Who’d be a referee?
It’s estimated that over 2000 referees took part in strike action on the 4th and 5th of April. Organised by young referee Ryan Hampson (18) from Manchester, an initially small movement has ‘touched a nerve with referees all over the UK’ and affected hundreds of games across grassroots football, all over the country. Whilst it’s unfortunate that children have to suffer possible postponements of games, the issue of abuse and violence towards referees is very significant and spans all levels of the game, from Under 7’s mini-soccer to the Premier League. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, it’s certainly a difficult job.
The problems start at the very top of the English game. Watch Match of the Day, or any post-match interview with a manager. In at least half the matches they’ll be some sort of issue with the referee. Some managers like Mark Hughes or Jose Mourinho complain every single week, even when they’ve won. In virtually every match they’ll be some analysis on the referee’s decisions and they’re treated as if they are robots with eyes in the back of their head. It’s very rare that a pundit will ever mention how the referee couldn’t see the incident or whether they could have the issue of doubt. If a possible foul needs debate and countless slow motion replays, then surely the referee is well within his rights not to give anything, as its clearly isn’t certain. But the countless analysis and criticism of referees trying to do a job conveys a message to young players: it’s fine to complain about the ref. And do they ever get the chance to explain why they made a certain decision? No, they’re not allowed to talk to the media!
No doubt all of this sets an example to the lower levels of football. I have been a referee myself for 3 years, officiating in many levels of grassroots football in Leicestershire. Whilst many teams are extremely polite and treat you very well, rarely a week goes by where I don’t receive or at least witness abuse on other pitches. Usually there’s a chain of escalation leading to an unsavoury situation. If the odd player or maybe a parent takes an issue, there’s no real problem. Most people can accept the referee is doing their best and it’s rare that I’ve had to discipline players. On one occasion where I did, the manager thanked me after the game, as the boy in question had apparently been irritating him for weeks. Too many youngsters see the players they idolise criticising and arguing with referees on TV and think it’s acceptable, it doesn’t help their development. However, if the coaches, then players and then parents are against you, then the game can spiral out of control.
There are some coaches who take kids football way too seriously, simple as that. Breaking news, the Foxes Sunday Juniors league is not the Champions League final, you’re not Jose Mourinho and most children play for the enjoyment. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate, but there are some who complain about every challenge, every time their team loses the ball. I refereed a Beaumont Town vs Beaumont Town match a few months ago and the contrast couldn’t have been more apparent. These are two teams from the same club, they train together, but one of the coaches began confronting people on the touchline, trying to start a fight. I stopped the game and told him that on a pitch containing eighteen 11 year old kids, he was the least mature and in fairness the players looked embarrassed of him. But when you are supposed to be setting an example for these youngsters, would it be that surprising if they act up as well? There have been sides (I won’t name them) where the aggression of the coaches carries over to the players. At these young ages, the coaches have such an influence over the kids, it is so important that they teach respect from the beginning.
As for the parents, it’s almost the same issue. You are setting an example to your son or daughter so if you’re screaming insults at the referee, threatening to quote ‘do him’ in the car park, think about what kind of image that puts across. The parents can often be the biggest problem in youth football, as in their mind, they can’t really be disciplined. Sometimes, I can understand. If your child has been clattered in a dangerous tackle, it’s perfectly normal to be angered. But let the referee do his job. You help no one by storming onto the pitch, swearing at the ref, at the other players. All you do is take his focus away and make it harder for him to remember who committed the original foul! By about under-14 level, many parents have realised their son or daughter isn’t going to become a professional footballer and are generally calm. But around the ages of 11 and 12, some still live their dreams through their child and can be just as abusive to them as they are to the referee. Again, it’s only a game. I once watched a game in Loughborough where the players could have only been about 10 years old. A goal went in and a couple of the parents were celebrating madly, knee sliding onto the pitch then shh-ing the other team’s support. Seriously, what are you doing? The referee (who was a teenager) had to come over and send the parent away, who then proceeded to disrupt the game for about 15 minutes by refusing to leave. Again, this is KIDS FOOTBALL.
Adult football is a whole different ball game and honestly, I’m amazed that anyone wants to referee it. I’ve been the assistant on a handful of occasions and a spectator and even I’ve seen referees attacked. Go and watch any Sunday league game and nine times out of ten you’ll see a fight. Every 30 seconds half the players will be screaming at the referee for fouls, foul throws, anything, it’s impossible to officiate. I would encourage anyone to become a referee but I’m not sure I’d tell anyone to go into senior football without a lot of experience. After all, the strike last weekend originated from Ryan Hampton, who says he’s been ‘headbutted, spat at and punched’ in his 4 year career. He’s 18. It takes serious guts and many adults simply don’t respect a ‘kid’ telling them what to do.
So what can be done? Hampton wants every referee to be equipped with a body camera, which seems unlikely, although would certainly combat the issues of abuse and violence most effectively. He also suggests longer bans and stricter fines for offenders, which does seem simple and achievable. Whether the FA will act is another question. They’ve apparently been ‘receptive’ to the concerns raised, but are notoriously slow with areas of football which don’t affect the national team. Whilst the strike may prove to be effective, some leagues allegedly told referees that their services would no longer be required if they took part. We can only hope a positive outcome is achieved. Many refs may never have suffered serious abuse, but with conditions as they currently are, this could change in any match.