Howard Webb: Meet the soccer referee icon launching Video Review in MLS

Howard Webb begins most mornings on the west bank of the Hudson River, leaving his residence in Jersey City, New Jersey to jog or bicycle along the waterfront known for its dazzling views of One World Trade Center and the rest of the Lower Manhattan skyline looming across the water in New York City.

An avid distance runner, Webb gets his mileage in loops north to Hoboken, or perhaps south to Liberty State Park, home of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The 46-year-old Englishman has officiated some of the biggest games in soccer history, but admits that he spent much of his first few months in the United States just gawking at the world-famous vistas in and around the Big Apple.

But he doesn’t have too much time to sightsee lately. The commute to the Professional Referee Organization’s downtown headquarters must be navigated quickly, or perhaps a trip to the airport to jet off to one of the many seminars and training events PRO has been holding at locations across North America as it prepares to launch one of the biggest, boldest projects in the history of soccer refereeing.

“The work/life balance is a bit of a struggle,” Webb tells MLSsoccer.com, “one, because I’m over here on my own, so I can do that. And secondly, the pace of the work here is pretty intense, from what I’ve seen so far. The work ethic in the office is pretty impressive. They don’t have much downtime – they have to work hard.”

After more than three years of preparation, the final countdown to the debut of Major League Soccer’s Video Review program on Aug. 5, only the third top-flight league in the world to debut the technology (after Australia's A-League and South Korea's K-League), has begun. And the rest of the planet will be watching. Closely.

Howard Webb during an appearance on BT Sport in England, where he served as an analyst.

Peter Walton has known Webb a long time. The two men rose through the upper reaches of the English refereeing ranks around the same time, and earned promotion from the Championship (English second division) into the vaunted Premier League together in 2003, sometimes bunking together on work trips.

“We got to know each other very well indeed – the difference being his career went up, while mine seemed to sort of go stagnant!” wisecracks Walton, PRO’s general manager, in a recent phone conversation. “I don’t want to give too many secrets about him, but Howard was a bit of an introvert, really, when he first got into the Premier League. He was in awe of his colleagues, and I was as well, because it was a veteran group of very experienced international referees who had got many games under their belt, and we were two new kids on the block. He was quite humble, and still is.

“That’s probably why he’s been so successful, because he’s been able to maintain his feet on the floor but also when he’s refereeing, he has that air of confidence about him, and that’s really what refereeing is about.”

After retiring from active officiating duty in 2014, Webb had settled into a pleasant, albeit jet-setting, routine that took him between television analysis work for BT Sport and time with his three children in his homeland, a director of referees position with the Saudi Arabian federation and regular visits to Germany, where his partner Bibiana Steinhaus is a highly accomplished referee in her own right who later this year will make history as the first woman to oversee Bundesliga matches.

Then Walton and his colleagues came calling last winter with a rare job offer: to oversee PRO’s implementation of the Video Assistant Referee program. It would mean relocation to a new continent vastly farther removed from his loved ones, and adaptation to a whole new way of living and working.

A Rotherham United supporter, Howard Webb takes in a match.

But the chance to take a leading role in making history was simply irresistible.

“I thought long and hard about it, spoke to Bibi, spoke to my children as well,” recalls Webb. “It’s quite obvious that the US soccer market is growing and becoming more relevant to the sporting environment here all the time. I recognized that this competition was going to continue to grow and grow, and the opportunity to get back into full-time work within the actual game, and play a part in this big new initiative of VAR – which is obviously going to be so important through the years – was one that I thought might not come again.”

A native of Rotherham, England whose father Bill also refereed for more than three decades, Webb has officiated some of the biggest games in world soccer history, most notably the 2010 World Cup and UEFA Champions League finals. Yet that rich resume could only prepare him so much for the unprecedented task of leading PRO and its corps of 49 VARs through the exhaustive process leading up to the big launch in MLS Week 22.

“Once that game starts, it’s in their hands and you hope the training that you’ve done is enough,” says Webb. “It’s different to when I was an official, because that was my game, I controlled what I did on the field, and now I don’t. But I’ve hired who I think are the best officials for the job, trained them to the best of my ability and so far, I’ve been really pleased with the application that the guys and girls have shown in this task.

“But it’s down to them once that whistle blows for the first game on the fifth of August.”

Howard Webb in action at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where he officiated the final between Spain and the Netherlands.

Video Review got mixed reviews in this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, with a few uneven moments leading some observers to question both its efficacy and its impact on the rhythm of matches.

Webb is sympathetic to those concerns. But he emphasizes that both accuracy and speed are critical priorities for PRO, with Video Review only addressing “clear and obvious errors” on pivotal sequences like goals, penalty kicks and straight red cards.

“The beautiful thing about the game is the fact that it flows,” Webb says. “That is what attracts a lot of people to the game. And if Video Review did change that to the point where the game wasn’t the game that I fell in love with all those years ago as a kid in northern England, then I would say we failed in our objective.

“There’s checks taking place all the time, but the reviews – in our experience so far in the games we’ve covered – are one every three games. Now when we go live in MLS, that might increase because the intensity will be higher … [but] on average so far it looks like a review will add just over a minute to what’s the current state of play now with these stoppages.”

Walton and Webb have spearheaded an exhaustive training process to make sure Video Review takes off smoothly in MLS, drilling VARs with literally thousands of hours’ worth of education, rehearsal and feedback both online and in person.

“The amount of in-depth training that we’ve had is absolutely immense and I’m full of anticipation for the go-start,” says Walton, noting that Confederations Cup officials had far less time to prepare while dealing with myriad complexities of language and culture among a tournament referee pool hailing from around the world.

“Yes, I’m sure there will be some subjective views and there’ll be some discussion points had. But collectively, I don’t think we could’ve got a finer set of individuals ready.”

Howard Webb in the Video Operation Room (VOR) during a recent VAR training camp held by the Professional Referee Organization.

Even with all that advance work, Webb cautions that bumps in the road ahead are inevitable. It’s a big reason why he’s here on a three-year contract, and hopeful of eventually extending his stay beyond that. The process does not end on Aug. 5. It only begins. And he urges everyone around the sport to recognize the importance of making this historic effort a successful one.

“There will be weekends where things go wrong and people say ‘what are we doing with this crazy thing?!’” he says. “But I hope people give us time and patience, and I hope they look at it in the round and not just focus on individual specific examples.

“We need the support of the clubs and the personnel at the clubs, the coaches, the players, the club communication managers. We need the support of the media, the broadcasters – not without reservation, not blind support, but we just need a bit of patience, to hopefully get them to see the big picture.”

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