Premier League Career: 1996-2009
First Premier League Match: Leicester City 2-1 Southampton (21 August 1996)
Final Premier League Match: Fulham 0-2 Everton (24 May 2009)
For 14 seasons, Mike Riley was one of the higher profile referees in the Premier League. Riley was always in the running to be in charge of some of the biggest matches in the English top-flight. Hailing from west Yorkshire, he now has a bigger role as the general manager of the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited).
Riley is now into his 10th year in the role when he succeeded Keith Hackett in the role. This effectively brought the curtain down on a 15-year active career in the middle. He had some interesting moments too throughout his refereeing days.
Becoming an assistant referee at the age of 25, Riley served for five years on the assistant referees’ list of the Football League. In 1994, he made the grade into officiating games across the leagues outside of the Premier League.
Two years later, he made the step into the top-flight and his first game was a sign of things to come. Leicester City beat Southampton 2-1 at Filbert Street thanks to two goals from Emile Heskey. Riley also awarded a penalty to the Foxes and sent off Southampton defender Barry Venison. Days later, the red card was brandished again in his second game – this time to Middlesbrough skipper Nigel Pearson in a 1-1 draw between Boro and Nottingham Forest at The City Ground.
In total, Riley took charge of 283 Premier League matches across 13 years. He is one of the few officials to have brandished over 1000 yellow cards, finishing on 1,010 and handing out 67 red cards.
In the 2002-2003 season, he gave Manchester United five penalties in the four games he took control of involving the Red Devils that season. All spot-kicks were converted by Ruud van Nistelrooy and it led to claims that Riley was showing an unfair bias towards Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides, especially at Old Trafford. Of course, these claims were never properly validated or officially complained about but it did leave visiting supporters fearing the worst when he was appointed to a fixture involving Manchester United.
In 1999, Riley was granted FIFA status which allowed him to take control of international fixtures. He interrupted Graham Poll’s streak of being the English representative at major finals when he headed the team that went to EURO 2004 in Portugal. Alongside assistants Phil Sharp and Glenn Turner, Riley took charge of the dreadful goalless draw between tournament minnows Latvia and an out-of-sorts Germany. He didn’t take any games in the knockout stages.
Earlier that year, Riley was in the middle for the 2004 League Cup final which saw Middlesbrough win their first major piece of silverware, beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Five players were booked in the game and he awarded Boro the crucial early penalty on seven minutes which Bolo Zenden converted. It turned out to be the winning goal.
Riley has always stated the greatest “highlight of his career” was the FA Cup final and it was his turn in 2002 again in Cardiff as Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 to complete the first part of their double-winning season.
Mike has had to deal with some tricky matches in his career and sometimes, agitated opponents. On New Years’ Day 2005, he failed to spot a blatant handball by Chelsea midfielder Tiago at Anfield. This led to plenty of protests from Liverpool FC players and a furious Jamie Carragher chasing and confronting him up the Anfield stairs as the players went in for half-time.
His hardest game had to be the October 2004 encounter between bitter rivals Manchester United and Arsenal. A year on from the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ match, this game was eventually known as the ‘Battle of the Buffet’ because of the events in the tunnel after the full-time whistle. Both sets of players didn’t conduct themselves very well and it was a testing day of Riley’s patience.
He missed an appalling tackle by Van Nistelrooy on Ashley Cole which saw the Dutchman retrospectively charged and banned for. He didn’t give Arsenal a first half penalty when Freddie Ljungberg went down under pressure from Rio Ferdinand when racing clear on-goal. In the second half though, he adjudged Sol Campbell to have tripped Wayne Rooney, giving United a penalty which Van Nistelrooy converted. Replays showed Campbell dangled a leg out but Rooney made a complete meal of any contact, if any.
Manchester United won the game 2-0, ending Arsenal’s record-breaking 49-match unbeaten league run. Afterwards, Arsene Wenger criticised Riley’s performance and said his team had been “a little bit robbed.”
Mike Riley’s last game in the Premier League came on the final day of the 2008-2009 season as Everton beat Fulham 2-0 at Craven Cottage to secure a fifth place finish. A month after the season ended, he was appointed as Hackett’s successor on the PGMOB.
It is a big role he holds. The PGMOB is responsible for the mentoring, development and training of 110 referees and 175 assistant referees. They play an active role in developing the standards of referees today. As Carragher and Gary Neville found out when they visited for a Sky Sports documentary in 2017-2018, the PGMOL has a support team very similar to the modern day football club with performance analysts, sports scientists, physiotherapists and sprint coaches among those appointed to improve referee performances.
Riley has also been involved in the development of VAR, which has just arrived into the Premier League for the 2019-2020 season. He has admitted that it won’t dictate the tempo of matches but with the system new in the English top-flight this season, expect plenty of moaning and disappointment throughout the season
Mike will always have his critics. Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock had a pop at him in April 2019 after feeling his team got some poor decisions from an official in a home defeat by Chelsea. He said: “I always thought Mike Riley was a manufactured referee from day one when he refereed a game at Hartlepool against me. I don’t think he’s changed since then. He’s been manufactured, almost like a robot. He knows everything about the rules but I feel these people struggle to understand the game and the human element.”
He won’t be receiving any Christmas cards or greetings from Warnock for the foreseeable future but Mike Riley has become an important figure in the current and future development of the English referee. Like him or loathe him, he certainly has made an impact, both as an official and now in his current role as the Premier League embraces video technology for the upcoming campaign.