Meet the 'ref czar'
Former EPL ref Peter Walton is on a mission to improve North American refereeing
There is just one item on the wall of what will soon become Peter Walton's New York City office: A framed letter from Sir Alex Ferguson wishing the former English Premier League official well in his new post as North America's Refereeing Czar and setting a date for a drink at Sir Alex's favorite NYC bar over the summer. Manchester United conspiracy theorists may scoff, but the letter is the perfect testament to the nine seasons Walton spent officiating in the cauldron of the English Premier League.
The Englishman has experienced a whirlwind of a year. In January, he was attending a Premier League training camp when the possibility of becoming General Manager of North America's new Professional Referee Organization -- an independent body created to improve the quality of officiating on the continent -- was first broached via phone. The timing proved to be opportune. "I had been thinking about my next step," Walton admitted, "When I started in the Premier League, it used to take two or three hours to recover physically from games. Nine years on, the pace of the modern game meant it took two to three days. I had begun to think enough was enough." He immediately flew to Chicago to meet with U.S. Soccer and MLS officials and by February, the job was his.
Many would consider the task to be a thankless one. 17 years in, refereeing remains a constant challenge for MLS. Last season, the inconsistent quality was a black eye for the league after two brutal tackles caused season-ending injuries to Seattle's Steve Zakuani and Dallas' David Ferreira, triggering an erratic outburst of red and yellow cards.
Soft-spoken yet enthusiastic, Walton is positive that the introduction of a series of small changes can create an enormous impact. Time spent in this optimistic 52-year-old's company is rewarding, both for the fresh perspective he offers on American soccer culture and for the rare opportunity to hear the game dissected by an elite referee.
Walton is currently waiting for his work visa to come through while navigating the upheaval of a midlife move from an English village, where he resided on five acres of farmland, to apartment living in midtown Manhattan. "My nearest neighbor used to live a mile away," he said sounding like the quintessential Englishman in New York, ruefully clicking on a digital photograph of his wife cantering down their driveway on horseback.
If Walton feels regret about leaving the bright lights of the Premier League, it doesn't show. English referees receive intensive training in positive thinking, and it shines through in almost everything, he says. "I wanted to leave the Premier League on my own terms, not because I was no longer fit or made massive errors. I departed at the peak of my career after refereeing my last game of the season, Everton against West Brom on a Saturday," he explains, adding proudly, "I took Sunday off, then flew to New York to prepare for my new role on Monday."
The chance to make a difference has Walton's blood pumping. "From a professional perspective it was a no-brainer," he elaborated. "Someone has given me a blank canvas to improve the American game based on my own experience in the EPL. Even if I just paint the walls I will have made a difference."
His marching orders were simple: devise a 10-year plan that will ensure that by 2022, North America is home to world-class referees. There are an estimated 144,000 officials currently officiating in U.S. Soccer, but only 33 operate in MLS and just two are full-time. "The total number is correct, but my emphasis will be on improving the quality," Walton explained, before laying out a romantic vision. "My hope is a 16- or 17-year-old kid in Nebraska will soon watch MLS on television, see the referees, want to be one and then work his way through to the World Cup."
This pipe dream may sound like some people's nightmare, yet Walton is nonplussed when asked what would motivate a teenager to embrace arguably the most thankless task in football. "Ooohhh! Refereeing is fantastic!" he exclaims. "To walk out with 50,000 people in a stadium with the ball under your arm. That feeling is so exquisite it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up."
"Knowing you will send people home happy far outweighs the negative experiences," Walton continues, referring to his professional embarrassments such as the 2008 overturning of a red card awarded to Frank Lampard, one that was deemed to be a "serious and obvious" error. "Even when you have had a bad game and you go home, throw your bag in the corner and swear you never want to ref again, I guarantee that within three hours, the thrill kicks back in and you will get your boots out to polish them for next week's game."
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When Walton began his career, he used to delight in waking up early on a Sunday morning and running to the newsstand with his daughter, eager "to see if Dad was in the papers."
