Nottingham Forest’s referee complaint explained: FA Cup opens investigation over post-game social media post

The FA opened an investigation into the refereeing during Nottingham Forest’s 2-0 loss to Everton on Sunday, continuing a series of unprecedented events in the Premier League after Forest publicly complained about decisions that did not go their way during the loss.

Shortly after the final whistle blew at Goodison Park, Forest issued a statement on social media alleging that the referee missed three potential penalty calls that could have changed the outlook of the game. The club also allege that the video assistant referee assigned to the game is a fan of Luton Town and suggested a conflict of interest considering both Luton and Forest are fighting to avoid relegation. Forest currently sit in 17th while Luton are 18th, with the former only sitting outside of the relegation zone thanks to a superior goal difference.

It’s extremely rare for Premier League clubs to demand such reviews of refereeing decisions, though Liverpool did so earlier this season when an extraordinary communication error led to their goal being wrongly disallowed in a 2-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur. There is no indication at this time that something similar occurred on Sunday, leading many to argue that Forest’s behavior — and the FA’s subsequent engagement with their complaint — sets a bad precedent.

Here’s a timeline of events as the latest saga around refereeing in the Premier League unfolds.

The non-calls

Forest claim that a penalty should have been called against Everton’s Ashley Young on three separate occasions: a challenge on Gio Reyna in the 24th minute, a handball committed by Young in the 44th minute, and a foul on Callum Hudson-Odoi in the 56th minute. The first incident Forest cite occurred when the game was still goalless, while the other two events happened after Everton’s first goal.

The first statement

Within minutes of the game ending, Forest released the first of several statements about the incident. The club took aim at the assignment of Stuart Atwell as the VAR and said they raised concerns beforehand that went unheard by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), which oversees refereeing for professional soccer in England.

“Three extremely poor decisions – three penalties not given – which we simply cannot accept,” the statement read. “We warned the PGMOL that the VAR is a Luton fan before the game but they didn’t change him. Our patience has been tested multiple times.  NFFC will now consider its options.”

For context, the PGMOL takes several factors into consideration when doling out match assignments, including “the referee’s overall experience, their current form, how often they have refereed the clubs involved, which team the referee supports and any forthcoming international appointments,” according to the Premier League’s website.

Formal request submitted

On Monday, Forest officially submitted a formal request to the PGMOL to release the audio relating to the incidents they identified. The petition resembled Liverpool’s from earlier this season despite the differing circumstances, with Forest arguing in favor of “full transparency” for the sake of the sport’s integrity.

“Nottingham Forest has today submitted a formal request to the PGMOL to release into the public domain the audio recordings between officials during yesterday’s match against Everton at Goodison Park,” a statement issued on social media read in part. “We firmly advocate for the broader football community and supporters to have access to the audio and transcript for full transparency, ensuring the integrity of our sport is upheld.”

Forest issued another statement about two hours later, seemingly in an attempt to defend the club’s actions over the last day. They called for the PGMOL to update its consideration on conflicts based on the clubs referees support, since Forest and Luton are not traditionally rivals, and argued that their conduct following the loss at Everton “is not about individuals.”

“This is not about individuals but rather how the integrity of the game is seen. We know match officials do not allow outside factors to influence their decision-making and that all referees are required to declare their ‘allegiances’ to PGMOL to avoid any perceived conflict or harm to the game’s reputation for integrity,” the statement read in part. “However, it is clear PGMOL must amend its rule on allegiances to account for contextual rivalries in the league table, not just local rivalries. This is currently not within the criteria but should be. Mere reliance on match officials to recuse themselves if contextual rivalries exist invites conjecture, as some have recused themselves where others have not.”

The FA engages

After Forest announced its request to hear the audio, the FA shared that it has officially opened up an investigation into the matter.

“We have formally requested observations from Nottingham Forest, Nuno Espirito Santo, Neco Williams and Mark Clattenburg as a result of their comments following their Premier League match against Everton on Sunday 21 April,” the FA wrote in a brief statement.

The FA is set to hear from Forest manager Espirito Santo and fullback Williams, as well as former Premier League official Clattenburg, who now works as a match and performance analyst for the club — a rare role in a club setting. Clattenburg himself is under fire after criticizing Atwell in an article published by the Daily Mail on Monday that did not include a disclaimer about the referee’s current employer.

The Premier League also chimed in on Monday, condemning Forest’s series of statements while acknowledging the FA’s investigation.

“The Premier League was extremely disappointed to read the comments made by Nottingham Forest on social media yesterday, following its match against Everton,” the league said in a statement. “We note The FA has confirmed it will be investigating the club’s statement. It is never appropriate to improperly question the integrity of match officials, and the nature of these comments means the Premier League will also be investigating the matter in relation to the League’s Rules.”

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