Monday, 9 October 2017

A straight red card rarely calms a game

Games 22-23, 2017-18

Fifteen minutes to go, and I'm surrounded by four people, all of them screaming at me. One of them is the home number 9 I've just sent off for stamping on an opponent, a crime he vigorously denies. The other three belong to his team's touchline entourage - they may be coaches, spectators or even the stewards. I'm not looking at them, I'm staying calm and ordering them to move away.

Traffic wardens - card-issuing
enforcers about as popular as referees.
There's nothing like a straight red card to ignite the tinders of outrage at the referee's very existence. Only when there's been a fist thrown does the miscreant usually accept his fate and walk away. For filthy fouls and acts of minor, stupid and unnecessary violence like this one, the punishment administered is apparently beyond the realms of human belief. How, how, how could I possibly send this player off? "I was only going for the ball!"

Here's another club where I'm making few friends for applying the Laws of the Game. This must be how traffic wardens feel every day. The red card has been hanging over an intensive, angry, foul-plagued game all afternoon. I've been appeasing conflicts throughout the second half, exhorting disputatious

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A relegation fight on 80s astro-turf - as bad as it gets

Game 21, 2017-18

Just how bad is it possible for a game of football to be? Today, the ideal conditions are all in place. The home team is bottom of the table with zero points after nine games. The likewise winless away team is one place above them with two points, and we're playing on one of those bald, hard, 1980s astro-turf surfaces you occasionally get out in one of the city's satellite towns, where time does indeed feel locked inside that plastic, Day-Glo decade.

Man of the match
The visitors bag a fortuitous early goal when a scuffed shot finds its way into the corner of the net, more thanks to the intrinsically malevolent bounce of the pitch than any skill on the part of the shooter. It turns out to be the most accurate attempt on goal all afternoon. The remaining 83 minutes are for connoisseurs of random pinball - though Tommy Daltrey's deaf, dumb and blind kid would have played more accurate passes than all these lads put together.

In their favour, they're a sporting bunch. Decisions are once or twice politely questioned rather than loudly scorned, other than by a female follower of the away team, who sees my throw-in calls as reason to squawk so vehemently about my crass incompetence that I'm tempted to turn around and parrot her complaints right back at her. That would be satisfying, but unprofessional, and as she's the only irritant during

Monday, 25 September 2017

"What I notice now in the game is a complete lack of respect"

Game 20, 2017-18

I'm sitting reading the walls in the referee's changing room before a men's first team game that has taken me some way out of town. There are four framed certificates on display that honour one man's devotion to the game - a referee who's a member of the home club, and who has put in 50 years of service to the amateur game. I mentally salute his devotion. I'm only in my tenth season, but I feel like I've been reffing much, much longer.

What Scots are good at.
A few minutes later, having inspected the pitch, I'm warming up close to the touchline when an elderly gentleman ambles by and begins to chat about refereeing. I soon work out that he's the ref whose certificates are on my changing room wall. He tells me how he skipped the country when he was young to avoid doing military service and travelled the world. He ended up playing for a Scottish ex-pat club in Adelaide. "Boy, could they drink," he says. "Every last one of them."

He also has a view on the problems referees face now compared with when he started out. "What I notice now throughout the game is a lack of respect," he says thoughtfully, and with some sadness. "A complete lack of respect." I agree, although I don't mention that I've a blog full of stories to back us up.

Played the advantage,
goal was scored. Yay!
The game starts well in the fourth minute when I play advantage after a dirty tackle, and the home team races up field to take the lead. I've written before about this being the closest a ref can come to feeling like they've scored a goal, and I have to really focus on not smiling as I note down the goal-scorer and the time of the goal. There's a crowd of 40-50 people and they all shout out, "Well played, ref!" (I just made that last bit up - in fact they spend the entire game incredulously contesting every last call against the home side.)

A quiet first half ends 1-1, but there are a number of notable incidents after the break:

Monday, 18 September 2017

Danny, the new darling of discipline!

Games 18-19, 2017-18

In Saturday's U15 game, I swear I didn't make a single mistake, although the conditions were perfect - bright sunlight on an artificial field in a league of above average quality. Even the coaches on the team that lost 8-0 said, "Well reffed," although when games are this one-sided the intensity takes a dive. You're relieved at the hassle-free game, but you also think, "Well, I'm not going to remember this one in a week's time."

