Tuesday 20 February 2024

Dark night. Shit ref. Laughable ref

Game 40, 2023-24

Sometimes, you miss a key decision, and you know it. The players know it, the coach knows it, the crowd thinks they know it too. How they react can have a knock-on effect on your confidence, and uncertainty creeps in. You start to second-guess what you just saw before your very eyes. Or thought you saw. Exasperation spreads among those around you, mutating to incredulity and then abuse.

Saturday evening, a U15 game, the hosts are the girls' team of the city's biggest club, against a local boys' club one year younger. The girls are expecting to win, they're far higher up the table, in second place. The first half is physical, but not unfair, and an even 0-0. The turning point is at 1-1, early in the second half. The girls take a corner kick, the boys' team heads it clear, and in the melee a girl goes to floor with a yell. But I haven't seen a foul, just a cluster, and I'm already following the ball upfield, where the boys score on the counter-attack to make it 2-1.

Monday 12 February 2024

Bloody hell. Not one apology, but two

Games 34-39, 2023-24

A father comes up to me at the end of Game 38, a boys' U15 league match. He's laughing as he asks how many cards I showed. I'm not laughing as I tell him - seven cautions and a time-penalty. Another father shakes my hand, thanks me, and says he admires referees for turning out for games like this one. I nod in acknowledgment, but I'm in no mood for a chat. I retreat to my changing room and fill out the match stats. Then I add in the box under 'other observations':

"Seven yellows and a time-penalty in a U15 game - it's a crying shame that teams in this age group are already being coached to foul relentlessly and moan disrespectfully at the referee. An extremely unpleasant game."

Thankfully, by the time I come out of my changing room everyone's gone home except for the home coach, who's bringing in the corner flags. He smiles and shakes my hand, a different person to the one who - along with his assistant - was complaining on auto-drone throughout the second half. I'm still not smiling, the game has put me in a shit mood. I tell him that they both deserved yellow cards at least, and he nods ruefully. Instead, I'd just ignored them. Some days, you can't be arsed with the drama and just sink into a kind of melancholy daze, wishing the minutes away as every call you make is greeted with bleats and brays.

Monday 27 November 2023

Have I still 'got it'?

Game 27, 2023-24
Saturday evening game, boys' U15. The home coach tells me he'd like to start on time as it's his dad's 80th. birthday, and the party's already started. Also, with a knowing laugh, "By the way, none of my lads can play football." He's not joking. The fact they win 12-0 tells you something about the quality of the opposition. Yet, the losing team plays in great spirit, and both teams smile and laugh like they're actually having a good time. Which they are. On the football pitch - just imagine! Me too. Final score: 12-0 (no cards)

Game 28
At the end of the game (girls' U15), the away team coach tells me he would have loved a penalty so that his goalkeeper could have got on the score sheet. "She hasn't scored a goal in two years," he says, like this was unusual for a goalie. I say that I didn't think the handball incident was worth a penalty, but that's not what he was talking about - it was apparently some foul or other that I can't recall. I shrug, we smile and shake hands. Final score: 0-8 (no cards)

Game 29
In the 80 minutes of this girls' U17 game (thanks to Kickers 16 for the above photo of an old fella trying to keep up with play) I blow for exactly one foul, and play advantage maybe twice. An away team player complains at length that I don't call a foul when she's been robbed fairly of the ball. As she won't shut up, eventually I ask her, "Seriously, how long do you want to talk about this for?" Her team are 7-0 up. The dissent maybe warrants a yellow card, but the game doesn't. Plus, I'm on such a roll here of games without cards, it seems a shame to spoil the sequence. Final score: 0-10 (no cards)

Game 30
A boys' U13 cup-tie. The home team has conceded one goal all season, and scored 76. When they're 2-0

Wednesday 8 November 2023

This blog is dull. Thank fuck for that at last!

Games 23-26, 2023-24

Let's be honest. No one would watch a soap opera where everyone gets along just fine. We wouldn't pick up a novel where the characters all lead wonderful and fulfilling lives, and no one ever gets sick, dies, or maltreated by fate or fellow human. We wouldn't bother going to the theatre to see a play called Sunshine, Love and Happiness unless we were expecting a high dose of irony. So I must apologise. This blog's becoming dull, and I really hope it stays that way.

I refereed four games this past weekend, and the weather was ultra-Novemberish throughout - very windy, with periodic rainfalls and temperatures dipping down into single figures. Cycling against a head wind to my fourth game on Sunday afternoon, though, I was struck by a delightful realisation. In spite of the weather, I was looking forward to the game. I started to laugh. Just imagine - for the first time in years, I'm glad to be refereeing.

