A shortage of HGV drivers is the country’s main preoccupation, though perhaps not on Saturday or Sunday mornings. That is when another nationwide dearth kicks in — that of referees.
“Is your son available to referee a game this weekend?” This column starts with a friend involved in the Amateur Football Alliance (AFA) asking if one of my lads can help out.
I explain that his FA training is only for mini-football. “Doesn’t matter,” comes the reply. “If he knows the rules and has a whistle, we’ll take him. We can’t find anybody.”
With about 70 referees lost by that organisation heading into this season it has become a weekly scramble to find officials, or indeed anyone, who fancies taking charge of matches, largely around London and the home counties, for up to £40 a game.
It did not take much asking around to unearth that this is a problem across most regions. Speaking to the Referees’ Association (RA), the organisation revealed that registration numbers are down between 15 per cent and 40 per cent depending on the county.
Why? “It is like HGV drivers — we can’t just say [it’s caused by] one factor,” Paul Field, the RA president, says. Covid-19 is clearly one issue, causing some to have drifted away. The pandemic has inevitably caused a huge interruption to the constant and necessary training of new officials to plug the gaps that arise from difficulties with referee retention.
A sift around the regions reveals a typical statement released by North Riding FA at the start of this season in which Ross Joyce, the referee development manager, said that referee registration numbers were down 31 per cent. “This is not only a problem that we are experiencing here — it appears to be a problem nationally,” Joyce wrote.
According to the statement, the pandemic has played a “significant part” in the loss of officials but the plea to stop giving officials a hard time, to put it mildly, revealed another factor that is ever present.
“Some of the reported behaviour that I and my colleagues have to deal with on a weekly basis is totally unacceptable and quite simply does not help to recruit and retain referees,” the statement read.
“While the behaviour is not the sole reason for the shortage, it is a fundamental reason, and everybody within the game must consider and change their behaviour towards referees or the shortage will only increase.”
We can jump from there to Hampshire, where James Pearson, chairman of the county FA, wrote to every club this week with a message that was familiar but still alarming.
“Hampshire FA is concerned over the high level of misconduct cases over the past few weeks. This has manifested itself in high levels of abuse not only towards referees but among players and officials, particularly at youth level.
Clattenburg, left, told The Times last week that he left refereeing in part because of the sustained abuse
“If standards of poor behaviour continue, we will see even more referees leaving the game at a time where there are already considerable shortages at grassroots level.” This column will spark similar feedback from around the country. It always does.
The problem of retention is not a new one. Youngsters (like both my sons) sign up to earn some pocket money, knowing it is only for a limited time. Others, such as Mark Clattenburg, take up refereeing as part of a Duke of Edinburgh scheme, though very few are like the former top-level official in deciding that they want to pursue it as a professional career.
But will we reach a point where the aggravation, and risk of being abused, is not a significant deterrent, or reason to give up? I only have to look at my own household.
The local club, superbly run, are willing to put my sons through the next levels of FA badges. But for all the excellent work done by Surrey Youth League to improve behaviour in the past five years — since a story on the front page of The Times of threats of violence — they wonder if it is worth moving up from the under-9s and 10s when you can find a gobby parent or a mini-Mourinho coach even there.
In North Riding, and other counties, young referees are given yellow armbands to signify that they are under-18s, as a plea not to abuse them. I understand the reason, but it says something deeply troubling about the game that the armband is necessary.
“It is inappropriate for anybody to engage or offer any abusive comments to a minor,” may seem a statement of the absolute bleedin’ obvious, yet, across the country, you will find idiots who think differently (if they think at all).
I have written about this issue more than once because it is so maddening that we allow it to persist. Football is a national passion and obsession; we should take better care of it.
It is why I am endlessly frustrated by well-intentioned campaigns
that feel like using a hose pipe on a raging wildfire. To make lasting change to this culture of abuse does not need a campaign but a crusade at every level.
Our tolerance is nuts. I wanted to applaud when reading Peter Schmeichel’s new autobiography, One, this week, when he described his despair at times as he watched his son, Kasper, come up through the game.
“If I ran a country’s football, I would have zero tolerance — anyone raising their voice at kids on a football pitch would be banned from attending junior games and never welcomed back,” Schmeichel writes. Amen to that. Are parents really shouting for the benefit of their children, or themselves? It is certainly not to help the poor referee.
The RA is keen to stress the upsides. And I get that. I am pleased my sons have done the job, for fresh air, spare cash (£15 a match) and life lessons in decision-making and responsibility. The RA thinks numbers will return as more courses resume, but there is frustration that the £1.2 million spent on refereeing by the FA is less than 0.5 per cent of its turnover.
Dr Tom Webb, an expert in refereeing at the University of Portsmouth, says that a national register of more than 32,000 officials six years ago is now below 28,000 and worries that “this could be the start of a longer-term decline” beyond the disruptions of Covid.
Back at the AFA, the game did go ahead, but only with one team’s injured player agreeing to take charge. I keep writing that we can do better than this — but will we, ever?