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Is the RESPECT campaign working? My first hand experience.

Introduced almost ten years ago the figures quoted in the aftermath show a reduction in reports of misconduct, assaults and cautions for dissent but is it enough?  Is it working?  With a national campaign for the introduction of ‘body cams’ on referees, are misdemeanours on the rise?  I thought junior football had stamped out poor behaviour but last weekend I experienced the problems first hand in a rare outing on an U17 fixture.

As a fellow referee and avid blogger I enjoy Ian Plenderleith’s Referee Tales (https://twitter.com/RefereeTales).  It’s always comforting to know that amateur football in Germany is much the same as it is in the British Isles.  As a county and contributory level official my games are mild mannered compared to Ian’s experiences.  This Sunday, however, I felt like I was living in one of his posts as I accepted to referee a County U17 game.  Due to coaching/managing commitments on a Sunday morning I rarely referee on Sunday afternoon as my County’s infrastructure and geographical issues mean most games are a minimum 25 minute drive.  I am preoccupied with collecting subs and sweeping changing rooms until the afternoon so a 1400hrs kick off time is usually too soon for me.

I had spoken to the home secretary in the week to ascertain match details.  He seemed delighted that I was appointed to his game.  I asked why and he divulged that the reverse fixture was marred by threats of violence and their opponents manager losing his position as well as his mind.  After learning of the mass brawl at the final whistle and the potential shit storm I agreed that a respect barrier would be wise along with keeping parents at different areas.  Segregation at a youth game is a new one to me.

The game in question was a 45 minute drive and I had just about put my broom away and grabbed a quick bacon and egg sandwich in our local pub after collecting fees when I was on my way.  Luckily, the caravan and tractor brigade had taken a day off so I arrived in plenty of time.  A new pavilion welcomed me, resplendent with tea and coffee facilities and central heating!  It had been opened the week before and so I was treated to a sparkling changing room with a shower that was so new it still had all the protection tape on it.

Walking out to the pitch the respect tape was doing its job.  The home side parents and spectators where bunched in the corner with a cricket square segregating them from the away sides.  I’m no cricket fan but I breathed a sign of relief that the wicket was so meticulously annexed.  Handshakes concluded, club linesman introduced, coin toss witnessed and we were off.  The game seemed perfectly normal until the home side took a deserved lead when the heckling started.  I ignored the away side’s club linesman who wrongly flagged for offside in the build up and both him and the parents weren’t happy.  I recited my prematch instructions of “don’t be offended if I overrule you” loud enough to wake the dead and returned to the centre circle.

A ball rolled over the touchline in the corner and the away #11 decided to fire the ball off a fence in frustration.  The problem is he nearly decapitated a three year old child who stood watching.  Luckily, she isn’t hurt but the loud bang of the leather hitting wood had her in floods of tears.  A few of the home side players are now surrounding the offender.  I beckoned him to one side and gave him a verbal warning.  He has just fouled and kicked the ball away so he’s on thin ice.  His apology placated the home side and I’m happy that he did it out of frustration rather than malice.

“There’s two teams in this ref” is one of the most irritating statements.  There are three teams on the pitch as I am the third one.  I ignore it and plough on.  After a disputed throw in on the halfway line cannons off both competing players’ legs I awarded it to the defending home side.  Both teams are wearing black socks so it’s near impossible to tell.  This riles the away crowd who are bubbling.  The game isn’t easy on the eye with both sets of players attempting to man mark their opposite number and smash the ball as hard as they can up the pitch at any opportunity.  The home side move the ball for three passes then double their lead.

I have spotted the problem players.  The home striker (#16) who isn’t particular problematic for me but pisses the away side off enough that they want to get in his face at every opportunity.  He’s their best player and has a first touch and awareness that would shame most professions.  The away side’s left back #5 takes up the lion’s share of my attention.  He’s like a chubby 1990’s David Beckham complete with curtain hair cut.  He seems ambidextrous in that he can kick opponents with both feet.

In a rare moment of quality the away side work the ball wide, near to where the child was almost hit and the ball is crossed.  The away #4 shouts “Leave!” and I immediately blow up for an indirect free kick.  As the whistle rings in his ears he smashes the ball into the top corner and the away spectators cheer.  I am stood with my arm in the air and indicate no goal.  I explained my decision loud enough so everyone heard.  The offender doesn’t plead his ignorance but rants about players having a water break and stepping off the pitch.  At this point I’m already in position up the other part of the pitch so his squeals are drowned out by the wind.