The fat, the thin and the knackered - back in
the reserves (Pic: Westfälische Nachrichten)
On Sunday it's back to the familiar proving grounds of the city's reserves leagues. The men who only play for fun, but never seem to be having any. The average, the bad and the hopeless. The unsightly, the unfit and the sporadically unhinged. Speaking of whom, there on the bench as substitute and assistant coach of the home team is my old friend Danny, whose antics on the touchline at a youth team game early last year earned him an ordering off from me, and a fine of €150 from a disciplinary hearing. Along with a stern verdict from the jury that they didn't want to see his sorry, scrawny ass ever again.

"New club, Danny?" I ask as he hands me the player passes. "What happened - did your old team finally kick you out?"

"Ha ha, no," he replies. "I'm still coach of the U19s there." As we're so chummy these days, I don't ask him if he's had any trouble with referees lately.

Danny's team captain remembers me too from previous games, and it seems to be a fond memory, for once. "You're from England, right? Or is it Holland?" In fact we're all smiles at the kick-off after I give my 'imaginary linesmen' speech and one player even shakes hands with my non-existent

Monday, 11 September 2017

One wonderfully peaceful half of football. And then...

Games 16-17, 2017-18

The away team, like many in this city, has a reputation. The stats tell me that they've already picked up three red cards in their opening four games. The home team, meanwhile, is top of the table with maximum points (no reds). There are rarely any surprises in amateur football, so I'm expecting an easy home win, but with the potential for their opponents to turn defeat into drama.

Minute's silence. Another 90 would be nice. 
The guests are wearing black armbands and ask for a minute's silence because the father of one of their players had died during the previous week. Everyone's fine with that, and we duly observe a solemn 60 seconds. Although the mourning side take an undisputed yellow card three minutes in for a tactical foul, the rest of the half is as peaceful as they come - very few infringements, and not a murmur of complaint.

In my mind, I'm already thinking, "If they continue like this, I'll note in the match report what a pleasure it was to referee two such sporting sides." I've only ever done this twice. You'd think I'd know better. Because it turns out that the cut-off point for honouring the dead is exactly 45 minutes.

The away side are deservedly 4-1 down at half-time, but as soon as the second half is under way they lift their embargo on behaving like twats and start to complain. I immediately tell them that the first half was just fine, thanks, so we don't need to start dissenting now. The number 8 with the suspect 'populist' hair-cut, who is standing right next to me, cups his ear and says sarcastically,

Monday, 4 September 2017

Big news: there's no Law-endorsed right to organise a wall

Game 15, 2017-18

The home team is leading 1-0, and there are two minutes to go in this boys’ U15 game. After a six-player stramash in the arc outside the penalty area, I award a free-kick against the home team directly in front of their goal. They’ve been in the mood to moan all through the second half, encouraged by their collectively vociferous coaches and parents, but then they quickly realise that they’d better set about organising their wall.

Wall organised - but be quick about it
One of their players has already placed himself right in front of the ball, effectively neutralising the chance of a quick free-kick. There’s no punishment for this (if the kick is taken and he moves to block the ball, then I can I give a yellow card and award a re-take), and the only thing I can do is ask the away team if they would like me to mark out a wall. They duly say, “Yes”, and so I tell them to wait for the whistle.

Before we go any further, let me just say this is one of the least known rules of the game, even among men’s teams, but especially among youth teams. Every week I’m confronted with players whose side has just conceded a free-kick telling me that they would like the time and leisure to form a wall. And I tell them it’s not their decision, it’s up to the team which has the free-kick. And if the other team is smart

Thursday, 31 August 2017

"Let them know you're pissed off!" A Ref's Guide to Anger Management

Game 14, 2017-18

I'm faced with anger almost every game, and the general idea is that I, as the referee, must remain a steady rock of calm amid a thunderous sea of foaming fury. Yet there are times when it pays to show that you are, at the very least, mildly irritated. Here's my guide to anger management while refereeing:

The bloody huddle: for
 Christ's sake, get on with it.
1. Before the game. Both teams should have signed off on their final line-ups half an hour before kick-off, and the home side must produce a print-out of the teams for me to check against their player passes. This happens maybe once or twice a season. Upon arrival I always introduce myself to both coaches with a smile and a handshake, but I become less genial the closer we are to kick off and the coaches are still faffing around with passes and mobile phones. Less than 15 minutes before kick-off, I become exasperated. And if it turns out I can't check the passes until half-time then I pass into 'stern lecture' mode to let the wayward coach know I've already marked his card as incompetent.