"It took me a while to realize I only made the match reports for dreadful reasons, so I stopped reading them," he admitted, though the experience proved invaluable. "I believe in football. There is the controllable, and the uncontrollable. Referees can only change the decisions we make and what preceded them. We cannot change the media," he explains. "Referees will always be blamed by those seeking to abdicate their responsibility by dumping on people who don't have right of reply."
A former accountant, Walton now finds himself back in a bureaucratic position, building a start-up organization with a staff, office and five-person board (consisting of 2 MLS representatives, 2 U.S. Soccer, and one from FIFA). His strategy, though still hazy, revolves around a two-tier plan to identify and fast-track the most promising referees into MLS that, it is hoped, will significantly increase the number of full-time referees in the U.S. while building out the grass roots to identify and subsidize the development of raw young talent.
Contrary to expectations, Walton declares himself to be "pleasantly surprised" at the standard of American refereeing. "The problem is not bad refereeing, it is just inconsistency and occasional naivete ... American referees just need a slight change in direction in how they orchestrate and control games," Walton explains. "Reading the rulebook and knowing the law is only the first step. The key lies in knowing how to apply it correctly."
At this point in our conversation, Walton becomes visibly excited, leaning across the desk and delivering his refereeing mantra. "I talk about 'The Feel of The Game' a lot," he professed. "The referee's ability to see the game's big picture and recognize that when two teams want to play football, we allow them to do so, or if they want to kick each other off the park, we can fulfill our obligation to protect both the players and the profile of the game."
This "feel" is born of an attention to subtlety. "Refs must recognize when the center half and forward are not getting on well or spot the little Scottish ginger-haired midfielder -- there's one in every game -- who wants to ref the match for you." But it becomes absolutely critical in countless decisions when the referees are instantly required to exercise discretion. "Some decisions are mandated by law, but there are times when referees can make choices and it is critical officials look at the big picture."
Walton illustrates the point with the aid of a hypothetical. "When a player makes a challenge that endangers an opponent's safety and everyone in stadium just goes "Ouch!" the law dictates "Red Card." But if the player already has a caution and the challenge is merely worthy of a second yellow, I would prefer to see a referee employ a management technique: talk to the player, calm him down and let everyone know that the he will get another card if the offense is repeated." For Walton, a referee's prime value is to "give the game every opportunity to take place on the field."
When asked if this "feel" can be taught, Walton admits it takes time. "You have to experience your share of mistakes and learn from them to really appreciate it," he said. "My big challenge is that in the great swath of North America, we don't have many pockets of lower-level football to expose people to before they get to the top and that is the problem I am facing -- to create enough experiences for my refs to get sufficient day-to-day experience to develop "The Feel."
Our conversation is interrupted by the buzz of Walton's phone, a text message from Bolton Wanderers' Kevin Davies that provides a convenient segue to Walton's second point. "It's imperative referees in MLS culture start building relationships with players and coaches. I have learned so much by spending time with them outside of the pressure cooker of match day and that is something I need to introduce here."
Ever the optimist, Walton believes his impact will be immediate. "Hopefully you will see a difference this season. With small changes, I believe the end-of-season storylines can focus on the continuing development of player quality rather than the failure of refereeing." He admits his dream runs counter to the role of refereeing in wider American sports culture. "Baseball and NFL both allow refs or umpires to have their moment on center stage. I would prefer the public ignore MLS officials simply because we do nothing controversial," he declared. "People don't pay big bucks to watch the referee. We can be characters, we can be effervescent, but we have to realize we are just part of the jigsaw and a small part at that."
I notice the Football Association referee's bag at Walton's feet and wonder whether he expects to feel any remorse when the new EPL season kicks off on August 18th. "I will look at the results," he admitted quietly, "and I will look to see who is reffing what games, but I won't feel sad. This is a natural progression for me, and I find it very energizing to push Major League Soccer forward." Walton's training in positive thinking has suddenly kicked in and he reclines in his seat to emphatically declare, "I believe there is no looking back in life. It's all future for me now."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.