Stuck in the mid­dle with you

Hos­tile play­ers, irate fans, de­ci­sions that come back to haunt you: who’d want to be a ref? Michael Hann meets foot­ball’s un­sung he­roes

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

Caught be­tween the teams and the fans, why does any­body want to be a foot­ball ref­eree?

It is a wet Satur­day morn­ing in Septem­ber, the kind when the prick­ling heat of Au­gust feels a dis­tant mem­ory. In Re­gent’s Park in Lon­don, a man in a black shirt, shorts and socks jogs over to a group of par­ents watch­ing their 14-year-olds warm up in the driz­zle. He’s clutch­ing two small flags, each in flu­o­res­cent yellow and or­ange. “I need two lines­men,” he says. Tech­ni­cally, he should say “as­sis­tant ref­er­ees”, but we all know what he means.

I step for­ward. A few days ear­lier, I had met one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing as­sis­tant ref­er­ees – whose de­ci­sions have seen him jeered from the stands and mocked in the House of Com­mons. This might give me an inkling of what his job en­tails.

I try to re­mem­ber what he told me: when one team is at­tack­ing my half, I don’t watch the ball; I look across the pitch, along the line of the last de­fender, to see if any at­tack­ing player is about to run off­side. I sprint up and down the touch­line, level with that last de­fender, but also look up and down my own touch­line to see if the ball is go­ing out of play. And I have to keep an eye on the progress of the game gen­er­ally, to see if there’s any­thing I need to sig­nal to the ref­eree.

I’m look­ing in three di­rec­tions at once, while sprint­ing. So rather than stay­ing be­hind the touch­line, I’m zigzag­ging on and off the pitch. At least there are only a cou­ple of dozen peo­ple watch­ing, and no one’s throw­ing bot­tles.

As I run past the at­tack­ing team’s sub­sti­tutes, I hear one moan: “This is the worse lino I’ve ever seen.” I flag an at­tacker off­side and the coach shouts as I run past: “He has to be off­side when the ball is played, not when he gets the ball!” I know, I say, and he was.

“You’re sup­posed to be in line!”

I know, I say, and I was.

“You’re not even a proper lines­man.”

I know, I say, and I’m only do­ing it so your sons can have a game, so maybe stop giv­ing me shit, eh? Es­pe­cially as your lot are al­ready win­ning 5-0.

Things are not helped when one of the de­fend­ing team shouts, “Well done, lino, great call!” – largely be­cause he’s my son. The driz­zle de­scends. I get wet­ter and wet­ter. The longer the game goes on, the more I pray for it to end. It’s hard, re­ally hard. And I’m not even the ref­eree.

Ref­er­ees have long been the most re­viled peo­ple in foot­ball. From chil­dren’s matches, where un­der-8s re-en­act the cheat­ing of the pro­fes­sional game, to the Premier League, where tens of thou­sands of peo­ple gather to sing, to the tune of Blue Moon, “Shit ref / You’re just an­other shit ref ”, to be a match of­fi­cial is to be, in the ver­nac­u­lar of foot­ball, “the bas­tard in the black”. And yet the UK has thou­sands of them, paid a pit­tance to get shouted at by hun­gover par­ents, or picked apart on so­cial me­dia, or found want­ing by TV pun­dits. They turn out in rain, snow or sun, with none of the glory you get from play­ing. What is it like to spend your week­ends trav­el­ling to out-of-the-way grounds to ref­eree a game only 125 peo­ple care about? Why get out of bed on a Sun­day morn­ing to keep order among 22 blokes who smell of last night’s beer?