The away side are seemingly coached to push players in the back in aerial duels so their  careless foul count is now in double figures.  As I approach half time the away supporters are annoyed and frustrated.  One is shouting about how bad I am.  He even tells me that he understands how difficult it is to referee because he is one.  This doesn’t stop him questioning my neutrality based on where I live.  “I bet you haven’t got far to travel home, ref!?” I cannot take it anymore so I reply that I actually live closer to his team than this one if it makes any difference.

I manage to play some superb advantages in the second half and the away side look like they actually want to play.  Their best player wearing #7 wriggled free of a couple of challenges and sets up their hopeless striker who balloons over, unmarked from six yards.  The gaggle of idiots are shouting for a penalty even though there are no challenges inside the area and seem oblivious to my double advantage that although risky has allowed the game to flow.  After the home side throw the ball in my nemesis holding the flag is flagging for a foul throw.  I shout play on and he’s incensed.

Once the ball is out I asked him to recite my pre match instructions.  “Ball in and out of play and have a bash at offsides if you can.  Don’t flag for anything else” he replies in a childish sing song voice (he’s late 40’s/early 50’s).  I stand there waiting for a punchline but realise he’s it.  I give him a final warning that he will be removed from his duties if he persists.  He retreats with a chorus of giggles from the well behaved home parents/spectators.  I’m wondering why I agreed to a 90 minute round trip and 90 minutes of ‘football’ for £25.

The final portion of the game sees the home side score their third and fourth goals of the game and the away side become even more bitter and twisted.  I’m told by one centre midfielder that they have had some terrible referee’s this season and I’m right up there.  I thank him for his kind and thoughtful feedback.  The final minutes are a blur of bad passes and aggravation.  The home manager keeps requesting his side keep their cool even though none are interested in fighting and just want to play.  I am pleased how I’ve managed to control the game without issuing a caution.

On full time the entire home side shake my hand with only three from the away team bothering.  Bizarrely, the away linesman was one and says I’ve had a good game.  I’m wondering if there are such a thing as male bunny boilers.  On my way from the pitch I’m approached by the parent of #11.  With his son next to him he says that he has deep concerns in my ability to referee and my obvious bias.  I don’t reply but continue off the pitch towards the sanctuary of new and fully functioning central heating.

Unperturbed, he continues marching next to me, jabbing a finger.  Under rancid coffee and what can only be described as constipation breath he lists all the leagues he can think of and says he will notify them all requesting I have an immediate assessment of my ability to referee.  “I wholeheartedly agree and welcome that” I reply, his face in shock.  “I’m going for promotion and I haven’t received an assessment yet.”  I didn’t turn back to look at him but I could hear the steam whistling out of his ears.

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A blog about referees? How boring!?

The reluctant referee turns blogger

I’ve always thought of myself as a reluctant referee.  Growing up, I had no desire to don the black shirt and whistle neither did I find the profession interesting.  As a player, coach, secretary and later even as a league official I could always glean some enjoyment from the game that I loved.  Refereeing didn’t look that rewarding and seemed a thankless task.  £25 for an hour and a half of idiots telling you to fuck off?  No thanks.

Thanks to the media and their numerous camera angles, the referee isn’t just background noise anymore.  They are a mystical being that has to be right all the time.  Despite the increased scrutiny, there isn’t as much literature about referees as perhaps there should be.  A lot of this is down to the clauses that professional referees have to adhere to.  The result is an often boring yet slightly bitter autobiography when they do hang up their whistle.

I’m hoping that my blog will help with insomnia, refereeing or just to highlight how referees think.  If you take just one thing away from the articles then it has had a positive effect.  I hope that you don’t feel isolated and this blog can act as a support network.  Feel free to ask questions and suggest ideas for articles.  We are the referee, the heartbeat, the facilitator, the arbiter, the judge, the jury, the social worker.  We are the twentythirdman.

