Grassroots Football Needs Grassroots Referees

by | Oct 9, 2018

It’s Non-League Day on Saturday, so the game below the Football League is taking centre-place here on 200% ahead of this weekend’s round of matches. Football is a far broader church than just the professional game, but it’s not all good news – grassroots football is facing crisis after crisis with its refereeing, and official campaigns seem to all come to nothing. So, what can be done about a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for years? 

As any assiduous follower of football on social media will already be aware, the campaign to save grassroots football has been going on for some considerable time. The decline in the quality of facilities and the number of pitches for players who don’t get paid to play is reasonably well documented, and it should go without saying that we all ultimately lose out if there is nowhere to play football, especially when the competition for ways in which we can spend our spare time has never been greater.

A lack of available facilities, however, is not the only existential threat to junior and amateur football. All the sparkling facilities, shiny 3g pitches and freshly laid out kits in the world are worth little if there’s no-one available to actually ensure that games are played within the spirit of its laws, and there have been repeated reports over the last few years which indicate that the army of amateur referees that keep the Sunday leagues and junior leagues of this country ticking over is diminishing to a point at which it will start to become unfeasible to even play a lot of the grassroots football that we should be supporting.

It was reported just last week that referees on the Channel Island of Jersey were threatening to quit en masse in protest at a recent spate of bad behaviour on the pitch. The weekend previously, referees had been forced to issue ten red cards in twelve matches, five reds for foul and abusive language, two for violent conduct and three for denying a goalscoring opprtuniy, numbers which in themselves show an almost wilful lack of any form of respect for referees.

The chair of Jersey’s referee’s committee had not been backwards in coming forward over the issue. Mark le Cornu quit his position in the Jersey Football Combination in December 2015 in protest at the decline in standards, and on a island that only has a total of twenty-three registered referees it is clear that many more decisions to hang up the boots on the part of referees may well lead to football on the island completely grinding to a halt. Le Cornu is clear on what he feels needs to happen:

What we can do as referees is adopt zero tolerance. Only the captain would be allowed to speak to the referee. If someone offers dissent by way or word or action, throwing the ball or sarcastic applause for example, that’s dissent and that’s a yellow card.

If managers want to start shouting and screaming from the technical area, once is a warning and the second is removal, if spectators misbehave at games the referee may as a club representative from the home team to have them removed.

Le Cornu has been a referee on the island for more than a quarter of a century, and the patterns of which he speaks seem to repeated around the country. A report by the Football Association itself revealed there were 111 cases of confirmed referee abuse across the United Kingdom over the course of the 2015/16 season, for example, and these numbers are widely believed to be the tip of the iceberg, with the vast majority of cases of abuse going unreported.

In October 2017, the BBC reported five refereeing resignations from the Central Wales Football Association within the first couple of months of the season starting, with a further six at that time also considering their resignation. With more than eighty referees required to ensure that all matches could go ahead, it was expected that match cancellations would follow, and losing referees at this rate starts to take on the feel of an existential risk to the very future of the game in that particular part of the world.

It isn’t only the adult players who are giving amateur referees a headache, either, of course. The trope of the over-enthusiastic parent hurling abuse at a referee over perceived failures to referee their little darlings’ matches to their exact satisfaction became a comedy trope many years ago, although it soon becomes considerably less amusing once it starts to consider how this manifests itself in real world settings. Reporting on the matter in January 2017, the Daily Telegraph, which campaigned on this matter for some time, spoke to Holly Warmington, a young referee who quit refereeing in the Kent Youth League after being abused by the parent of a player in an under-twelves match:

In February last year at an under-12 game, I made a decision not to send a boy off. The parent of the boy who had been fouled came over at the end. He was swearing, screaming and shouting at me and then proceeded to poke me in the chest. I’m 5ft 5in. He was coming on for 6ft 5in and very intimidating. I had two managers stood next to me and they did nothing.

I filed a misconduct report and explained exactly what happened. I expected a call or email but I never received anything. A few months later I turned up at a match and the same parent was there. I was petrified. I thought if I made a decision that he did not agree with, I would be in serious harm. I thought, ‘If that is going to be how I feel turning up, I don’t want to put myself in that situation’.