If to­day’s lev­els of on­line abuse can seem dis­pro­por­tion­ate, it was ever thus. In York­shire, they still curse the name of Ray Tin­kler, the ref­eree who in April 1971 al­lowed West Bromwich Al­bion to score a goal Leeds United be­lieved cost them the league ti­tle; fans – not hooli­gans, but irate mid­dle-aged men in rain­coats – in­vaded the pitch. It didn’t mat­ter that Tin­kler’s de­ci­sion was right. In Jan­uary 2000, a snarling pack of Manch­ester United play­ers led by Roy Keane sur­rounded Andy D’Urso af­ter he awarded Mid­dles­brough a penalty at Old Traf­ford. In March 2005, Swedish ref­eree An­ders Frisk re­tired early when his fam­ily re­ceived death threats af­ter José Mour­inho, then Chelsea’s man­ager, ac­cused him of favour­ing Barcelona in a Cham­pi­ons League game. And in May this year, a match be­tween two Lon­don am­a­teur teams ended with the ref­eree be­ing chased around the pitch, knocked down and kicked by play­ers and spec­ta­tors. Just days ago, a lines­man in a game be­tween Rangers and Liv­ingston had his head cut open by an ob­ject thrown from the crowd. Dou­glas Ross sits at the in­ter­sec­tion of Bri­tain’s two most hated jobs: he is a match day of­fi­cial and a politi­cian. In May this year, the Con­ser­va­tive MP for Mo­ray and FA-cer­ti­fied lines­man de­lighted fans on both sides of the sta­dium when he fell flat on his face dur­ing the Scot­tish Cup fi­nal. In March, when he called for Celtic’s Jozo Simunovic to be sent off dur­ing a Rangers v Celtic game, Twit­ter lit up with ac­cu­sa­tions that Ross was not just a cheat, but a Union­ist cheat.

It is a warm day when I meet Ross – just back in Lon­don af­ter a sum­mer spent tour­ing his con­stituency and run­ning the line in qual­i­fy­ing matches for Euro­pean club tour­na­ments – on the ter­race of the Com­mons. Im­plau­si­bly, some­where nearby a bag­piper is play­ing.

“I was on my way home and the ob­server rang,” says Ross, 35, re­mem­ber­ing the af­ter­math of that Old Firm match. (Top-level ref­er­ees and as­sis­tants are watched in ev­ery game.) “I thought: ‘This can’t be good – he said he’d phone to­mor­row.’ But his wife had been on Face­book and seen all the stuff about me, so he wanted to warn me. I did stay off so­cial me­dia for a while.”

But just as the pub­lic rage was dying down, it was stirred up again in par­lia­ment by Ian Black­ford, the SNP’s leader in West­min­ster. “The game was on the Sun­day. On the Tues­day, we had the spring state­ment and he stood up and said, ‘We all saw the hon­ourable mem­ber for Mo­ray wav­ing his flag fu­ri­ously at Ibrox, get­ting a Celtic player red carded. Well, maybe he should take the red card out and show it to the chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer be­cause his state­ment is so ter­ri­ble.’

“He thought that was a funny re­mark. I thought it was a cheap gag. What it did was reignite all those peo­ple on →

‘If I haven’t seen some­thing I will say so, calmly. I even smile. I’ve been on the re­ceiv­ing end’

so­cial me­dia who had just calmed down af­ter 48 hours of hav­ing a go at me. Some­times my op­po­nents don’t re­alise the im­pli­ca­tions.”

Why do ref­er­ees do it? Be­cause they love foot­ball, of course. Some­times it’s also be­cause they weren’t good enough as play­ers: “One of my old man­agers told me I’d be a good ref­eree,” re­mem­bers Premier League ref­eree Chris Ka­vanagh, “which was his way of say­ing my play­ing days were over.” Some­times it’s be­cause they want to see a dif­fer­ent side of the game: Ab­dulka­dir Ar­she, the ref who got me run­ning the line in Re­gent’s Park, was a youth team coach – he re­mem­bers with hor­ror telling ref­er­ees they didn’t know what they were do­ing – and took the FA course af­ter reff­ing a few ca­sual games. Some­times it’s a way of pro­long­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing at the top of foot­ball: 38-year-old Ch­eryl Fos­ter played 63 times for Wales, more than any other fe­male player, and spent nine years with Liver­pool. When she re­tired from play­ing, she wanted to stay in the game and is now on the Fifa list, el­i­gi­ble to ref­eree the big­gest matches in the women’s game; in Au­gust she be­came the first woman to take charge of a men’s Welsh Premier League game. The rest of the time, she’s a PE teacher and deputy head; school will take pri­or­ity un­til the Oc­to­ber half-term.

