The idea of home advantage is one that permeates throughout sport. Teams are expected to have extra courage, more gumption and historically more chance of winning in front of home fans.
However, a new study led by Dr Tom Webb, a sports scientist at the University of Portsmouth, asserts that improvements and higher standards of refereeing have brought about the end of home advantage.
According to Dr Webb’s research, football specifically, has changed “beyond recognition” over the last few decades and home advantage has steadily been eroded.
Sports scientist Webb claims that referees at all levels of the game in the UK are now unlikely to be influenced by the often vitriolic or impassionate call of the supporters. Most importantly, referees are now extremely fit vessels who are now at the front and centre of the action, rather than say 40 metres away, as the referees of a bygone era would tend to be.
The University’s Dr Webb said: “We’ve seen a slow decline in home advantage since the end of World War II, but it has now almost entirely vanished in UK professional football.
“Referees have never before been subject to such close scrutiny. As well as fans, there are cameras watching their every move and pundits and experts analyzing their every decision. It was inevitable the standard in refereeing would rise.”
The concept of home advantage is broken down into four factor; the visiting side are tired from travelling and have unfamiliar surroundings; decisions favour the home side; and the vitriol of the crowd can often effect certain players, official or even both.
Using the central and south American teams Argentina and Mexico as an example, Dr Webb analysed the 2006 Fifa World cup match between the two nations. He said, that it was inevitable that the home advantage would eventually fade as the physical, technical and psychological training for referees grew.
Dr Webb said: “There’s now a sustained emphasis on and support across the game for extremely high standards in refereeing.”
He continued, “Physical fitness, combined with a rise in the number of coaches or mentors to help referees identify any weaknesses in their decision-making and to support their resilience, has knocked out the home advantage.”
What is certainly likely, is that platitudinous pundits such as Martin Keown and Danny Murphy will pay little attention to any of this, and continue to regurgitate similar old diatribes against the referee’s and their judgements.
Despite Dr Webb’s extensive research, which included investigating the role of the referee from as far back as the 1940s, it seems unlikely the football world will ever entirely embrace the positive effects of referees. The referee will ultimately always be the pantomime villain that ex-pros and fans will splutter about, despite their ice cool decision making and intelligent considerations.
Yet, Dr Webb seems to disagree with this analysis. Looking back from 1988, he says, “I think referees probably get 100 times more support and have a lot more information and guidance than they’ve ever had.”
True, perhaps from the likes of the FA, but if the bench mark of support is the 1980’s, an era known for fan-to-fan violence and hooliganism, it seems relatively obvious that referee relations were bound to improve alongside the improving football environment in general.
Dr Webb’s fascinating research is published in the Soccer & Society journal.