This article was taken from The Athletic and is by Philip Buckingham Dan Shelton and more and features amongst others, Ref Support UK CEO Martin Cassidy.
Thumbnail image by Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic
When the new football season was still in its infancy, there were two disciplinary cases heard by the Football Association that ought to have cast a foreboding shadow.
Two men — a player in Cumbria and a coach in Greater Manchester — were handed bans totalling 13 and a half years. Neither can hope to participate in any football activities until 2028 at the earliest and even then a return would hinge on the completion of mandatory education programmes.
Their offences? Assault of a referee.
The details, published on the FA’s website, are predictably grim. There is documentary evidence of one referee being strangled and choked “until players and coaches from both teams” could intervene. Another recounts how an official was punched twice in the back of the head after ordering the perpetrator to leave the pitch. On both occasions, police were involved.
It was the very worst of grassroots football; unedifying and ugly. But only isolated incidents in their severity.
There are plenty more bleak moments to be found among the FA’s paperwork. Like one referee in Hampshire, who stood in the rain waiting for the car park to be cleared owing to concerns for his safety. Or the Birmingham official who was told a player “didn’t mind serving a one-year ban for beating him up”.
One game in Leeds was abandoned owing to the abuse, a step that is not entirely uncommon. “As I tried to leave, a few of them had gathered in the car park to intimidate me,” said the referee who had felt compelled to make the call to end a tempestuous game prematurely.
Suspensions were handed out to a total of 380 players and coaches for attacking or threatening match officials last season and there is little to suggest the problem has gone away in 2022-23.
Dave Bradshaw, an experienced referee from Wigan, was left with a dislocated shoulder, concussion, whiplash, cracked ribs and a broken nose when he was attacked during a game between Platt Bridge and Wigan Rose in October. He would later discover he had been kicked from behind by a 24-year-old who was later arrested on suspicion of assault.
The Merseyside Youth Football League, who oversee games from under-7s to under-17s, chose to cancel all fixtures across an October weekend due to “multiple incidents of inappropriate and threatening behaviour” towards officials.
These snapshots build uncomfortable headlines for the FA, who are ultimately responsible for the welfare of their 29,000 registered referees. They stress that only 0.01 per cent of games played at grassroots level include “a reported incident of assault” and point to the support network now in place for the victims.
That fails, though, to account for the low-level abuse referees believe has become symptomatic of a wider problem at senior and junior football. The haranguing, the berating, the criticism and, at worst, the threats to a referee’s safety.
“It’s a huge issue that’s just been left to fester,” says Martin Cassidy, chief executive of the charity Ref Support UK, a hotline offering support to officials.
“Football has just become this pit of abuse. I put a video up on our Twitter account of a woman walking up and down the pitch and calling a 16-year-old referee a ‘fucking cheating bastard’. That’s not normal human behaviour.
“The one we hear most is referees being threatened. They’re going to stab you, punch you, follow you home. You have cars being damaged. The only thing that hasn’t happened yet is a referee getting murdered and I’m not sure you’d bet against that.”
Cassidy says he hears stories of abuse “daily” in his role and that the dispiriting cycle takes its toll on the refereeing community. The FA counter that argument, saying there are now 2,000 more active referees than this time last year, with retention rates climbing.
“My biggest worry is the loss of really talented, young people who are the future of football, never to be seen in the game again with a couple of cards and a whistle,” says Paul Field, president of the Referees’ Association, who list World Cup referees Anthony Taylor and Michael Oliver among their membership.
“In 10 years, we’ll be having a conversation about the standard of refereeing and how it’s a disaster. This has a fundamental impact on our talent pool going forward. I’m sure football will still be played in 20 years, but the talented youngsters we’re pushing out of the game today won’t be around. That’s how I look at it and it’s sad. That’s the massive issue here.”
Events at Old Trafford this month will have brought a collective sigh from referees — professional and amateur — watching on. Not only did Aleksandar Mitrovic, the Fulham centre-forward, shove Chris Kavanagh during an FA Cup quarter-final tie away to Manchester United, but the Serbia international also followed it up with a tirade of abuse in the referee’s face.
The red card was inevitable, as will likely be a lengthy ban after the FA made clear that a three-game suspension would be insufficient. Mitrovic’s manager, Marco Silva, was also charged with abusive behaviour towards Kavanagh and fourth official David Coote on a day any notion of respect was conspicuous by its absence. Both apologised in a joint statement yesterday for their behaviour.
These incidents — and the punishments that follow — matter, argue the grassroots game.
Mitrovic’s aggression was only weeks after Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes escaped censorship for pushing assistant referee Adam Nunn during a 7-0 drubbing away to Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp had his own loss of temper at the same venue in October, screaming in the face of the assistant referee Gary Beswick and being sent off during Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Manchester City.
lost it in that moment and that is not OK,” said Klopp, who was later fined £30,000 but escaped a touchline ban for a transgression that came on the same day the Merseyside Youth League was protesting against the abuse aimed at its officials.