Obituary: Mens 11-a-side Adult Football

Association Football or ‘Footy’ to his mates will be remembered fondly for his camaraderie.  The gaggle of friends on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning that met up, shared jokes and anecdotes from the week before.  A group therapy session of mucky jokes and innuendo.  Resplendent in freshly washed kit juxtaposed by the shoddy and ramshackle changing rooms (if you were lucky).  The art form of balancing on one leg leaning against a car whilst you slipped on your shin-ads and socks with your arse hanging out your shorts.  This is jogo bonito.  This is the beautiful game.

In the golden age, Footy was played and adored by the many, not the few.  Without the pressures of extended families, mounting costs, pitch access, quality facilities and regular working weeks a man could enjoy his leisure time without a gym membership or hideous lycra.  Unfortunately, when Footy needed support his relatives stood idly by.  Obsessed with the minorities, the disabled, the women’s game, the referees.  Assuming that Footy would go on forever, this neglect got the better of him in the end.

His good friend; F.A. said that many preferred the flexibility of small sided games and pointed to the ease and painless use of sanitised Goals and Power League Centres.  Completely missing the point that they had the power and finances to save Our National Sport.  The 11-a-side game is rite of passage for many.  The eclectic mix in the changing room cannot be found anywhere else.  A band of brothers who form a love/hate bond and share memories that will last a life time.  Sieges that take place on the wind swept side of a hill in the last ten minutes of a game cannot be replicated on the rubber crumb of a floodlit Goals Centre.

In modern times, Footy was deemed almost inconsequential.  Training in the week and playing a game on the weekend is now hard to commit to for the modern man compared to the cheaper gym membership, moisturiser and selfies for instaface or twatchat.  For the past ten years Footy had been declining rapidly but nobody has understood or helped.  Only now, the F.A. have admitted that their focus was off.  Their assumption completely off kilter.

Their plan?  an expensive Midweek 11-a-side league.  Again, this isn’t going to help the teams or players that want to see a resurgence in the weekend game.  Reduce the costs, spend money on facilities, not just in the inner cities but in the countryside where the deprived are hidden behind a newly built house (on a former football pitch).  A football hub in the city will do to football what centralisation did to the NHS.  The F.A. believe football is still being played and the dwindling teams are down to increased squad sizes.  The Sport England figures show a drop from over 2m playing in October 2006 to just over 1.8m in September 2015 and that’s in all forms of football despite the tiny increase in small sided games.

Club secretaries (and referees) now do the admin work for the local F.A.’s.  This has come with the introduction of the Whole Game System.  Fees for insurance have recently increased and since the F.A. needs clubs to affiliate directly with them (as opposed to the old way where leagues did it) the costs have risen exponentially.  There is so much money floating around the game that the F.A. should reward the clubs who have bothered to stay around this long.  Stop hunting new clubs who will take the grant money and run but invest in the older ones.  The ones that prop up the pyramid.  Modernise the system so rebates can be issued to established clubs.

To host one football match, clubs are forking out up to £150 per game.  The facilities are the same, if not worse than twenty years ago despite the costs increasing three fold.  If a player has to pay £5 to play and £3 to train per week it’s no surprise that there are so many Pure Gym’s sprouting up on every corner offering membership for £15-£20 per month.  The modern man, is uncommitted, preened and coiffured within an inch of his life.  Give him a reason to help Footy and to help himself back into the game.

In the Netherlands, there are an abundance of superb multi-use 4G turf facilities in modest sized towns.  If the F.A. are serious about tackling the decline then it has to be swift.  A season of free football to all would be better use of funds rather than the multimillion pound contract to the millionaire manager of the men’s national team.  If the F.A. continue to pander to the minorities instead of looking after the muck and nettles of adult mens football there won’t be any amateur football left to save.

Video Killed The Referee Star

Yes, yes, I know you are sick to the back teeth of hearing about Video Assistant Referee (VAR) or video technology (VT) or seeing it debated online or written press.  But what will its impact be on refereeing as a whole?  Why do we need it?  What’s the difference?  What could happen in the future?  How do referees feel about its introduction?

Video technology has been used in many sports.  My fascination of Hawk-Eye in cricket and tennis is based on the result and the speed in which it takes to obtain the decision.  It adds to the theatre when the crowd claps an impending ‘result’.  For many years critics base their argument against VT on cost of implementation and the stop-start nature of the system.  FIFA were cautious and curious, often trialling different systems until fairly recently when they have dived in with both feet off the ground and committed to it being ‘the future’.

