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

Comments (14)
Comment by Coral 2011-10-20 14:42:24

I don't understand anyone who wants to be a ref. Taking aside the violence, it is the constant bloody moaning that would put me off. I reffed a half of a game between my team and another Sunday League team. I got berrated not only by their players but my own, to the point someone I formerly got on with was shouting an inch from my face. While I am sure I did not get everything right, it was not through a deliberate act. The same as I didn't shout in the face of said player when he missed a sitter from 1 yard out. Well actually I did, but a neutral ref would not be allowed to do this.

I don't know what the solution is to the problem but I can say that having been a ref twice more since, I hold no desire what so ever to be one, but I also never ever complain to a ref about a decision he has given in a game.

Comment by jasoñ voorhees 2011-10-20 14:55:33

That's why it's always driven me nuts when Sir Red Face or Mouriñho or Pat Riley or whatever championship-winning coach gets respect for their diatribes against officials. Clearly, as the standard-bearing coaches of the game in the entire world, with hundreds of millions watching their actions, their choices to win at all costs and influence officials at all costs is having a cost.

People see Sir Alex getting away with treating officials with disrespect, thus "real winners" treat officials with disrespect.

I would hope refs be allowed to carry tasers, or start a police division with licensed officers of the law to start referring games. Change "unsportsmanlike conduct" to "criminal conduct."

On a different note, I once got punched in the chest reffing a game because on a goal kick, the goalkeeper toe-balled it into the arm of the attacking player. The attacking player was so anxious to score an easy goal, that he encroached into the area and it hit his arm. He one-timed it out of bounds, so I simply told the keeper to take the goal kick again.

This stocky defender screamed "that's a hand ball man!" I told him he'd be taking the goal kick again, as he encroached into the penalty area before the ball came out, to which this genius screamed "that's a hand ball MOTHAFUCKA," to which I started reaching for my yellow, to which he hit me in the chest.

Comment by jameswba 2011-10-20 15:44:05

Good article on a critical topic. Every time I watch lower-level football, I'm amazed that there are people prepared to give up their time to officiate, knowing they run the risk of abuse or worse. Without these guys and girls, there'd be no game - the players and coaches should be thanking them from the bottom of their hearts before and after every fixture.

Comment by colinzealuk 2011-10-20 16:16:25

It'll help if the FA start enforcing respect from top down as well as attempting to deal with the problem at park level. The whole campaign died as far as I'm concerned a month on from being launched in a blaze of publicity when John Terry attempted to take Mike Dean's red card away while protesting Mikel's sending off and the FA did... nothing.

It's no good trying to send out the message that such things are unacceptable when everyone sees referees being regularly abused on their in the media day in, day out.

Comment by imp 2011-10-20 17:49:35

Agree with everyone about enforcement at the top level, but a lot can be done at the lower levels too. In the youth leagues where I ref in the US, each team has to appoint a parent as a Team Sportsmanship Liaison. Sounds naff, but it generally works - you talk to them both in a friendly but firm manner before the game, note their names, tell them that they're responsible for the behavior of their team's parents, and that you will come to them if there are any problems with the parents getting out of order with either the ref or through yelling at players (either their own or the other team's). It sets a good tone, and as a simple preventive measure seems to be effective. With players and coaches, referees (especially young ones who feel they don't have the presence to verbally tackle adults) have to be better taught on how to take charge and be authoritative, but they also need to receive more back-up from mentors and administrative bodies, and to be offered continued training and encouragement.

Reffing is actually hugely rewarding once you've got over any nerves. It gets you out and about meeting people, keeping fit, and even getting paid, albeit hardly a fortune. I'd advise anyone who's given up playing, but wants to stay involved in the game, to give it a try.

Comment by Lincoln 2011-10-20 18:08:30

I think the general issue is the people playing. A couple of seasons back, St Giles played Peter De Wint (for those not from Lincoln it pits two teams from rival council estates against each other). At one point police were called as it is alleged fans from both sides threw fireworks at each other. In another case a player broke another player's back while he lay on the floor, earning him a prison sentence and a life ban from football. I had to play against the team who got suspended in that game in their first game back after it was all cleared up. A game in which our manager ended up having a fight with their opposing striker.

