Michael Oliver on VAR, not sending off Pickford and referee 'bias'

At last, a ref gives an interview! And Michael Oliver doesn’t disappoint as he backs VAR, reveals Liverpool’s stars did NOT call for Pickford to see red for his Van Dijk horror lunge… and why he’ll never officiate a Newcastle match

  • Premier League referee Michael Oliver spoke with Sportsmail’s Oliver Holt
  • Contrary to fan opinion referees do not express dislike to any sides they officiate
  • Oliver likes VAR and says fans would ask for it back should it be abandoned
  • He now admits Jordan Pickford should have been sent off against Liverpool 

Michael Oliver is not wearing a dunce’s hat. Nor, as far as it is possible to discern, does his neat black hair conceal devil’s horns. He does not express any visceral dislike of the team you support. 

He does not name a player he is itching to send off or a manager he has it in for. It might come as a surprise given the silence that is usually imposed on our best referees but his voice actually makes him sound suspiciously like a human being.

In fact, let’s go further. Given the relentless abuse and mockery that is the lot of a Premier League referee, Oliver is remarkably free of self-pity or resentment or anxiety or distrust or defensiveness or arrogance.

In a rare interview Michael Oliver spoke with Mail on Sunday’s chief sportswriter Oliver Holt

He loves his job, he says. He loves working with the best footballers in the best league in the best stadiums in front of the best fans. He loves football, basically. And in turn, the game should count itself fortunate it can rely on people like him.

Oliver, 35, is a Newcastle United fan so he knows what it is to be a supporter who feels that the world is against you. ‘Every decision against Newcastle is a bad one,’ he says, with a grin. 

‘That’s the way it works. Look, some of the things supporters say are from a different planet. You can take them with a pinch of salt because you know they are so focused on wanting their team to do well and it is never their team’s fault and there is always a reason why they got beat.’

He refuses to dwell on occasions he has been targeted, like the time three years ago when he awarded Real Madrid a last-minute penalty in the second leg of a tie against Juventus in the Champions League. 

It was an obvious penalty and a straightforward decision but that did not stop Oliver being vilified by Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and sections of the Italian media.

Abuse quickly followed. Oliver’s wife, Lucy, also a referee, had a Twitter presence so much of the anger was directed through her. ‘Go do the dishes, we kill your husband,’ had a light touch compared with some of the other messages. 

‘You have to die,’ another informed her, ‘and that piece of s*** your husband.’ Some dispensed with the pleasantries. ‘Man of s*** must die,’ one read. To add to the fun, someone screamed abuse through the letterbox of their home.

VAR is the talking point week-in, week-out, but Oliver says fans would demand to have it back

It was an extreme example but being a referee is never easy. From the outside, it is thankless. It is always his or her fault.

Some thought that the introduction of VAR would change that and that controversy would disappear. Some worried there would be nothing to argue about in the pub any more. Instead, the introduction and implementation of VAR, pitchside monitors, new handball rules and close offside decisions have become national obsessions.

They have also become sticks with which to beat referees. New sticks. As if there weren’t enough before. The new procedures are often cited as evidence that referees are automatons who have no feel for the game. When people say the rules are ruining the game, it often feels as if they are blaming the referees for enforcing them.

‘I know VAR has become an obsession,’ says Oliver, ‘but I am for it. There is all the clamour about it changing the game. But if you scrapped it tomorrow lunchtime, all you would hear all weekend would be people shouting “that would be a pen with VAR”. As soon as you moved it away, people would want it back.

‘Ultimately, even with VAR, it’s still my decision. I’m the one who makes the decision on the field. And if I get it right first time around, there is no reason for VAR to get involved. Now that I can go and watch on a pitchside monitor, you’ve got a second chance, too. You can change your mind or stick with it.

‘As a referee now, you should never be driving away from the ground dreading watching Match of the Day on a Saturday night or dreading Sunday morning stuff on Sky. That can only be a benefit. I have had games in the past, before VAR, where you are driving home and you are the only person in the ground who thought it was a pen and when you found that out, it was too late.

