There was a report in national newspapers last year of a young thug attacking a seventies pensioner as he was unloading the boot of his car. The newspapers concentrated on the fact that the pensioner was a former amateur boxer who completely routed his would-be robber. What caught my attention however, was that what he was taking out of his boot was his football kit after returning from a match. He was in fact, despite his age, a football referee. Why this particularly interested me was that many years ago I was twice a schoolboy boxing champion of Reading schools. I was reminded of this recently when I was shown a programme from one of the finals that I appeared in, with the names of all the contestants.
Some years later after I had started refereeing, I was appointed to a local game in which I was told that one of the teams had a troublesome centre forward. When I got to the game, I discovered that the so-called difficult player was someone I had beaten in one of those finals. I have to say that he gave me no trouble at all but I doubt that his behaviour was affected because he knew if we got into a fight he would come off second best. That’s for the simple reason that referees don’t (or shouldn’t) get into fights, even if they have been called the vilest of names by players and supporters that if said to other players might lead to fisticuffs.
Is that why players and spectators feel it is quite acceptable to abuse match officials? One player said to a local referee, ‘if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t be doing the job,’ as if part of refereeing was to submit to abuse. There may be times when referees don’t take it. Abuse is a major factor in referees giving up the game but not always for the reason you might expect. I was sitting in the changing room at Kings Meadow some years ago when another referee came in and threw his flags down. ‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘I’ve finished refereeing.’ It seemed he had received heated abuse from a player, which he said made him feel like ‘punching the player’s lights out’. He was a big man and I’ve no doubt that he could have done so, but he felt that he couldn’t trust himself to restrain himself if it happened again. Other referees haven’t restrained themselves. Earlier this season an experienced referee in Yorkshire gave a player a bruised lip after a ‘verbal exchange’. I watched a video last week from the second division in Chile where after being shown a red card, a player hurled abuse at the referee. In retaliation the referee slapped his face upon which the player fell down as if he had been pole axed. A riot ensued leading to the referee being chased to his dressing room.
Closer to home a local referee heard someone call him a short a—d bald headed c—t behind his back. When he turned around he saw three players grinning at him. As he couldn’t tell who spoke the words he abandoned the match. He received some criticism for his action as there was only four minutes to go but he would have had the backing of the Turkish Football Federation. New rules just issued by their Disciplinary Committee say referees can abandon games if they are insulted and anyone found guilty of abusing a referee, on or off the field, will be banned from football for a minimum of a year.
I wouldn’t suggest for one moment that referees take boxing lessons but other associations, including the FA, might also consider taking stronger actions against those who despoil our game in this way.