Relationships between referees and physiotherapists?

Conflict, Collision and Confusion by Ken Goldman


Whilst it would be extremely pleasant if every member of the football fraternity was at all times in tune with one another unfortunately things just do not happen like that. Thus when referees who are required under Law 5 to manage the game come up against physiotherapists who have a distinctive job to do with injured and potentially injured players on the pitch, the two parties are often on a collision path with each other. This is because the referee has a set number of rules to follow which encompass continuing play if a player is only slightly injured but stopping it in more serious cases and then inviting the physio or doctor onto the pitch and is the one with the sole power to permit anyone to enter the field of play. It is his/her responsibility to have an injured player removed from the field and not treated on it which causes of course the most serious conflict between referees and physiotherapists. This is because the latter’s main aim is to get onto the pitch and assess the pathology of the injury and resolve it as quickly as practicable. This after having ascertained the seriousness of the injury and how best to treat it taking into account how the injury occurred and his/her own experience of the type of injury sustained. Thus we have two people disagreeing as to how long the injured player should remain on the pitch and sometimes this collision of concepts and needs, where the referee is stopping his watch and agitating for a resumption of play, can lead to quite a heated argument.

Confusion can also arise where there are exceptions to the rule about players being removed after injury. These exceptions apply when a goalkeeper is injured or where the keeper and an outfield player collide and immediate treatment is needed or where the same thing happens with two players of the same side. Many players wishing to return find it frustrating that they cannot get the attention of the referee for permission to return and one has seen instances of the physio jumping up and down trying to gain that attention immediately after play has restarted which upsets both sides This particularly applies where the player is bleeding from a wound and has to report to the referee before he can return. Incidentally a player refusing to leave the field when injured will be cautioned by the referee for unsporting behaviour.

Additional difficulties arise when the referee who is the sole time-keeper has to decide in his capacity of protecting and safeguarding the welfare of the players, which is paramount, as to whether any of them are actually feigning injury and/ or time wasting, In that event he will try to prevent the physio from entering the field causing more clashes. How different from years back when the then “trainer” rushed onto the pitch and administered to the fallen player the “magic sponge” and then ran off again. There was little or no confusiont then but as time has progressed and so has the knowledge of the physiotherapists they have wanted more quality time to assess and tend to the injured player. Contrast this at the highest levels against those of the lowly grass roots side of the game. Here there is less pressure on time but fewer qualified people in attendance to help an injured player. Whilst at the top we have seen physios and doctors called onto the pitch and lives actually saved there are normally no such facilities available on park pitches and players are lucky if someone has been on a first aid course. In those circumstances referees are advised not to try to treat an injured player unless it is to save life, for fear of being sued afterwards for negligence, but instead to stop or abandon the game and call for an ambulance.

What therefore can be done to improve relationships between referees and physiotherapists? The answer is reasonably simple and is all about dialogue. There are a number of Referees’ Societies throughout the country, who usually meet on a monthly basis where physios at all levels could be invited to speak or just attend and likewise referees could be invited to talk at Medical Societies meetings. One such dialogue was created a couple of month’s back at the North Middlesex Referees’ Society when they extended an invitation to Arsenal’s main physiotherapist Colin Lewin cousin of England physio Gary Lewin who himself had been a previous guest some time back. A fascinating evening ensued with an enthralled audience of referees listening to what could be done to bring both groups together. Colin also had the chance to enter a plea for referees to firstly get physios on very quickly for potential head injuries whilst then clearing everyone away from the injured player and secondly  to try when the weather is really hot to create a drinks break.

One is sure that that type of exchange of ideas would enable progress to be made in identifying each other’s problems and reducing any conflict to as little as possible.


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