheffield, South Yorkshire. South Yorkshire has had a thriving grassroots football scene for years and we were never short of games to referee with us all generally refereeing three games a week.

These games were physically challenging and our management skills developed at a pace as we controlled players from different backgrounds with many of them employed in the thriving local steelworks. We all started officiating at a young age and having officiated at amateur level for over 12 years, I was promoted to the professional game. We attended thriving association meetings on a monthly basis and we were able to listen to senior referees talk about their experiences.

Even when Uriah, Howard and I were officiating on the English Premier League and FIFA International games overseas we continued to referee at grassroots level. Howard Webb is without a doubt the best referee to come out of South Yorkshire, considering that he was selected to referee the 2010 World Cup Final. I am privileged to be named in this group. It would be wrong to not highlight the fact that before the three of us there was referee George McCabe, a Sheffield born who officiated in the 1966 World Cup Finals which took place in England.

BOTN: During the early part of your career, you were juggling a full-time job in sales with the job of refereeing. That must have taken up a lot of time and meant that you had to make sacrifices with your family. Was this part of the motivation you needed to push for professional referees? What do you see are the key benefits of having professional referees?

KH: I started my refereeing career in 1960 in Sheffield and after years of officiating grassroots football and semi-professional football on the Northern Premier League I was promoted to the English Football League in 1972. Nine years later after officiating the 100th FA Challenge Cup Final I was promoted to the FIFA panel of International referees which I served for ten years. After reaching the mandatory retirement age of 45, I continued for a further five years refereeing on the Football League and the Premier League when it was formed.

There were many challenges running two careers in parallel. Moving up the pyramid in my refereeing career posed many questions around my employment as a Sales and Marketing Director. Getting time off work for mid-week games and overseas appointments meant that I had to manage my time very effectively. This often meant taking days out of my annual holiday leave in order to officiate matches and I will always be grateful to my family for their understanding. I remember having officiated a World Cup game New Zealand v Australia. I returned to my hotel to be informed that the Chairman of the Company I had worked for seventeen years was unhappy that I was in New Zealand. I returned immediately to England and resigned my position.

Three months later I was appointed to officiate a UEFA Cup Final but had to decline this prestigious appointment unable to get time off from a board meeting. These events and the increasing physical demands on referees formed the catalyst of my desire to influence change to set up a group of professional referees. Four years after retiring, the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd company was formed.

Keith Hackett was part of the FIFA panel of International referees for a decade (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: In 1981, you refereed the FA cup final and replay after the first game finished 1-1. Do you think there should be replays in football or should the match simply go to extra time and penalties?

KH: I have a very clear view on this which supports replays on drawn games in the FA Challenge Cup. This arrangement in the early stages of the competition provides a cash boost to the smaller clubs that underpins their survival. On the games that are replayed, extra time of 15 minutes each way is played and should the score be still tied then the game is decided by penalty kicks.

 BOTN: You started refereeing at 32 and stopped just before your 50th birthday. How did your approach to the game change in that time?

KH: I actually started my refereeing career in 1960 at age 16 in grassroots football and when I was promoted to the Football league at 32, I was one of the youngest at the time. My enjoyment was gained from my passion for the game and having the privilege of being on the same field as some of the greats were plying their trade. Best, Maradona, Platini, Carlos Alberto, Kenny Dalglish. I was also travelling the world and being paid a match fee to do it.

BOTN: Thinking about fitness for a moment, you have spoken in the past about embracing sports science and nutrition as a way to improve your performance and recovery as a referee. How important is the role of sports science in preparing referees for the modern game?

KH: I am very clear that the involvement of Sports Science, Sports Psychology, Nutrition, and Vision Science are vital in the role of measuring and improving performance. To ensure credibility in all the support mechanisms to aid improved refereeing performance you have to move out of the world of perception and into the world of reality. In my active career I never received this support. However, when I was Development Manager and the General Manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) I witnessed at first-hand how Howard Webb bought into this and how he moved into being regarded as the World’s number one referee. This came from Howard’s personal dedication and working with the Sciences that the PGMOL provided. I worked with PROZONE to develop a Referee Performance analysis system where the match official could look in detail at his decision-making process.

We improved the average distances covered in games from 10k to 11.5k. The endurance training programmes changed to dynamic fitness programmes raising speed profiles in excess of 1,000 metres at speeds of 7 meters per second. Sprint figures rose from an average of 30 to 50 per game. Howard Webb’s preparation for the FIFA World Cup in 2010 took in heat and altitude training.

Prof Craig Mahoney opened the door and sold Sports Psychology to our group of officials. Prof Matt Weston produced training programmes and produced published scientific papers focussed on referees. The late Prof Gayle Stephenson introduced vision science and special exercises to improve peripheral vision. Nutrition programmes and advice had a positive effect on recovery programmes.

Howard Webb is put through his paces (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Is there a referee that you saw over your career who embodied this new approach to self-perseverance and improvement?

KH: Howard Webb and Mark Clattenburg and it was no surprise to me that they both attained number one world status in refereeing.

BOTN: Let’s switch our attention to technology in football. Over your career, you have been a pioneer in English football for the use of technology and were at the forefront of goal-line technology being used. Was there an incident in particular that made you passionate about this? The Pedro Mendes goal/no goal at Old Trafford against Roy Carroll springs to mind.  