‘Now you have got the technology to figure it out. We have the debate about “clear and obvious” but I don’t know how you get to a place where everybody is going to be happy with it. It’s all still subjective. It’s still somebody’s opinion. You make the decision on the field and somebody then has the chance to look at it again but when we sit and discuss clips weekly on Zoom you put 16 of us in a room and we are split 8-8 or 9-7 or 10-6.

‘I think VAR’s helped the game. You are getting more fair decisions. You are getting the acceptance of players. If you go across to the monitor, there is more of an acceptance on-field because players are happy that at least two people have seen it. You have seen it live, someone else has seen pictures.

‘There is not as much holding in the penalty area as there was three or four years ago, for instance, because people are conscious it’s more likely to get spotted and that can only be a good thing. There should be a cleaner game. The teams that score a winner with an offside goal in the last minute no longer do.

‘It’s helped with the abuse we get, too. Players are not complaining persistently about decisions that happened 20 minutes ago. They are happy it’s been spotted, happy it’s been checked. They say what they think and then the world moves on. You look at the infamous Andy D’Urso clip of 20 years ago [when Roy Keane led a group of Manchester United players screaming in the referee’s face]. I have not seen that type of reaction for years.’

Referees still get things wrong. That is one of the inconveniences that comes with being human. Oliver doesn’t duck that, either. He says he has watched over and over again the incident in the Merseyside derby earlier this season where Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk suffered a serious knee injury in a collision with Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

Oliver was an official in the Merseyside derby and admits Jordan Pickford should have walked

Oliver and the other officials became distracted by a tight offside decision and allowed Pickford to go unpunished. It was a mistake. Oliver acknowledges now that Pickford should have been sent off. Although that would not have altered the seriousness of the injury Van Dijk suffered, it would have eased the seething sense of injustice many Liverpool fans harboured over the incident.

That humility and conscientiousness are two of the reasons why many consider Oliver to be our best referee. His style is a long way away from the showmanship of predecessors like Graham Poll, who seemed to want to be friends of the players and thought they were part of the show, too. Oliver says people have told him he is ‘politely aloof’. Which is exactly what a referee should be.

‘Every referee is different,’ he says. ‘Everyone has got their own style. I keep getting told I am politely aloof. You have that distance between you and the players but you are willing to engage. This is my 11th season in the Prem so everybody knows you and you know everybody. I have got Marine-Spurs on Sunday and I would find it strange shouting ‘No 10’ towards Harry Kane.

‘Everybody knows who he is and I have refereed him a lot over the years. So why not call him “Harry”? And he’ll call me “Michael”. Because you have been around for so long and you have reffed them seven or eight times a season, you end up having a relationship with them. Because you see them that often. It is professional and you understand where the line is drawn but you have almost got to get on.

‘I don’t think there is a danger of favouritism. If you see a challenge during the game and you blow your whistle for a foul, you don’t think “I’ll give that because it’s Harry Maguire or Kevin de Bruyne”. 

‘You genuinely don’t have the time to think about what you’re doing. It’s a reaction. It’s something you’ve done thousands of times. You are aware of characteristics of players and I think you should be.

Oliver has been described as ‘politely aloof’ but says he addresses players by their first names

‘You need to be aware of styles of play. When Stoke were in the Prem, Stoke didn’t want you to play advantage. They wanted a free-kick. Because that was their style of play. That would benefit them. You needed to be aware of that to be able to referee the game better for your benefit because if you did things that weren’t beneficial for that team, you would cause yourself some problems. You don’t prejudge but you are aware because it is your job to be aware.’

Offside, and the way of measuring it, has become another battle in which referees get caught in the crossfire. Fans seem unable to cope with the concept that you are either offside or you are not. Contempt is aimed at officials if a player is marginally offside. 

Referees, again, are accused of being jobsworths killing the game.