All of the detail is to pad out my thoughts that really you will struggle to do anything at park level. There is a sizeable minority of people playing who are idiots. They will attack anyone (I have been headbutted while waiting to take a throw in before) and the ref is just an easy target, and possibly the easiest as he doesn't have the support of 10 other people and is going to do something that will upset one of the 22 people on the pitch. Sunday League is Saturday night continued, last season a lad made a horror challenge on another player because he was in a bad mood about spending the night in police cells.

Comment by geobra 2011-10-20 19:53:36

The sort of teams we're talking about, in adult football, don't have an ethos that even contemplates the idea of sportsmanship.

If it is obvious that one or both teams have not come to play football, referees should abandon the game to protect innocent players from injury and because there is no longer any point in carrying on.

League management committees should expel teams that can't or won't distinguish between competitiveness and thuggery. Things shouldn't degenerate to the point that referees feel compelled to act en masse, but if they do I'm with the refs.

I was one myself till I came to Italy nearly 25 years ago. I enjoyed it most of the time, but things seem to have got much worse since then.

They may not be any better here, but I have yet to see a referee threatened in several hundred games in the lower levels of the Italian pyramid, and some of them are only 18 years old. As club linesmen are only allowed to signal that the ball is out of play, players usually even accept offside decisions made by the referee.

Comment by FCKarl 2011-10-21 04:44:30

geobra, one of the most interesting fans I met at Euro 2008 in Switzerland near Basel was an Italian amateur leagues referee. We hit it off right away, talking far more about match officiating in different settings, matches, and cultures than the plight of the Azzuri at that tournament.

Sadly he had just stepped down as an active referee only 6 weeks prior (before the season end) due to repeated incidents of fan, player, and club official violence and verbal threats against him and his family. His auto had been damaged several times or notes of threats left on it. It was too much. He was convinced he'd run out of lucky stars to protect him. And he seemed the ideal ref. The right physical size, terribly fit, early 3o's with a right mixture of authority, smarts, attention to detail, and professionalism. I would have hired him on the spot for a league I was associated with at that time.

"Respect" and FIFA's "Fair Play" mean naught. I no longer actively referee. But there are more than a few times I had to be a very quick thinker, rather savvy and fleet of foot to avoid post match (and once at halftime) trouble.

Thank you, WSC. This is an excellent topic. Yes, it is one you have covered before. But it needs constant reminding for all of us. Match officials are most often doing not only a completely thankless and underappreciated task on behalf of the game, they are taking serious risks.

It is a sign of our times, the cheapening of real values. The worst is when players are openly encouraged by their trainers on the sidelines to escalate the verbal abusee, unsportsmanlike gestures, and dissent toward the referee. In the lower leagues (less monitored) this occurs far more than anyone wishes to aknowledge.

Comment by Kid A 2011-10-21 10:43:44

I find the attitude of professionals (managers and players) towards officials terrible. The castigation of officials for making mistakes, when the game is played at such a high pace, is appalling. Often I feel it is to cover their own inadequacies and distract attention from their own mistakes. Most of the time the officials will make far fewer mistakes during a game than the players.

It clearly has a knock-on effect through to park football. I play myself and it's an ok standard but we sometimes struggle to get a ref and the local league are always reporting that refs are getting too much abuse, both from players and people on the sidelines. Even at my modest level, you'd have to be very thick-skinned to be a ref and hats off to anyone who does it. Playing a game without a ref is awful. I wish the FA/Premier League would really throw the book at the professionals when they transgress - the John Terry incident cited above is a prime example.

Comment by Red Adder 2011-10-21 11:02:24

Pulis is the latest pro manager at it - 2 players getting sent off spolit the Stoke - Maccabi game, with the implication that the ref was the problem. Yes 2 players getting sent off may have spoilt the game, but ist was entire;y the fault of the 2 players whose stupid and immature behaviour got themselves sent off.