The Kent FA emailed to ask why I wasn’t going to be a referee any more. The biggest issue was the support around the incident. I explained why I was so shocked that I did not hear anything. The response basically was ‘man up’. I felt that they weren’t looking out for my safety.

The fact that referees may not get the support that they need from their leagues is a surprisingly common theme, as well. In 2011, striking referees in the Oldham Sunday League resigned after their league reinstated the registrations of three players who had previously been banned over their behaviour. But who can possibly blame them for deciding that this wasn’t the most productive way in which they can spend their free time? Few of us would tolerate such a toxic environment were we paid handsomely to be there, whereas referees at this level of the game will be doing so for expenses, and no more. Exactly this particular group of people should be expected to put up with it is one of football’s more enduring mysteries.

As shocking as many of these testimonies are, however, few of them are particularly surprising. We have a football culture that has denigrated refereeing for pretty much as long as it has existed, and this exists from the very top down. Players surround them every time they blow a whistle, haranguing and shouting in their faces for exactly as long as they believe they can get away with. Managers, keen for a diversion that will take the heat off their own poor decisions, routinely turn post-match interviews or press conferences into post-mortems on the decisions of the referee at the slightest opportunity.

But it doesn’t stop there. The media, blessed with a hundred new camera angles, will forensically analyse every single call whilst seldom even acknowledging that those with the decision to make in the heat of the moment don’t have this technology at their disposal. And as supporters, we are all guilty of shifting the responsibility for our own teams’ shortcomings onto the match officials. We may consider our behaviour to be relatively innocuous, but ultimately there’s a persuasive case to be made for saying that it all feeds into a culture which leads to the parents of children genuinely believing that it is acceptable to shout and scream at a referee, or in which a Sunday league player believes that there’s nothing wrong with breaking a referee’s nose because he’s sent them off.

The FA relaunched their Respect campaign in 2017 in response to the continuing decline in standards nine years after it originally began, but there doesn’t seem to have been upturn in standards of behaviour. In March of that year, one young referee, Ryan Hampson from Manchester, took it upon himself to organise an amateur referees’ strike which was reported to have 2,000 referees from the length and breadth of the country involved, but Hampson – who confirmed that he had been headbutted, punched and spat at in just four years as a referee – also claimed that some referees were dissuaded from taking part in it, with one league in Oxfordshire reportedly telling its referees that their services would no longer be required should they take part. The players hate them, the fans hate them, the media belittle them and their leagues and county football associations don’t always even support them. Even VAR, technology introduced to try to eliminate refereeing errors in the professional game, may even end up holding those officiating matches on a Sunday morning to an even higher standard than they already are. An impossible job might yet become even more imposisible, and it’s not really a strong look to suggest that things have always been this bad, if things remain as bad as they evidently are.

It is entirely possible that the declining number of players has masked the crisis within refereeing at a grassroots level. After all, surveys by Sport England have shown drops in the number of people aged sixteen and over who play football at least once a week – from 2,021,700 in the period October 2005 to October 2006, to 1,935,200 in April 2012 to April 2013 to 1,838,600 in October 2012 to October 2013 – and fewer players require fewer referees. This decline, however, only seems likely to have a knock-on effect that will ripple right the way through the game, all the way to the top of the professional leagues. After all, the smaller the pool of once-willing referees there is available to choose from, the more likely it surely is that standards will fall across the board, all of which makes the idea that this only impacts upon those who are involved with the game at a grassroots feel somewhat redundant.

And the problem of what to do about it isn’t going to go away, either. The solutions offered by Mark le Cornu may well work. It certainly feels as though they’re worth a try. Ultimately, though, and with the FA’s Respect programme still best-known for the mockery that it received at the time of its introduction and the fact that it seems to have done little to improve behaviour on match days, perhaps it’s time to admit that this is a cultural issue concerning the contempt with which we tend to talk about people these days, and that it will require a change of behaviour from a far greater group of people than just Sunday morning footballers or over-stimulated parents if anything is to significantly change. It’s easy to look at the scale of what would need to change and think that it will likely never happen but, then again, how difficult can it possibly be to not hurl abuse at a complete stranger for a couple of hours of a Sunday morning, or even a Saturday afternoon?