“As a player, you think you know quite a lot about the game,” she says. “And you do. But as a ref­eree you learn lots more lit­tle things. Mainly positioning. As a striker I stayed in one part of the pitch, whereas a ref­eree has to be like a box-to-box mid­fielder. I do more fit­ness work now than when I was a player – in the last five weeks I’ve been fit­ness tested five times.” As a Fifa ref­eree, she is sent strin­gent tar­gets and a train­ing pro­gramme (“which I fol­low re­li­giously”).

She passed her test in De­cem­ber 2013 and the next month was an as­sis­tant ref­eree in the men’s Welsh Na­tional League – a de­mand­ing start. “It was the phys­i­cal na­ture I no­ticed,” she says. In women’s foot­ball, “the ball is played and passed a lot more”; male play­ers clat­tered into who­ever was in pos­ses­sion.

Fos­ter ref­er­ees the way she would have wanted to be ref­er­eed. “I talk to play­ers as much as I can and ex­plain de­ci­sions. If I haven’t seen some­thing, I’ll say so, calmly. I even smile. I don’t want to seem un­ap­proach­able – I’ve been on the re­ceiv­ing end, es­pe­cially from male ref­er­ees. You’d ask a ques­tion and get a hand ges­ture – ‘Stay away, I’m not talk­ing.’ It adds to the frus­tra­tion.”

The first steps into ref­er­ee­ing can be ter­ri­fy­ing. First, there’s the prospect of hav­ing to man­age peo­ple. Sec­ond, the sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity – that a mis­take can sway the des­tiny of a game. Third, the sim­ple fear of ret­ri­bu­tion. At Ross’s first game – an un­der-13s match – he let play go ahead de­spite the pitch be­ing dan­ger­ously frozen, then for­got what he had learned and baf­fled play­ers by giv­ing rugby sig­nals. Ryan Atkin, 33, who ref­er­ees at Na­tional League level (one step be­low the Foot­ball League), for­got to bring his whis­tle to his first match in a Devon league. “The first half of the game was reffed with me us­ing my voice,” he says. “My grand­fa­ther found me a whis­tle for the sec­ond half.

“Un­til you’re ex­pe­ri­enced, it’s scary,” Atkin says of those first few times in charge. “That’s es­pe­cially true in parks foot­ball, which can be very lonely. You’re of­ten on your own, po­ten­tially manag­ing 30 play­ers and coaches, who might not ap­pre­ci­ate what you’re do­ing and the num­ber of de­ci­sions you make.”

Ross says a lot of of­fi­cials are lost at this level, “be­cause they get so much abuse from their very first game. These are peo­ple just start­ing out, but be­cause of the re­ac­tion of some coaches and par­ents, they just walk away.”

In the parks, there are things you can’t pre­pare for. Ash­ley Hick­sonLovence qual­i­fied as a ref­eree at 16, and af­ter a bad tackle in a south Lon­don league game two years later, found the teams con­fronting each other not with the usual push­ing and shov­ing – what com­men­ta­tors call “hand­bags” – but with knives. “Some­one was stabbed in the face. It went into the car park. I ran for cover and called the po­lice, who got there in four min­utes. I had to down­play that to my fam­ily – my mum had never been keen on me ref­er­ee­ing.” Re­flect­ing on the fight now, Hick­son-Lovence has a very ref­er­eeish re­ac­tion: “I think I learned a les­son.” That it’s worth check­ing how well-armed teams are? “That I was too in­clined to let games flow.” If he’d clamped down on the tack­les, he thinks, no one would have felt the need for knives. Nine years later he is still ref­er­ee­ing, and writ­ing a PhD on the early life of the English ref Uriah Ren­nie.

There are 28,000 FA-qual­i­fied ref­er­ees in Eng­land (Wales, Scot­land and Northern Ire­land have their own foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tions), over­see­ing ev­ery FArecog­nised game of foot­ball in the coun­try, from Premier to kids in the park. In Eng­land, you take a 34-hour course, mix­ing class­room and on-pitch learn­ing, to be­come a level seven ref­eree, tak­ing charge of am­a­teur games. If you are good, your lo­cal FA and league ad­min­is­tra­tors will no­tice you and you’ll get pro­moted. By level four, you’ll ref­eree semi-pro­fes­sional leagues, con­trol­ling games in front of pay­ing crowds – small crowds, but crowds none­the­less, who feel they have a right to let you know what they think. At level one, you ref­eree in the Premier and Foot­ball Leagues, and your mis­takes will be fea­tured on TV and the sports pages. At all lev­els, you will get in­sulted on Twit­ter.