‘I don’t know what the alternative is,’ says Oliver. ‘There is this new phrase where people talk about an “armpit offside” but you’re either off or you’re on. It’s factual. At least where we are now, whether you like it or you don’t, it is consistent across the board. So it’s the same for all 20 teams, it’s the same for all 19 refs and it’s the same technology that’s used in every single match throughout the league.

‘What do we do? Say that it’s OK if you’re only offside by your big toe but not if it’s by your whole foot? If you bring in a 10cm tolerance, what happens when it’s 11cm? 

‘In the past, there might have been discussion about an assistant not being quite in line but now we have all the cameras and we can move them for the point of the contact and a different camera for a different angle to get the best position possible. Some say they don’t like what we’ve got but they don’t seem to be able to come up with anything better.’

Oliver understands the point some make about VAR robbing fans of the spontaneity of their celebrations but there is another side to that, too. ‘If a goal’s disallowed,’ he says, ‘you get the celebration of the other team. 

With vast experience at the height of the game, Oliver is widely considered England’s best ref

‘I went to Sheffield United with Newcastle as a fan in the away end last season and we thought we had had a goal disallowed. Jonjo Shelvey scored it and then there was a wait for the decision because the flag went up. 

‘It was subsequently given with VAR and that was almost a bigger celebration in the away end because you haven’t scored and then you have. Yes, you lose some spontaneity but I think 95 per cent of the goals that are given still stand.

‘I never referee Newcastle games. We have to declare if we have an allegiance to any club or if a family member works at a club. You can’t do any match involving that team and I can’t do Sunderland, either, for obvious reasons.

‘Because Newcastle are invariably involved in a relegation battle, when you get to March or April, it means I can’t referee anyone around them towards the bottom three. If Newcastle needed a point to survive and the team they were fighting to get above was say Villa, I couldn’t referee Villa’s game either. I wouldn’t want to. It’s not worth the hassle.’

The handball rule was yet another issue that caused consternation earlier in the season when penalties were regularly being given for inadvertent offences. ‘You need to adapt,’ says Oliver. ‘We had that spell early season where a lot of things were being penalised. 

‘It was consistent but the league and the players and the media and us were all of the mindset we were punishing too much so there was a reset from the Prem that everybody was on board with. 

‘So you’re aware of it and you learn to do it. If you ref Premier League on Saturday and Champions League on Wednesday, you have to ref them slightly differently. You become used to adapting. 

‘With handball, it was probably not the best way to continue so everyone got together and re-evaluated and it’s in a better place now.’

Being a Newcastle supporter, Oliver does not referee around their fixtures to avoid dispute

Oliver is looking forward to the Marine-Spurs game. He looks forward to all his games. He was in Newcastle’s academy system as a centre-half and briefly at Sunderland, too, before his dad, Clive, a first-class referee, suggested he do a refereeing course to earn some pocket money. Oliver never went back to playing full-time.

He does it, he says, because he loves football. He would relish the opportunity to referee a World Cup final but knows there are too many things that are out of his control — the possibility of England doing well in the tournament is one — to make it a defining goal. 

Pressure is not really something that affects him. And he is too generous a spirit to be affected by the criticism that is a referee’s faithful companion. ‘You become accustomed to stick,’ he says. 

‘You have to think about it rationally. I am very much aware it’s a game, particularly with what’s going on at the moment in the world. It’s not that important. It’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake you don’t want to make.

‘I know that if I watch Newcastle, I want them to win and everyone views things through rose-tinted glasses and you want your team to win and you want your team to do well and when something goes against your team, the natural reaction is that the referee is wrong.

‘So you have to think rationally and everyone has a reason for criticising you. People have jobs to do and matches to win and goals to score and newspaper articles to write. I try to step back from it. 

‘You have to realise that if you’re getting criticism, it’s probably for a reason. It’s not personal. It is just a game and you do your best and if you make a mistake, you learn from it and try not to make the same mistake the week after.’

Below, Oliver outlines the big calls he made correctly… and those he didn’t. 

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