Those at grassroots level believe those actions have consequences. High-profile figures escaping any meaningful punishment leads to those incidents becoming normalised.
“When was the last time you heard the LMA (League Managers’ Association) criticise a manager for the way it spoke about a referee?” asks Cassidy. “Have you ever heard the PFA condemning behaviour like Mitrovic? No one takes ownership of it and when you see world-recognised figures behaving like that, it is then replicated by people in youth football. It perpetuates the idea that it is OK to do the same to a referee.”
“How many Premier League footballers have been sent off for using foul and abusive language in the last 20 years? Not many,” adds Field. “This has been 100 years in the making. No one has ever grasped the nettle because it’s ‘the Beautiful Game’. We’ve allowed it to happen.”
The Athletic has been told several stories of unsavoury incidents at grassroots level this season, like a 14-year-old female referee that left the pitch crying owing to the abuse she had received from parents when officiating an under-10s game. Or the emerging referee that had to be escorted from the pitch after having objects thrown at them during a senior game in the south east.
“An acceptance of low-level stuff inevitably leads to the incidents like Mitrovic,” says Adam Lowthorpe, chief executive of the East Riding FA. “I don’t think that was in isolation. It comes on the back of being culturally acceptable to hound referees and harangue him or her for every single decision they make.
“The game at the top end has a responsibility to crack down on those things. A phrase I hear all the time that annoys me is that referees need to earn respect. I understand what is meant by that but there’s also a basic level of respect that anyone deserves as a human being, never mind how competent you’re deemed to be at your job. That’s a line that should never be crossed. I would still say it’s a small minority but that small minority of shocking incidents do lead to some referees walking away.”
Nigel Freelove is the Cheshire FA’s referee development officer. “The number of referees doesn’t really change season on season,” he explains. “What does change is the fact we can’t keep them.
“I recruited 170 referees in the summer and all but 12 of them are under the age of 18. You can see the issue there. Referees are falling by the wayside and they are not being replaced. On my retention stats, we recruited 170 people this summer but that is only replacing the ones who left the previous year.”
The East Riding FA, a regional body that oversees Hull and its surrounding areas, has seen its group of referees rise from 160 to 310 since football resumed after COVID-19 and has given Mark Brown the responsibility of mentoring youngsters in his role as a referee development officer.
“You have to give the young referees the confidence to go out there the next week,” says Brown, a former assistant referee in the EFL. “That’s the hardest bit. That’s where they need our support. We always encourage our referees to report it. We need to be able to put ourselves in the ref’s shoes and know what happened.
“We’re trying to send a message out that you can’t do these things to match officials. If it’s reported properly, it will be punished. We want to deter bad behaviour.”
The journey of any referee will begin with an online, FA-accredited course costing £110 before 11 hours of face-to-face training brings the chance to qualify by overseeing five games. Children as young as 14 are eligible and the chance to earn £20 per match accounts for the higher level of interest from a teenage demographic.
The good days typically outweigh the bad, with the chance to climb a ladder that can lead to the professional game, but there tends to be an exposure to abuse from an early age.
“We often get the parents reaching out,” says Cassidy. “We had one girl refereeing and her mother had phoned us. It came out she’d had an anxiety attack because someone had told her she should be at home having babies or being in the kitchen. She was 15. She didn’t want to do anything and wanted to move on. Sadly, that’s only a snapshot of what’s happening.”
Local FAs typically do their best to offer support on a limited budget. Coloured armbands are given to referees to indicate they are under the age of 18 (in theory to curb abusive language) and any incidents can be logged in a referee’s report submitted after every game. Mentoring schemes have been launched, with some regional FAs working with the Referees’ Association.
“It is not everyone,” says Freelove. “There are a lot of fantastic clubs, coaches and parents — who are all Charter Standard and sign a code of conduct — out there. But there is always one rogue element that makes it awful on a particular occasion.
“We introduced sin bins two or three years ago to help. They have helped and it has got better because if a team loses a player to the sideline for a few minutes, the game of football can instantly change. But that doesn’t stop spectators from having a pop. It is mainly youth football where there are issues and that is mainly down to the parents.”
And that, perhaps, is the greatest challenge facing the grassroots game: headstrong parents losing their rag at a referee still learning their trade.
A coach or player stepping out of line can be fined or suspended, but action cannot be taken against individuals formally unattached to the club. Fining a club is not considered a fair course of action unless they are seen to be repeat offenders. Some youth leagues offer the chance for clubs to mark the behaviour of opposing players, coaches and supporters. Points deductions, according to Cassidy, would be a more fitting punishment.
“There are some really talented young referees doing a great job,” says Lowthorpe. “We just always want to keep a lid on the behaviour that crosses the line. Sometimes you’re wondering how it gets to a certain level over an under-10s game but that’s the sad reality.