On av­er­age, be­tween 4,000 and 5,500 new ref­er­ees qual­ify each year, pay­ing about £160 to take the course. With 28,000 in to­tal, you don’t need a maths de­gree to work out most of these new re­cruits don’t last the dis­tance. But the FA’s se­nior ref­eree of­fi­cer, Farai Hal­lam, says the num­ber of work­ing ref­er­ees is “healthy”. Ev­ery county FA has its own devel­op­ment of­fi­cer to of­fer ad­vice, and all new ref­er­ees get a men­tor. The FA is try­ing to change the face of ref­er­ee­ing, he says, re­cruit­ing more women and peo­ple from eth­nic mi­nori­ties. “Foot­ball evolves,” he says, “and ref­er­ee­ing has to evolve as well.” →

One ref­eree had teams con­fronting each other with knives. ‘I ran for cover. The po­lice were there in four min­utes’

In that con­text, Ryan Atkin’s de­ci­sion to come out last year, be­com­ing the English game’s first openly gay ref­eree, was a big deal. The an­nounce­ment was co­or­di­nated be­tween him, the FA, Stonewall, Sky Sports and Pro­fes­sional Match Game Of­fi­cials Ltd (the com­pany re­spon­si­ble for of­fi­cials). “We dis­cussed why I was do­ing it, and they couldn’t have been more sup­port­ive. We’ve seen an en­cour­ag­ing in­crease in peo­ple in sport com­ing for­ward since then. I think in the next cou­ple of years the game will be­come more in­clu­sive.”

You might ex­pect the top lev­els of the game to be the hard­est to run: there is so much more at stake; the crowds are vast; the scru­tiny is in­tense. But the roar of a sta­dium full of peo­ple can be too loud for any in­di­vid­ual in­sult to mat­ter. “The crowd is just back­ground noise in the Premier League,” Ka­vanagh says. “We’re so fo­cused on talk­ing to each other” – of­fi­cials wear ear­pieces and mi­cro­phones – “and work­ing as a team, we only pick up a lit­tle.”

Top-class of­fi­cials stay in a ho­tel to­gether be­fore the match, travel to­gether to and from the sta­dium (im­posed af­ter a ref­eree driv­ing home from a West Ham game was ac­costed by an­gry fans at traf­fic lights) and of­ten work in the same groups. In fact, the ca­ma­raderie is one of the things ref­er­ees love about the game. Down in the lo­cal park, there’s none of that sup­port.

But the big­ger dif­fer­ence comes in the stan­dard of play. Top-level teams are not in­ter­ested in any­thing that gets in the way of win­ning, and moan­ing at the ref isn’t a pri­or­ity, re­gard­less of what TV pic­tures sug­gest. This is not al­ways the case lower down the leagues, par­tic­u­larly where am­a­teur and semipro­fes­sional foot­ball merges. There also tend to be just enough peo­ple watch­ing – maybe 50 or 60 – to make ev­ery­thing they say to the of­fi­cials very au­di­ble, and po­ten­tially hurt­ful.

This is where of­fi­cials get the worst abuse, Ross says. “I’ve sent low­er­league play­ers off for call­ing me a cheat. That’s the worst thing you can say, ques­tion­ing an of­fi­cial’s in­tegrity. Yes, we’ll get things wrong, and some of­fi­cials might be in­com­pe­tent, but we never go out there and think that if we do such and such, a team will win.”

All ref­er­ees have their own style. Some are mar­tinets; some al­low play­ers as much lee­way as pos­si­ble. What unites them is hor­ror at their own mis­takes. “It makes you feel sick,” Atkin says. He men­tions a game where he got a cou­ple of huge de­ci­sions wrong. “I can’t watch that clip,” he says. “You feel an­gry at your­self, em­bar­rassed. There’s the fear of go­ing back to the club in a cou­ple of months and hav­ing to walk in and smile. You want to talk about it – but you don’t want to re­mind them you made that de­ci­sion.”

