4 January ~ My football team, Burridge AFC, occupy the 13th tier of the pyramid system, playing their home games a punted clearance away from the River Hamble in the senior division of the Drew Smith Group Southampton League. The consistent absence of spectators leaves referees to tolerate various degrees of abuse alone. I haven't always been nice to them myself. I followed one off the pitch after the final whistle of a game with Ordnance Survey Reserves, to continue remonstrating about his decision to give Survey a late penalty, but a brisk step suggested his main concern was getting to the sanctuary of his dressing room rather than repeat the answer he'd given me several minutes earlier.
That's when I told him I hoped he had an accident on his way home. I still feel ashamed for doing so. It was time to start exercising some compassion towards referees. Appealing for throw-ins was fine but chasing match officials halfway across the field, as though I'd caught them using the bonnet of my car as a makeshift toilet, wasn't.
I applied my new philosophy during a game with Netley Central, who took the lead before I'd even touched the ball, a statistic I used to break the ice with the referee. Having got no closer to the ball by the time we'd equalised two minutes later, the referee jogged back to the halfway line chuckling alongside me and asking me if I was taking credit for the goal. I responded by giving him a few playful pats on the back. Our relationship was tested when a Netley supporter took to the field to share his thoughts on tackling with one of my team-mates but the referee and I didn't let this spoil our afternoon. Once I'd given him my full name, after bringing an opponent's run to an abrupt end, we conducted the rest of the game on first name terms.
Being nice to referees while being a spectator at a game needn't be reduced to simply diverting your abuse elsewhere. During Norwich City's visit to Southampton in November, Andy Penn received a continual verbal volley from one man in particular who sat a few seats along from mine. After an hour spent subjected to Mr Angry's sermon I told him that the referee was merely trying to play the advantage. I did this without realising that both the tone and volume I'd said it in had caused a small boy, who I'd not noticed previously and now took to be his son, to cower into the folds of Mr Angry's winter coat. Somehow I'd managed to alienate myself from everyone within a ten foot radius, including the nice lady sat four seats along, who immediately withheld her previously benevolent hand out of Polo mints, but at least the referee's honour was intact.
I faced a bigger challenge several weeks later while playing for Burridge AFC. Our referee's mood hadn't recovered since he'd been left to remove dog mess from the penalty area, using several blasts of his whistle to gain the attention of a passing dog walker for a plastic bag to scoop it off the grass with. During play he was quick to answer any appeals for free-kicks in the kind of snide tone that Alan Green usually reserves for England friendlies. It set the pattern of the game. When players wanted to show how angry they were about why a free-kick on the halfway line hadn't been awarded their way, they did so from a distance that left the referee in little doubt to how seriously they took dental hygiene. I tried to encourage the referee but against a backdrop of stinging criticism even something as simple as "well played ref" sounded deeply sarcastic.
With the multi-ball system delayed by a combination of thick bushes and the search for a football pump adapter I decided to lighten the mood and ask the referee how he was enjoying the game. On closer inspection he bore more than a passing resemblance to current Nottingham Forest manager, Billy Davies, and those little button eyes answered me with a stare implying that he had no problem with settling matters in the car park afterwards. A word of warning to anyone who's thinking of following suit – being nice to referees can be a lonely business. The experience is a bit like being religious. True friends won't pass judgement on your beliefs, to your face at least, but the moment you start bringing them up in everyday conversation people will start to think twice about inviting you to the pub. Mark Sanderson. You can follow Burridge at 90minutesofburridge.blogspot.com