“Well done referee. You should hang up your whistle. I should punch you in the face”. A gentleman spectator said that to me – expletives deleted - following a contentious junior football game recently. Remarkably, he was holding the hand of his young daughter at the time. His daughter looked about 5 years old.
I pointed that out to him. I asked him what kind of example he thought his behaviour set to his kids. I was ignored. The 300 spectators were spared the spectacle of him trying to hit me whilst holding onto his daughter.
Probably in error, I did not report the incident to County FA. It was a schools match. I did not want to cause trouble for the respective teams. I could not easily identify which school the gentleman’s son attended.
I’ve been a grassroots referee for the last 6 years. I came to it after years of coaching my son’s junior teams. As coach who had to referee in absence of parent volunteers, I thought I’d take the referee course and qualify.
A similar junior coach turned referee was on that course, inspired by an away game where the home team had an unqualified parent referee. The volunteer parent referee awarded 13 penalties in a 60-minute game. As 9 penalties were awarded to the home side in their victory, my colleague was unimpressed.
Life as a grassroots referee is not champagne and roses, but brings incredible experiences. I had thought that as a middle-aged corporate insolvency lawyer, I had enjoyed many life incidents. That included when I advised clients in relation to more than one football club insolvency.
For example, I dealt with the Professional Footballers’ Association when a player of an insolvent club was injured and played poorly. At half time, the manager held the player by the throat saying, “You had better hope your leg is broken or I’ll [effing] break it for you…”. In settlement, the player moved to another club on increased wages, without transfer fee.
I now know that being a referee offers challenges beyond the most case-hardened Judge or grumpy/demanding client. The camaraderie and teamwork required are enriching.
I’m particularly lucky to have taken up refereeing with my then 14-year-old son, Fergus. We have done numerous games together, with Fergus acting as my assistant. Many games have led to return car journeys where we debated decisions and issues. I’ve learned a lot from Fergus.
That includes the day when a brooding Sheffield University centre half laughed at me when Fergus gave a throw in in the opposite direction to my signal. The smirking centre-half said, “The referee does not even believe his own son”.
Happily for the player, Fergus persuaded me not to show a red card for what – in the heat of the moment - I thought was an offensive comment, attacking integrity. As a red card generates a £45 fine it might cause an errant student to reconsider.
Anyone who has ever acted as assistant referee will attest it is a very difficult job, which requires concentration (often after periods of relative inactivity). A working knowledge of spatial geometry and being able to assess player positioning at the exact moment when the ball was struck, is also very handy. Plus, sprinting fitness.
Fergus has dyslexia and dyspraxia. The inimitable Lucy Oliver told us she shares those conditions when I acted as her assistant referee for a Women’s Premier League Two game. Lucy’s husband Michael is of course a Premier League referee.
Lucy explained to Fergus that she had refereed on five continents and was a FIFA Referee. That conversation was priceless for demonstrating to Fergus that success is about focus, passion and commitment. Lucy also confirmed that the biggest games she had refereed were a Women’s Champion’s League game in Moscow before 44,000 people and Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley before 37,000 spectators.
Lucy’s approach illustrated the collegiate nature of refereeing. She later wrote me a helpful note about points to raise with a team of two assistants and a fourth official. That was essential when I refereed a County Cup Final later that season. Nothing was too much trouble for Lucy.
Similarly, I remain grateful to the unsung work of grassroots referees who form a brethren across the country. One of them taught me the importance of building a relationship with respective team captains
Thus, at the coin toss I say, “If I bring you into a situation, it is because I need your help to save one of your team-mates from a red or yellow card”. I always confirm I will have the courtesy and humility to explain any decision/omission (e.g. no penalty) to a skipper who asks a question.
In another game, a Captain ending up forcefully substituting one of his own players. The player had been warned in a formal conversation with the Captain, then received a yellow card. The next reckless tackle meant a red card, but the Captain replaced the player.
The Captain was a vital ally in a feisty match, who policed his team. Multiple cards were avoided. The misbehaving player subsequently found another Club.
Another thing I’ve learned to say at the outset is that if it is a close score going into the last 15 minutes, I’ll inform respective captains about the time remaining every 5 minutes. That helps cement the bond formed with the respective Captains during the game, as they pass on the information – often with encouragement to team-mates, “Big last 10 minutes…”
It also stops endless questions from players on both sides about the time remaining. Such requests can be very distracting if – as often – I don’t have assistant referees. The temptation is to look at the watch when someone asks how much time left. That might mean missing a crucial offside or bad tackle.
It is surprisingly easy to block out “white noise” when refereeing a game. I rarely engage with spectators. Hopefully they understand it is not rudeness, but concentration upon the 22 players and management.
A supporter arrived at 9.30am recently accompanied by 6 cans of strong lager to watch a parks game. That caused me to talk to the coaches of the relevant team requesting they manage their spectators. Pro-active communication always helps.
Some of the most fun games have been the Women’s County Football matches. Almost without exception such games are played in a better spirit than the men’s games, although never short of skill and endeavour.
The women’s game is also unique in other aspects. At a women’s game a few years ago, a player suffered an injury, which she described to me as , “…more painful than childbirth…”. She did manage to make it to the bar for a post-match pint, which speaks highly of her fortitude (and the restorative quality of alcohol).
I have also been lucky enough to be able to referee some corporate games at Elland Road, Leeds.
All of the above came together – and truly, I had not lived, until 76-year-old Paul Reaney recently told me at Elland Road, “You bottled that penalty decision“. I disagreed as I was quite clear about the incident I saw from 10 yards away, whilst Paul was about 60 yards away.
However, Paul later approached me, gave me a big hug and said, “Best referee ever” about 2 hours later when his team won the Cup. That was a good day; one of many as part of grassroots refereeing life.
Image from: https://www.sispitches.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/St-Geroges-Park-National-Football-Centre-SISGrass-2016.jpg