wsc299 Brian Simpson reports on the growing problem of violence against referees in amateur football

The odds against newspapers as diverse as the Oldham Evening Chronicle, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Buckinghamshire Examiner reporting similar local football stories over the same few days are pretty slim. Yet that is what happened in mid-October, when all three covered attacks on referees in amateur and lower-league football.

For referees in the Ruhr Valley, the fear of violence had become so strong that they withdrew from officiating in matches involving the five worst offending teams. Meanwhile, 15 officials in the Oldham Sunday Football League refused to cover matches because they "feared for their safety on the pitch". Over the same weekend in mid-October, a Southern League match between Redditch United and Chesham United was abandoned when a Redditch player struck the referee during a dispute over a penalty award.

The problem seems to be getting worse. The FA launched its Respect campaign in 2008. Statistics from the time show that as many as 98 per cent of referees faced verbal abuse and 27 per cent had suffered physical abuse. Estimates also show that poor behaviour towards referees caused significant numbers of games at grassroots level (around 840 nationally) to be abandoned. In 2009 it was reported that as many as 7,000 referees had quit the game because of abuse. Current FA statistics show that the most serious assaults on referees, "where serious harm is caused, such as severe bruising or a broken nose", have declined. But common assaults  – "jostling, holding, pushing on a match official" –  have increased by 25 per cent since 2009-10.

Anecdotal evidence tells a similar story. A referee with 37 years' experience, who was headbutted after a six-a-side match, told the BBC in March that he felt "humiliated and intimidated" by the experience. He was just as clear that "respect towards officials is definitely getting worse". He is considering quitting the game.

The FA has concentrated its efforts on finding a solution through the Respect programme and its National Game Strategy. The emphasis has been placed on referee recruitment, retention and training. Referees now receive better support through a network of development officers, mentoring schemes and the establishment of "referee academies", which have been set up with professional clubs. The haemorrhaging of referees from the game seems to have been stemmed, with a five per cent increase in numbers since 2010. Nevertheless, violence towards officials seems to be endemic in the amateur game.

A survey from 1995 shows that almost half of referees had considered giving up because of a "culture of abuse and dissent aimed at match officials", with a majority saying they had been victims. It is easy to find anecdotal evidence to support the impression that Sunday morning football is simply the continuation of a boozy and violent Saturday night. A dose of referee abuse seems to act as a distraction from a hangover.

A popular target for blame is the example set at the top levels of the professional game. This view is confirmed in surveys carried out by the FA. But Dermot Collins, the manager of the Respect campaign, does not agree that conduct in the senior leagues is inevitably reflected lower down the pyramid. He emphasises the "collective responsibility" of league and club officials, alongside coaches and players at grassroots level. His point is illustrated by the "referees' initiative" in the Nalders West Cornwall Sunday Football League, where sponsorship from a local solicitors has provided clubs with financial incentives to improve player behaviour.

Whatever Collins may argue, the chronic post-match whining by Premier League managers and the behaviour of players who surround officials to contest decisions does nothing to enhance respect for referees. Views from established managers such as David Moyes that the image of the Premier League is not "being enhanced by the performance of match officials" simply adds to the noise.

The challenge faced by referees in the amateur game has undoubtedly intensified. They are rarely supported by assistants and have to work with a raft of more complex rules on pitches that are, as a result of council spending cuts, increasingly poorly maintained and marked out. Disputed decisions are inevitable in these circumstances but players often choose to respond through violence or abuse. Football administrators, both local and national, are trying to find a solution through stricter discipline – the Redditch player was sacked by his club and has been banned for three years by the FA – and better training and support for referees. Wherever the solution lies, football is certainly a better game with a referee than without one.

From WSC 299 January 2012

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