The stats below tell the story. Four games, with a sole yellow card. It was for dissent in a boys' U15 game, handed out for a second offence after a verbal warning. There was no great drama involved. The dissent was born of frustration, and the caution was accepted without protest.

The away team had raced into a 4-0 lead by half-time, and much to everyone's surprise - home players included - the host team turned it around in the second half, finally scoring the winner in the game's last minute. Their untrammelled joy made you glad to be there and part of a thrilling game. The home team will be talking about it for years to come, especially the lad who scored the winning header from a corner kick, completing his hat-trick and sealing the victory with a twist of the neck and a well-executed nod on leather.

No coaches complained. No one shouted from the touchline that I was shit (or, if they did, I didn't hear it). One player said, "Really, really well reffed - thank you," and they weren't being sarcy. One coach who came to pay me was in a bad mood after his team lost 5-0, but apologised and clarified that "it's nothing to do with you". Well, that's good to know. I didn't offer him the consolation that at least he had plenty to work on at training this week.

I also coached a young ref doing his first game. He's the fourth successive teenage referee over the past few weeks to give me hope for the future. Smart, articulate, competent and curious, he had no trouble at all taking charge of a U11 match-up. He asked me what level I referee at. I explained how I'd recently asked to be taken off men's and U17/U19 boys' games. "You can do that?" he asked. Well, as I've realised, no one can force you to do something that you don't want to. I was expecting to be assigned no more than a couple of games a month, but on both Saturday and Sunday I got phone calls asking me to jump in and referee a second game at the last minute. When things stay this quiet, I'd happily ref half a dozen games every day.

It's wonderful to no longer dread doing the hobby I love. As long as that continues, this blog will be updated on an occasional basis only, which is surely a relief to us all.

Game 23: 5-4 (1 x yellow)
Game 24: 0-5 (no cards)
Game 25: 21-0 (no cards)
Game 26: 1-1 (no cards)

My book 'Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong' documents six years of whistling torment, tears and occasional ecstasy. Please buy a copy direct from Halcyon if you would like to support this blog and independent publishing.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Dark times: shitty behaviour, Part 379

Games 18-22, 2023-24

My new quiet refereeing life without men's or boys' U19/U17 fixtures started well when I reffed a mainly peaceful girls’ U17 game the weekend before last. It was a warm Sunday afternoon and I had no plans (Mrs. Ref had a friend in town), so I hung around to see how some of the young referees were coping with the kind of game that is mercifully no longer part of my life.

I watched the second half of a boys’ U17 game where the teenage ref was yelled at constantly by both coaching teams, and by the players too. The more he got yelled at, the less interested he became in doing a good job, and his body language indicated that he would rather be anywhere else but here today. I know this feeling well. You stop caring, because whatever call you make, someone's going to be upset at you. The players' behaviour deteriorated to the point where I was worried it was going to end up in a mass fight - there were some really shitty tackles going in from both teams. And all I could think was, "Christ, I'm glad it's him out there and not me." After the game, he told me he was quitting (he’s been refereeing for a year). I suppose I should have encouraged him to think again, but I just said, "Don't blame you, mate."

Monday 9 October 2023

Calling the cops to ensure a safe passage home

Games 15-17, 2023-24

Let's jump to Game 17. It was already over two weeks ago, but it's taken me that long to feel like writing about it. For the first time ever, the police were called to one of my games. If we want to put a positive spin on it, I suppose that's not bad going after 15 years.

It was a one-sided boys' U19 game of parsimonious quality but the usual lavish amounts of fouling, moaning and mutual disrespect. In the first half, there were nine cautions for 'tick-them-off' stupidities - kicking the ball away, failure to retreat at a free-kick, a square-up involving the away team's number 3 (relevant for what happens later), and several over-the-top fouls, including one by the away team's number 8. Following his yellow card, he gets into a shouting match with several of his opponents and is immediately subbed out by his coach. Thank you.

As we walk off the field at half-time, I make a loud appeal for both teams to focus on their football in the second half. I might as well have been asking them to put their their mobile phones in a locked box until they'd read and memorised the Complete Works of Johann Wolfgang Goethe. The tone of the game is no different, and although the home team is dominant, they're also dirty too - two players get sent out for five minutes for reckless fouls. When one of their forwards fouls the previously cautioned number 3 with a quarter of an hour left to play, the victim comments that if he gets fouled again, "I'm going to break someone's foot".

Thursday 21 September 2023

The Adventures of Captain Striker, Episode One!

Games 12-14, 2023-24

Captain Striker is a fucking hero. He must be, because he's both the captain and the striker. The bossman goal-notcher. The big cheese leading the front line, also adorned with a special armband with a CAPITAL C (for... Captain, of course!). He's shouldering so many responsibilities - to lead his team, to set an example, and to score the goals too. That Captain Striker is only playing at level nine must be some kind of terrible mistake. It's likely the football establishment has been plotting against him, but Captain Striker knows adversity and will not abjure the struggle.