KH: The modern referee’s performance at Premier League level is forensically examined by all stakeholders in the game. In my career I officiated in front of three cameras. Premier League referees operate in front of a minimum 22 cameras, super slow motion, and the presenter can focus through instant replay on any decision.

My solution was to bring balance and help to match officials:

  • Communication kits to improve teamwork
  • Buzzer Flags to attract attention
  • Performance Review (Prozone)

I was sat in the Directors Box at Old Trafford and watched two of our top officials unable to see and act when Manchester United’s Roy Carrol dropped the ball over the goal line. I was asked a few weeks later at the Premier League Shareholders meeting (attended by 22 clubs) what I would introduce to improve officiating. Goal line technology was my immediate answer. In the following months I worked closely with Dr. Paul Hawkins as they developed their system to meet the testing requirements of the IFAB. Five years later it was introduced after finally getting past Sepp Blatter’s strong resistance. It has proved a huge success. I have supported the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR) and we are on the pathway towards seeing it in operation in the Premier League.

Goal Line Technology was approved by the IFAB in 2012 (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: You have been critical in past year about VAR and its use in England, stating that whilst it has benefits it is not being used properly. What changes would you make to improve VAR?

KH: In England we are operating VAR under a cloud of experimentation. I do not understand why. The governing body The IFAB have set the criteria and we need to work to it. Practice will only improve the operators speed and accuracy of its use. I would like to see its immediate introduction into the Premier League.

BOTN: Should we simply have the fourth official reviewing the footage and liaising instantaneously with the referee on key moments?

KH: A small group of VARs should be appointed and allocated to operate on a regular basis with say two referees only. Each post-match performance should be analyzed and teamwork and trust in each other built. We then can work towards operating without the need of the use of Referee Review Areas and the need to leave the field of play to view video replays. Let’s move into a position where VAR can advise the referee what decision to make.

BOTN: There was an incident in a game your refereed at Old Trafford in October 1990. In the match between Manchester United and Arsenal, Brian McClair kicked Nigel Winterburn whilst he was on the ground resulting in a brawl. You gave yellows to both, plus to Rocastle, Limpar and Arsenal boss George Graham. If you had technology to help you then like VAR, would you have sent off McClair?

KH: Yes, he would certainly have received a red card. Following that incident, a mass confrontation protocol criteria was developed and still operates to this day.

Soccer - League Division One - Manchester United v Arsenal
Referee Keith Hackett (centre) breaking up the 21 man brawl between Arsenal and Manchester United players (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: It’s probably fair to say that the life of a referee is not an easy one and that they have to deal with an incredible amount of pressure, especially now with every decision hyper analyzed on a global scale. Do you feel that referees get enough support in their role, and are there things that could be done to improve the treatment of referees by the media, clubs and fans?

KH: Communication – the PGMOL have to engage more frequently with all stakeholders and media to help to educate and inform. This improved communication should gain added value in people, recognizing how match officials prepare, analyze and work towards better decision-making. Change perception into reality through education and improved communication.

BOTN: Referees are judged on how they manage the match, between letting it flow and strictly following the rules of the game. Thinking about the rules, are there ones that you think should be scrapped? Six second rule? Yellow Card for taking shirt off?

KH: Yes, I would promote several changes. Appoint independent timekeeper to games. Simplify the offside law.

BOTN: Simplifying the offside law?

KH: I would like to see the governing body, The IFAB, examine how they can simplify the offside law, and in particular the section that deals with interfering with an opponent. It is essential that the laws in football are understood by players, coaches and match officials so it can be applied in a consistent manner across the world and at all levels of the game. I do not have all the answers, but when you have current and former top officials in disagreement of certain interpretations then there is something that needs to be changed,

I would amend the law that offside can only be applied for an offence inside the penalty area. If an attacking team player is in an offside position inside the penalty area and the ball is played forward by the attacking team the player is flagged offside.

BOTN: You famously gave an indirect free kick to West Germany in their 1988 European Championship game against Italy. Germany scored (Littbarski touched it to Brehme who shot through a gap in the wall to beat Zenga). That goal gave the Germans a valuable point and potentially changed their tournament. It’s not a rule you see enforced often so did you hesitate about giving it? Most fans would not have picked up on it if you had let it go.

KH: Over the years I have studied carefully the laws of the game. Since 1981 I have written several books with comic/sports artist Paul Trevillion under the banner of YOU ARE THE REF. The law that I applied was relatively new and little used.

You are the Ref has run since 1957 in various publications (Image from Keith Hackett)

BOTN: Finally, some quick answers please. Should football introduce a Sin Bin? FIFA is rumoured to be mulling this over.

KH: Yes.

BOTN: Should football introduce a rule that only the captain can speak to the referee about decisions much like in rugby?

KH: Yes.

BOTN: Should referees have a voice after a game and be able to justify their decisions to the media and fans?

KH: No.

BOTN: Is there one game that you refereed over the years that sticks in your memory?

KH: The FA Cup Semi Final West Ham United V Nottingham Forest in 1991. We had been reminded on the Thursday before the game that our interpretation of DOGSO (denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity) was wrong and needed to be changed. Sadly, it happened and Tony Gale was dismissed. If that had happened before the revision earlier in the week Gale would not have even received a yellow card. That is why I am against change mid-season.

BOTN: What advice would you give someone who wants to become a referee?

KH: Listen, learn and enjoy.

BOTN: Thank you very much Keith. It has been a real pleasure speaking with you.

Keith’s book Hackett’s Law is available at most good bookstores or online.

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