As seen in recent games the use of VARs and VT can be beneficial.  I have lost count the number of times a ball has bounced on or over the line and I haven’t been able to tell if has crossed the line or not.  This isn’t always the fault of the referee.  You can be on the goal line for a CK or in the perfect place and a body gets in the way or everything happens too quickly for your brain to work it out.  This is true for referees and their assistants.

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The introduction of the Hawk-Eye system in the EPL was a positive step.  Whether or not the ball has crossed the line is almost instantaneous and if a goal is awarded the referee can point to their watch to back up the call.  Despite what the referee thinks, they know it’s a goal.  Players tend to stop to appeal either way so it’s a perfect break in the game.  Decisions such as these are binary and perfectly objective.  The same is true for a case of mistaken identity.  I feel this is a useful and efficient example where the use of a VAR aids the referee.

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If two players from the same side challenge for a ball and the one gets it whilst the other one fouls a player, it may be difficult for the referee to decide who has committed the foul.  Especially if both players are approaching the ball from the same angle.  Another example is the Arsenal hand ball on the goal when Gibbs was sent off by Andre Marriner instead of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain.  VARs can step in straight away and assist the referee in a difficult decision.  Thus, calming the situation and the game.

Another example where the VAR could add value is with offsides.  When Manolo Gabbiadini ‘scored’ for Southampton against Manchester United the goal was wrongly disallowed for offside.  With a VAR reviewing the play and all the players set up for a free kick, the referee could be assisted and a goal awarded.  This would be sorted within 30 seconds and maybe a replay shown on the big screen in the stadium to add to the drama.

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So, objective decisions are ideal regardless of sport.  My issue with VAR’s is their use for subjective decisions.  When attending an in-service meeting at my local FA, we are often shown video clips of penalty decisions.  I don’t think I have ever seen one penalty decision that has been ‘carried’ by the whole room.  Everyone has their opinion and right or wrong this highlights the discrepancies with a VAR re-refereeing a huge decision in a game.  Despite FIFA explaining they don’t want to re-referee a game, in effect, this is what is happening.

The use of VARs could undermine the man in the middle in the same way a disciplinary panel does.  Events are re-refereed by the panel and they often overturn a call, much to the chagrin of the official.  If a VAR steps in during a massive game, what are the psychological effects?  Referees struggle when they see a replay on a big screen and I know players love to highlight an error of judgement.  How will a referee deal with the VAR overusing or correcting the man in the middle?  Using my example before with Gabbiadini, how would the assistants performance be impacted knowing he has made an error and it has been highlighted in front of thousands?

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The introduction of VARs for subjective calls such as penalty decisions would, more than likely bring more questions than answers.  You can view an incident numerous times and it’s inconclusive.  This would simply add more time in between the game and the final decision.  A referee may buckle and ask the VAR for more decisions than needed and show a lack of faith in themselves.  In my opinion, this would be the worst case scenario.  Who wants to referee if you are constantly being undermined?

VARs have indicated a slippery slope that we are ambling down.  If they are just for key decisions then what about throw ins?  I’ve seen goals scored from an incorrect throw in decision (even foul throws) that have made a massive difference.  Where does the use of VARs stop?  Former referee, David Elleray believes the VAR are interfering too much and on current evidence I have to agree.  The modus operandi of most referees have been they are the judge, jury and executioner until the introduction of the VAR has muddied the water.

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FIFA have already gone on record to say the use of VAR and VT is the ‘future of football’ but additional research and training needs to be carried out.  In France’s 3-2 victory over England it highlighted that referees simply do not know when to use it.  Referee Davide Massa ignored Raheem Sterling during a possible penalty in the first half.  A decision that could have used the VAR.  However, after awarding England a penalty in the second half he consulted the VAR before dismissing Raphael Varane for a trip on Dele Alli.

In summary, the use of VT and VARs are vital in the game we love and a necessary step.  However, until we are all on the same page the VAR needs to be treated with kid gloves.  One of things that I love about refereeing is the challenge to get a decision correct.  With the VAR system this is diluted.  Teams want to be refereed by the best referee and appreciate a good performance.  I feel the video will kill the referee star.