PS Don't get me started about the latest rant from Moyes - he is becoming increasingly outspoken about refs - is it his ploy to get the ManU job when the purple one retires - certainly won't be by Everton winning any trophies.

Comment by geobra 2011-10-21 11:57:27

fckarl,you are right to point out that your meeting with an Italian (ex)-referee painted a different picture to the one that my comment may have suggested. But I was simply drawing on my own experience of matches played in one of Italy's more tranquil footballing corners. Even so, just this morning I read in the local paper of a club in my province that was fined for aggressive and threatening behaviour towards the referee by its supporters. Obviously I've been lucky. So far.

I'm still sure that if referees started abandoning matches en masse when the behaviour of players and fans is unacceptable, we'd soon see a dramatic drop in the phenomenon.

Comment by consperanza 2011-10-24 08:07:45

It certainly doesn't help when TV pundits every week show incidents in slow motion to prove that the ref made a mistake in giving/not giving a penalty, sending/not sending someone off etc. The ref makes his decision right or wrong and that should be the end of it. After the Sheffield derby the other week Danny Wilson maintained the reason United hadn't won was that the referee was only 25 years old. And I used to like Danny Wilson!

Brian Clough used to fine players at Forest for being booked for dissent; in fact he once fined Viv Anderson for staring at ref Norman Burtenshaw in an arrogant manner. Happy days indeed.

On Flickr I recently saw a photo of a FCUM player being sent off and in the next picture the ref was surrounded by mardy and aggressive players (all old enough to know better) trying to intimidate her. Well, they've seen it a thousand times on TV haven't they?

I agree that refs should abandon matches more often, or maybe they should go on strike for a week. See how good a game football is, and how sportingly it is played, when there is no-one to adjudicate, eh?

Comment by FCKarl 2011-10-25 10:03:50

geobra, yes, I think that this is what we will one day have to see. A last-minute strike on the part of the referees. This way the issues cannot be overlooked and will hit the media and fans full face. I would even appreciate the solidarity when the top flight (now very well paid) refs joined the strike to emphasize that football is all intertwined -- all leagues, all levels.

What I'd love to see: Clubs required to churn out a referees from their player ranks. Possibly a player aged 27 or 28 that has long since hit his zenith. More likely an aged 34 or 35 player than can no longer keep up with the 20-somethings. School 'em hard in the Laws of the Game. Get 'em ready for 4th division matches. First on the touchline and the best ones go to the center after proving their skills.

Follow them all the way. I don't like Reality TV (it is not reality rather all contrived). But a documentary for this annual class of refs from the pro ranks.

Get their candid views on how they now see the game from positions of much greater responsibility.

I really believe this could work. Particularly if a very well known and fan respected player reaches the capability to ref at the 2d or 3d division levels.

The ref guild should use TV interviews with this former pro ref to emphasize the 1) rigorous preparations, 2) incredible fitness required, 3) reaction skills, 4) decision-making, 5) coolheadedness required, and 6) the merciless critiques one must endure from one's referee peers.

A man in Germany who would make a very intriguing referee: Mehmet Scholl of former FC Bayern fame.

He has always possessed a charisma and following with fans. When he speaks, in his own mannerisms, fans and fellow players listen. Alas, he's now gone back to match TV commentary and he looks to be losing all the fitness he once had.

But I would target someone just like that. (Note: Target them. Make it deliberate. So many of these former footballing pros have no clue what to do with their lives, no direction)

Comment by geobra 2011-10-25 18:14:07

We are all defending referees here, and rightly so, but let's not fall into the trap of thinking that they are above criticism. Provided that it is constructive and objective, (i.e. not determined by a negative result) criticism can help a referee improve his or her performances.

I also think that it would be a good idea if clubs didn't give referees marks. At least in the professional game, they should be judged solely by a neutral assessor, who would presumably be an ex-referee.

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