“Personal opinion: I don’t think sanctions go far enough sometimes. Especially around parents because they’re not considered members of the association. The good clubs are usually as horrified as we are when they hear these things but the damage is done then.”
All local FAs will meet weekly to review disciplinary issues that have arisen from the weekend’s games and regulations around offences relating to match officials have strengthened ahead of last season. Physical contact against a referee can now bring a ban of up to two years, with the recommended minimum starting at 182 days. Any assault that causes serious injury to an official will bring a suspension of between five and 10 years.
One emerging referee, who asked for anonymity due to his contract with PGMOL, told The Athletic of being called to five hearings inside two seasons at amateur level in the south east, with each due to the abusive language and threatening behaviour of players. A not-guilty plea can bring a Zoom call where the referee and player are invited to give evidence.
“I feel like I’m guilty as the referee in the hearing because it’s my word against the player and when you’ve been called every swear word under the sun with that much aggression, you don’t really want to speak to them again,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The same referee estimates an initial intake of 20 referees on a course he attended in 2019 has been eroded to just a handful because of the abuse received.
If English football needed to admit it had a problem before ever hoping to overcome it, acceptance has come with a three-month trial that sees officials wearing bodycams for the first time.
Games in four grassroots leagues — Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Worcester and Essex — will see referees wearing the technology across their chest after the International Football Association Board (IFAB) granted a request from the Football Association at the start of the year.
Approximately 100 referees will wear the equipment when officiating adult matches before the end of this season and, if deemed successful, could lead to a wider roll-out in 2023-24.
“We’ve listened to feedback from the referee community and hope this trial will have a positive impact on the behaviour towards them, so that ultimately they can enjoy officiating in a safe and inclusive environment,” said Mark Bullingham, chief executive of the FA.
The bodycams, theoretically at least, deter players and coaches from directing abuse at officials. A warning is given to an offender before recording begins with a flick of a switch on a camera similar in size to a GoPro. Footage can then be used in subsequent disciplinary cases against individuals.
“Isn’t it sad?” says Field. “It’s a real reflection of society that we’re now having to test cameras for the safety of referees.”
Cassidy, though, has spent five years pushing for the introduction of bodycams, even developing a phone app he believed could be rolled out. “I know bodycams work,” he says. “We knew bodycams would make a massive difference and we’ve been pushing it for a long time. They initially told us referees had no appetite for bodycams but we’ve pushed and pushed.
“We had some referees going against it and wearing one anyway. They were getting charged by the FA and we fought that. Thankfully, they’ve now decided it’s the right thing to do.”
It is rugby league’s lead that football has followed. Although a sport not typically beset by dissent to match officials, it took steps to address its own problems at grassroots level in 2022.
“We launched a trial in the National Conference League, which is the community-level men’s league competition, so we initially bought eight cameras. What we found in the initial trial is that disciplinary cases had gone down,” Liam Moore, the full-time Super League referee, tells The Athletic.
“The deterrent of a referee going out and having a camera on their head is visible to the players and improves behaviour. Players were more conscious about what they were doing and saying.
“Not every single game has that and some are still silly enough to say something to a referee or encroach the pitch, but across the board, we have found them to be a massive deterrent in referee abuse and poor touchline behaviour.
“This has led to us rolling out another 150 ref cams. I can only speak on the stuff we have done, but we have seen it as a massive success this year. We are in a much better position as a game at recognising behaviour that isn’t acceptable.”
Rugby’s two codes, league and union, are far less tolerant of abuse towards officials. Only last weekend, Leeds Rhinos’ Harry Newman was sin-binned by Moore for “disputing a decision” and subsequently fined £250 by the game’s governing body.
So, how does football change the narrative? “I don’t think it happens overnight,” adds Moore. “It’s a long process. Sanctions are important at grassroots level because if you can’t get that right, then you won’t get enough referees going through the pathway.
“It’s important to show the human side of referees and that is something we have tried in rugby league. We want them to get to know the referee a little bit more and not just see them as someone you can shout at.
“We have recognised there are cases of physical assault, but it isn’t just those isolated incidents we should be looking at. It’s the environment we are creating for the players for what is actually acceptable. Is it acceptable to shout at and abuse a referee in football or rugby league? In my opinion, it isn’t.”
The FA accepts that just one incident of abuse or assault is too many.
“We have over 29,000 referees in England and they are the lifeblood of our game,” said an FA spokesperson. “We understand the challenges that some of them face and we have been very clear that all forms of abuse, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable.
“While it is only a small minority of people who behave badly to referees, this is still too many and we will continue to do everything we can to stamp out this behaviour from our game. Through stronger sanctions, leading innovations and a new three-year refereeing strategy coming soon, we are determined to tackle this issue and build a safer and more inclusive environment for our match officials to have happy and fulfilling long-term experiences as referees.”