0 To play or not to play: a tough call for the referee

The two hardest decisions for a referee are judging if a tackle is worthy of a red card and deciding if a pitch is playable.

Phil Crossley called off Histon v Swansea during FA Cup weekend. Histon chairman Gareth Baldwin claimed the referee had been 'got at', while the official declared that his call was tough and 'probably the worst I had to make'.

Referees are no meteorologists, nor are they au fait with the latest in pitch technology - yet they are asked to determine the suitability of a playing surface when faced with fog, rain, ice and snow.

Before the teams arrive, the ref has to guess how much the surface might deteriorate a few hours later. He has to ignore groundsmen wanting to protect their pitches and also managers, some of whom will want the game played, and others - with players missing - who will want it off.

So, what factors does a referee need to take into account and exactly who can call a game off and when?

The principal decision is based on player safety and this weekend the presence of frozen ruts, which can slice players' legs, make a postponement relatively straightforward. A flat, hard surface is playable and not dissimilar to the ground in August but, as professional pitches are now so well maintained, some players often feel uncomfortable on them - which is why in cup-ties pressure can be applied on a referee not to play.

The decision is much tougher when the pitch has been partly exposed to the sun, while the rest is covered by the shadow of the stands. This can lead to an inconsistent surface. I remember telling Graeme Souness that his players would need to take extra care in one part of the pitch at Reading when he was managing Southampton. He replied: 'How can I ask my players not to give 100 per cent in certain areas? I want to win.'

I think his real message was: 'Call the game off, we don't fancy it' - and his team were beaten. In such circumstances the referee can toss the coin in the dressing room to decide which goal a team is defending to allow the players to choose the most relevant footwear.

Snow covering the field can often be a blessing as it can keep frost out of the ground and as long as the pitch markings can be seen (and an orange or yellow ball be located) playing on a whitened pitch is fine.

After players' safety, the second consideration for the referee is whether the conditions will allow a credible game to take place or if it will descend into farce.

While the local council often decide whether parks pitches are playable, it is the referee who makes the call in the national leagues. There have been occasions, though, when the pitch is playable but the police or local authorities have decided the terracing is too dangerous or the roads around the ground are not suitable and so the game is postponed.

At the top level, home clubs are not permitted to postpone a match but they must take the initial action when there is doubt over the condition of the pitch. The away side are contacted to ascertain travel details of both the team and their supporters.

Then the match referee is informed and whether an early inspection will be required on the day of the match. Referees try to inspect a pitch and make a decision prior to away fans departing and then inform the media so that unnecessary travel is avoided.

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