2. Just before kick-off. You know the scene. Hands shaken, coins tossed, we're ready to start, but one of the teams has hunched into a huddle for a doubtless inspiring last-minute speech from the captain. That's okay, if they keep it short, but often they don't. I give a double-blast of the whistle to let them know that I don't like waiting around. Then sometimes there's one of those stupid, ritualistic

Monday, 28 August 2017

"Meet my imaginary linesmen"

Games 12-13, 2017-18

"We were very impressed with your pre-match speech," says the steward. "We've never heard anything like that before." Look, I don't want to show off here, but it's extremely rare as a referee in this country to have 'impressed' someone. At all. So forgive me for cherishing the moment and going into some more detail.

Fictional linesmen - marginally
better than none at all.
I've tried lots of different pre-match speeches down the years. In the US there was a particularly difficult boys' "elite" league where all the players had supposedly signed a Code of Conduct. During the games, though, there was little sign that they'd taken it on board - among refs it was known as the Whiney Suburban Brats' League. I ended up taking a printout of the Code to games, holding it up to the players, and telling them I was sure that over the coming 90 minutes they would all be taking very seriously the document that they'd read, signed and promised to honour. It was surprisingly effective.

In my current country, I've tried being nice and I've tried to be stern. Any nods or even short applause following these speeches were frequently rendered laughable by the ensuing game (see previous blog entries). I've also tried keeping it very short: "So, let's play. Good luck and enjoy the game." That particular speech will appear in the satirical version of My Life as a Referee.

So here is my latest attempt to set the tone (the one that apparently impressed yesterday's home officials), which I've used twice this week as I stood in front of both teams at the half-way line ready to take the field: "I'd like to introduce my Assistant Referees today, Mr X [I point to my left] and Ms Y

Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Referee's Informal Guide to Handball

Game 11, 2017-18

This boys U19 first round cup tie is not untypical. I reckon there are about a dozen appeals for handball throughout the evening. Most of them I ignore. The only good thing you can say about the handball rule is this: it's so open to interpretation that even the players appealing for it rarely do so with complete conviction. It's often more of a hopeful question, as opposed to the raging demand you get with fouls and offside calls.

An honest player makes an honest appeal
Like snowflakes, no two cases of handball are ever the same. It's one of the most difficult calls to make, but one of the easiest to turn down. After most appeals, the game moves quickly on, and even if a player follows up at the next stop in play, all you have to say is, "Ball to hand" or "There was no handball." Or touch your shoulder or upper chest to indicate that the ball was not, as one side is claiming, controlled by the upper arm.

I don't really blame the players for all the appeals. Shouting "Handball!" is instinctive, and if it prompts the referee to blow for a free-kick, then why not try? It's not particularly sporting behaviour, but then what kind of idiot expects that any more?

The appeal is particularly impassioned when a shot is fired towards goal and hits a defender in the penalty area. It can hit the defender's head, thigh, stomach, back or arse, and there will still almost

Monday, 21 August 2017

Why refs should not be bullied into changing decisions

Game 10, 2017-18

Two more excitable teams who are poor at football but extremely talented at fouling and shouting. You get the picture by now. Things start out calm at 3pm with the score at 0-0, defenders peacefully passing the ball among themselves to the sound of bird-song. We end the afternoon with bruised shins, tempers AWOL, faces as hot and purple as a deranged radish, and so many unhappy players that a better man than I would have summoned them all to the centre circle for group therapy.

The captains at kick-off.
And today I wonder if the problem really does, in a way, lie with the referees. The sporting culture in this city is so messed up that many now seem too scared to hand out the necessary punishments. Players increasingly think they can get away with anything. Here's what I witness before my game:

When I arrive at the sports ground, there are two games still going on. While warming up behind one of the goals, I watch as a defender trips an opponent just inside the penalty area. The referee correctly awards the spot-kick, but a huge number 13 on the defending side begins to remonstrate. He is a foot taller than the ref, and towers over him, pointing at the spot where the foul