They keep the beautiful game alive and kicking...so why do we give referees such a hard time? Grant Woodward reports.
THEY’RE the unsung heroes of local football. The thousands who give up their weekends to turn out in the cold, wind and rain to keep the grassroots game going.
But are we grateful to the figures in black who police our football matches? If shocking new figures are anything to go by, we’re anything but.
Assaults on referees by amateur footballers in England have shot up by more than a quarter in the past year, according to statistics compiled by the Football Association.
By the start of February this season there had been 330 assaults on match officials, up from 260 at the same point last year.
David (not his real name), is an experienced referee in Leeds who takes control of up to two games a weekend during the football season.
He says he isn’t surprised that assaults on referees are on the rise.
“There’s a huge amount of emotion and adrenaline on a football pitch,” he says. “And sadly there’s this win-at-all-costs attitude which means things can easily snowball during a game and get out of hand.
“Some players take out their frustrations on referees. If they’re not playing well or the ball’s not bouncing right for them they get wound up and then take it out on the guy with the whistle.”
The most frequent of the reported attacks on referees are those of common assault, rising from 205 incidents last year to 276 this season.
There have also been 51 incidents of players causing or attempting to cause bodily harm, up from 47 last year.
David himself has seen his fair share of violence on the football field, some of it directed at him.
“In the past I’ve sent off a player who started fighting with his manager on the touchline and I’ve also been threatened by players during games.
“I gave one guy a red card which obviously he wasn’t happy about and I could see he was getting ready to punch me. Luckily his teammates managed to calm him down and take him away before he did anything.
“At junior level you get parents literally moaning at every decision you make. They will also abuse you.
“There have been times when I’ve had to stop the game, go over to the sidelines and warn parents about their conduct. Sometimes you have to send them away from the touchline altogether.”
David says respect and discipline has improved in the league he referees in, but there are still flashpoints and often they’re sparked not by the players but by the people standing on the sidelines.
“One thing I think players, coaches and parents often forget is that we’re there to enjoy it as much as they are,” he says. “There’s still this underlying attitude of win-at-all-costs, which is a big part of the problem.
“Usually that comes from dads whose sons might play at right back and they’re playing out their footballing life through them. With that comes this desperation to win.
“A lot of people lose sight of the fact that football is there to be enjoyed. And parents who are abusing you will have no idea what it’s actually like to referee until they do it.
“I get paid a small fee to referee a match but I certainly don’t do it for the money, I do it for the enjoyment and love of the game. I see some great games, some huge potential and in many ways feel I’m giving something back to the community.”
As with every sport, there will always be contentious decisions. But David, who has been refereeing for 10 years, insists that officials try their best to get it right.
“I am completely independent, I’m given games by the league and I don’t care who wins, draws or loses. I treat every game the same – whether it be a cup final or a Division Four clash.
“There have been times when I’ve been walking down the street and one or two lads have come up and said I’ve done a good job, which is always great to hear.
“There is nothing better than to be told, ‘You’re a very fair ref.’ Because that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Unsurprisingly, he says the antics of star players in the professional game are making his job at grassroots level harder.
“A big part of the problem is the example that’s set by players in the Premier League. What local teams see on TV is reflected in how they act on the pitch.
“It sometimes appears that players at that level can say pretty much anything to the referee and not be disciplined. That’s very frustrating, especially on a Sunday morning during an under 13s game when they think they can do the same thing.
“The league rules say you’re not allowed to swear, but it doesn’t help when referees seem to tolerate it at professional level. If someone swears at me though, he’s off the pitch.”
He says the FA’s Respect initiative, which was launched at the start of the 2008/9 season in a bid to clean up players’ behaviour, has helped improve discipline.
The West Riding County FA also has strict punishments for players who step out of line, ranging from a year’s suspension and £150 fine for spitting at an official to permanent bans for assault causing serious bodily harm.
David is clear in his belief that young footballers need to have it drummed into them at an early age that abuse of officials has no place in the game.
“I think the Respect campaign has helped,” he says. “The vast majority of games I’ve refereed this season have gone off without incident. But there is still more to be done.
“Some clubs are better than others in terms of their respect and discipline towards referees. That comes not just from the players but the coaching staff and, in the case of junior football, the parents.
“I really do believe that parenting at home is reflected in the attitudes, both good and bad, that you get on the pitch.”