20 October ~ It’s not often that the Oldham Sunday Football League features in the national press, but that changed when 15 referees refused to officiate because they “fear for their safety when they step on the pitch”. The issue arose when three players who had been banned were reinstated through the league’s disciplinary process. Locally, this has led to a split in the administration of the league, with two officials stepping down, but it also serves to highlight a trend across amateur football both in the UK and worldwide.
The action in Oldham coincided with the remarkable events in the Southern Premier Division match between Chesham United and Redditch United last Saturday where a Redditch player was sent off, and sacked by his club, for allegedly striking the referee (which led to the abandonment of the match). Sky Sports subsequently reported that the player denied the offence and he had, he claimed, simply pushed the ref in the face. Clearly it's an important distinction in his mind.
Concern about violence, threats and abuse of referees in the amateur game, by both players and spectators, is not new. In 1995 almost half of the referees in a survey conducted in the Birmingham area reported that they had considered giving up the game because of “a culture of abuse and dissent aimed at match officials”, with a substantial majority reporting that they had been victims (70 per cent). More recently, in 2009, the FA estimated that 7,000 referees had given up because of abuse and that as many as 20 per cent of matches took place without an official. The problem is not just a feature of English amateur football: Scotland, Holland and France, and different sports, from under-nines rugby league in Australia and “little-league” hockey in Canada, report similar issues.
The general perception is that the problem is not only persistent, but it is getting worse. In April, the Yorkshire Evening Post quoted FA statistics for the 2010-11 season revealing that up to February this year there had been 330 assaults on referees compared with 260 for the same period in the previous season. There had also been a rise in cases that amounted to common assault, up from 205 to 276. Underlying these headlines – and there are amazing stories of a referee being chased across the pitch by spectators in a car or a player leaving a game and returning with a gun and a machete – is the undercurrent of what has been characterised as “wearing abuse”. The FA report that while the “most serious assaults” are down by 15 per cent, improper conduct towards officials is rising.
The governing body has recognised the problem and makes much of the “grassroots game” elements of the Respect campaign with the aims of improving attitudes towards referees and encouraging a more relaxed approach from spectators and parents. Through its National Game Strategy it is seeking to recruit 8,000 new referees by 2012 and to retain the existing numbers at just over 28,000. Equally, it makes much of its improved training programmes. But it is remarkably difficult judge the success of initiatives or to get a clear and comprehensive picture of the longer term trends as reports from official bodies cut the statistics in ways that suit their current needs.
There are plenty of explanations and quick fix solutions on offer, ranging from the usual suspects of it being a societal rather than a football problem through to laying the blame on top professionals. Undoubtedly, the challenge faced by referees – rarely supported by assistants, working with a raft of more complex rules on pitches that are poorly maintained and marked out – has increased. Disputed decisions become inevitable and for the head of the Lothian and Borders FA the issue is that players more often respond to those situations through violence or abuse. League officials can do what they will, but in his view the solution rests with the players. What is certain is it’s a better game with a referee than without one. Brian Simpson