I'm just about to blow the whistle to start the game when Captain Striker, standing right in front of me, asks for an extra few seconds to say "my prayer". I'm tempted to tell him he's had several hours already to say his prayer, but of course this is not about the prayer. Captain Striker is testing the waters to see if the referee harbours the necessary respect for him and his footballing superpowers. He closes his eyes and murmurs. I really have no choice but to wait for him to finish before we can all start the game.

Later, I wonder what his prayer was. If he was appealing to his Gods to finally make this the game when he didn't behave like an irritating, temperamental, belly-aching pain in the passage, then the prayer went unheard. If he was praying to be suddenly blessed with clinical finishing skills that would permit him to score an unanswered double hat-trick, then sadly that plea was also ignored. However, if his prayer went something along the lines of, "Dear invisible and unknown entity, please once again make me the biggest fucking twat on the field of play by a colossal margin", then there is indeed a power somewhere above with the magical ability to turn requests into reality.

Captain Striker's chief asset is his loud and rowdy gob. At first, it's aimed at his fallible team-mates, who

Monday 11 September 2023

The Playmaker who can't play, won't play

Games 9-11, 2023-24

Game 9 (Friday night). There's a lump of shit on the field. It's the away team's number 10, who plays absolutely shit, and acts like an absolute shit. But he's consistently shit. Every time he gets the ball, he passes to an opponent. For a playmaker, there's one principal deficit here - he can't play. He has other skills, though. When I blow up for a foul against this dirty, foul-footed bastard, he yells in disbelief. When I blow for a foul against any of his team-mates, he yells in disbelief. When I don't blow for a perceived foul on one of his team-mates (you'll be guessing the outcome by now), he yells in disbelief.

Yellow-card scoreboard...
You can try talking to players like this, but you're wasting your breath. When you tell them to be quiet they think you're inviting them to a dialogue about this or that decision, which obviously I fucked up on. Every time. And the Non-Playmaker has a glassy expression when you try to look him in the eye and reach what might pass for his brain or his soul, or even a small, concealed part of his personality that's not shitty to the core. He's not interested, and looks past you, while continuing to whine about the unconscionable wrongness of your officiating.

"There's really something wrong with you tonight, isn't there?" It's not me who says this to the Non-Playmaker, but one of his opponents. They also complain, but their complaint is that the other team won't stop complaining. After more yellow cards than I can count, I just ignore the away team. It's a game of 1001 fouls (from both sides), with a lack of collective sporting ability one of the few discernible features alongside grunt-swollen square-ups, compulsive shirt-pulling, deliberate trips, hostile fans on the touchline, and the away trainer jumping up and down like he's working off years of frustration for being small, bald and stupid.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Abandoning a 'friendly' match due to the threat of violence. But who cares?

Game 8, 2023-24

It's only three months since a young man was killed on a football field just a couple of kilometres away from today's U19 friendly. The 15-year-old player took a punch to the back of the neck during a tournament at the end of last season, fell instantly into a coma, and died a few days later in hospital. The local football community expressed its collective shock and dismay, but for those of us refereeing on the morally rotten front line of the amateur game, the tragic outcome was the logical consequence of football's utter failure to address the issue of embedded verbal and physical violence.

Time to finally shelve The Shankly Quote
Did this mean that clubs have started the new season with a different attitude? A perhaps more reasoned, respectful approach to their opponents and officials, and one less influenced by foul tactics, dangerous tackles and instinctive confrontation? Did it fuck. And that's why I abandoned the game after 75 minutes following a mass confrontation on the pitch. I wasn't prepared to watch the threat of impending violence translate into another death.

Monday 7 August 2023

Upset about nothing

Games 5-7, 2023-24

My hobby is upsetting people. I don't mean that I set out to upset. It's not my hobby in itself to upset people. It just so happens that what I do in my free time makes a lot of people angry. I know this makes no sense. I know that I should seriously consider finding another hobby. I don't like upsetting people.

Game of Rage
In Game 5, I upset the home team's captain. Fifteen minutes earlier, I was shaking his hand and agreeing that we wanted a nice, calm game, because it's a friendly. Both sides are near-neighbours and will be having a barbecue afterwards. Unleash the doves of peace! And yet here he is, yelling in my face. What have I done to upset him? I blew my whistle and gave a penalty to the other team, just because he up-ended an away team forward who was shaping up to shoot. I'm five yards away. Only the captain complains, loudly and in my face.

And yet, if I hadn't called the penalty, the other team would have been upset. It's so hard to keep everyone happy.