Players at heart: Mike Riley’s love of the game keeps him focused on job
Former English Premier League official still relishes the game and hopes to develop the standards of refereeing
If there was a referee that might have reason to be angry about the plight of officials in the modern game that might well be Mike Riley.
There is the constant sniping in the media, an excruciating focus on every dubious decision they make, an abundance of new technology leaving them open to even more criticism and a pervasive lack of respect from highly paid players.
There aren’t too many referees who feature in their own nine-minute YouTube video chronicling every tiny error from one particularly criticised performance in the 2004-05 season.
The video, made up of a series of clips from the Manchester United-Arsenal match has amassed well over 350,000 views, and more than 650 comments, the overwhelming majority of which are rabidly critical of him.
And yet, despite this, he maintains it was a love of the game that started him off in refereeing and he still finds joy in doing it today.
“I used to play. Ask any referee and we’re players at heart,” says Riley on the sidelines of the HKFC Soccer Sevens yesterday, where he was delighted to referee children’s and special needs matches.
“If we could be players we would be. Very quickly I realised the limits of my ability as a player and refereeing was the next best thing.”
Riley, the current general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOB), a body which is tasked with monitoring referees and developing excellence in officiating, was an at times divisive figure during his long top-flight refereeing career.
He professes his love for Hong Kong and the Soccer Sevens tournament in particular and has been a regular at Hong Kong Football Club for eight years. In 2007 he oversaw the Hong Kong FA Cup final.
An approachable character, a bruising career has failed to dim his enthusiasm for the game.
Perhaps most notably, he speaks in glowing terms about the respect afforded to officials by players and managers.
“I actually think that the players should be given an awful lot of credit for the way that they conduct themselves. And the relationships between players and referees, and referees and managers is really first class,” said Riley.
Now 51, the mild-mannered Yorkshireman enjoyed a 20-year career in refereeing and worked his way up from being an assistant in the football league, to a Premier League official in 2006, before being granted the vaunted Fifa status to officiate over international matches.
But it is a day in Cardiff back in 2002 that he considers to be the pinnacle of his career.
“As an English referee, you only ever get to referee the FA Cup final one time, so that’s a very special occasion,” said Riley.
“To walk out at the Millennium Stadium with the ball under your arm – it was Arsenal-Chelsea and a fantastic game of football – one of those things that you’ll always remember.”
Upon his retirement in 2009, he replaced Keith Hackett as general manager of the PGMOB, and in that capacity, he’s keen to develop the standards of refereeing, even if it means a greater reliance on technology.
“Referees want decisions to be correct,” said Riley. “The Premier League introduced goal line technology three years ago. Last season, there were around 20 decisions when we used the technology.
“In four or five of those, we’re talking millimetres – did the ball cross the line or did it not – virtually undetectable to the human eye. Now we have the answer.
“Can we extend that? Referees want to enhance the game. We want to get the key decisions right. If you look at the other sports that have harnessed technology it’s benefited match officials. I’m sure it will in football.”