I ask what the game was. Atkin says he’s so ashamed, he has wiped the teams’ names from his mind. “But if you go on YouTube and search ‘Ryan Atkin ref­eree’ it’s there.” I do. It’s Staines Town v Welling United in 2013, and he’s right, his de­ci­sions are hor­ri­ble: a scyth­ing tackle is ig­nored; a striker who’s bla­tantly pushed over gets booked for div­ing.

Ross says he ob­sesses about ev­ery bor­der­line call. “I’ll watch them 100 times on TV – my wife gets so fed up with it. I can’t sleep on a Satur­day night if I think I’ve got some­thing wrong. Not only have you af­fected a match, but all your col­leagues will see it and the press and pun­dits will tear you to shreds.”

Yet the vast ma­jor­ity of de­ci­sions in ev­ery match are cor­rect: at the very top of the game, barely one in a hun­dred will be wrong. When an of­fi­cial does make a mis­take, the Premier League ref­er­ees will dis­cuss it at their fort­nightly sem­i­nars and work out how to avoid re­peat­ing it.

It’s the same down the leagues. But while the of­fi­cial close to the in­ci­dent is bet­ter placed than the bloke 90 yards away with half an eye on his phone, still the of­fi­cials get the blame for al­most ev­ery­thing. “Some­times play­ers don’t want to work with you,” Atkin says. “The chal­lenges fly in, but you’re the one get­ting flak for not con­trol­ling the game. Well, what have I done to make you tackle like that? With those games, you can’t wait for the 90 min­utes to end.”

Still, ev­ery of­fi­cial I speak to stresses how much they en­joy it. They talk of how fit it makes them (Ar­she, who ref­er­ees six games ev­ery week­end, says he av­er­ages 30,000 steps ev­ery match day), of the sat­is­fac­tion of get­ting through dif­fi­cult games and the bond that de­vel­ops be­tween of­fi­cials. They walk on to the pitch to­gether, and off the pitch to­gether, al­ways with their heads held high – even on those oc­ca­sions when they need a po­lice es­cort.

Af­ter what seems like an eter­nity, my 80 min­utes run­ning the line in Re­gent’s Park are over. My son’s team lost 8-1. I am cold and wet and cring­ing at the mem­ory of com­pletely mis­read­ing one sit­u­a­tion, raising my flag to a player who was miles on­side. “I’m sorry!” I shouted. “I got that wrong.” The play­ers, less than a third my age, roll their eyes in disgust. They turn to the ref­eree: “He ad­mit­ted he got that wrong!” one of them shouts. “Come on, ref!”

At the end of the game, I’m left out of the hand­shakes. No one says, “Thanks for the game, lino”, not even my own son.

That af­ter­noon, I go to Lof­tus Road to watch QPR play Nor­wich. I sit in my usual seat in the front row of the West Pad­dock, within easy shout­ing dis­tance of the as­sis­tant ref­eree. Around me come the usual shouts. “Oi, lino, help your fuck­ing mate out, will you? He’s shit.” “Oi, lino, your hair get in your eyes? How come you didn’t see that?” “Oi, lino, don’t you know the fuck­ing rules?”

I sit in si­lence. There’s no way I’m ever crit­i­cis­ing a ref­eree again. At least, not un­til the next time

Dou­glas Ross ob­sesses about bor­der­line calls. ‘I watch them 100 times on TV – my wife gets fed up with it’

Ab­dulka­dir Ar­she (above) ref­er­ees a youth game, while Dou­glas Ross (op­po­site) is both a Tory MP and FA-cer­ti­fied lines­man

Ch­eryl Fos­ter, who played 63 times for Wales, over­sees a Welsh Premier League match

Manch­ester United play­ers rage at Andy D’Urso (top); An­ders Frisk (above) faces Chelsea and Barcelona

Ab­dulka­dir Ar­she: as a youth coach, he re­calls with hor­ror, he’d tell ref­er­ees they didn’t know what they were do­ing

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