Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Like Groundhog Day without the punchlines

Game 17, 2018-19

It's been a year or two since I last encountered 'Danny', the city's loudest youth coach, and when I saw his name on the team-sheet of the away team for a U19 game last weekend I wasn't exactly leaping through the air and pumping my fists at the thought of an emotional reunion. Still, everyone has the opportunity to change. Although in the times we'd met since I was a witness three years ago to him receiving a fat fine and a heavy warning from the disciplinary panel for unacceptable behaviour on the touchline, he hadn't changed one bit. 

"Hey, Danny - great to see you again!"
Sure enough, Danny has coached a team in his model image. Right from the start they foul their opponents, and then complain loudly when I whistle. They are backed up by Danny on the touchline, who screams, "Referee!" every single time. It's an obvious ploy to intimidate both their opponents and the ref. By half-time they have three yellow cards - one for foul play and two for dissent. I've spoken to Danny twice and given him his first two warnings of the afternoon. Does he listen and shut up? Does he fuck. 

Half-time: 1-0 to the home team on a straightforward penalty for a trip in the box. Hotly disputed by Danny who is standing 50 yards away.

On the way to the club house at half-time, I take his assistant to one side. I know him, he's a fellow ref. I tell him to please tell his players to stop fouling and stop complaining. Like Danny, he tries to argue the toss, but I cut him off. Then, joy of joys, Danny knocks on my changing room door in the

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Young coaches setting a good example

Game 16, 2018-19

Sometimes you know it's going to be a quiet day simply from the coaches' pre-game attitudes. For this boys' U17 match-up, both teams are coached by personable young men who respond with a smile and conversation when I walk up and introduce myself. Much better than the greying, gruff old-timer who won't look you in the eye, and who honestly looks as though he'd rather not be there. These are two strong amateur clubs giving off an air of professionalism.

The only picture I could find of player passes.
Since the winter break, the control of player passes in youth games has been re-introduced. It was abolished about two years ago, and was obviously open to abuse. It probably still is in the men's leagues. I confronted one team at half-time after becoming suspicious that a player being passed off as 24 looked to be almost twice that age. "Give us five minutes," they said through a crack in the door of the changing room. When I knocked again they told me he'd had to leave suddenly due to a family emergency - via the back entrance. 

Today I offer both coaches a time and place of their choice so that the pass control doesn't interfere with either their warm-ups or their pre-match team talks. It may not always work or even be relevant, but if you show you're a flexible ref before the game even starts, you might grant yourself a little leeway. I don't hear a word from any of the three coaches throughout the game. They are doing what they're supposed to do - coaching their teams. And so it's no coincidence that the players also do what they're supposed to do - they play football. 

Tugging - everyone's at it.
It's a quiet first half with no goals and no cards. The only incident comes when number 20 on the away team twice pulls a player's shirt in a midfield tussle, holding him back, but I allow play to continue as the home player still has the ball. The away team's 20 then makes a clean tackle, and is incredulous when I blow for a foul. At half-time he wants to know more, so I tell him. "You wouldn't have been able to make that clean tackle if you hadn't held him back to start with - I was playing advantage, but the advantage didn't materialise." 

Second half. The home team's captain and central midfielder has been very strong all game. Right after half-time he's fouled once, and then a minute later he's tripped by number 20. I guess the players are acting under instruction to neutralise and/or intimidate him, so I show yellow to 20 on the second foul. There's a protest at getting a card for a relatively mild infringement, but it doesn't last long. And it works - the away team stops targeting the home captain. There are two more cautions, both for straight-leg, foot-first challenges.

In the end, the visitors come back from 1-0 down to win 2-1. I'm standing right next to - who else? - number 20 as he shoots from 25 yards out to equalise. "Oh, beautiful," I can't help but exclaim as the ball sails into the top corner, and he drops a smile. A good game, and a good game to ref.

Final score: 1-2 (3 x yellow) 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

A referee sent to test my purported sporting values

Yadder yadder.
As well as refereeing most weekends, I coach two teams. The boys' U16 team that has the dubious privilege of my tactical knowledge receives a lecture before every game about respecting the opponent, respecting their fellow player and, above all, respecting the referee. "Please, don't even talk to him. Accept their decisions. Let our captain politely address any concerns."

Often I know the referees and we'll have a chat before kick-off. I tell them not to hold back on yellow cards for dissent from my players, because I'm trying to teach them basic sporting values. If the ref has a good game, I'll tell them so. If they don't, I shake their hand and thank them for turning out. Even those who seem to me like poor officials are rarely to blame for the result. In fact the worst ref we'd had all season was in charge for two of the games we've actually managed to win.

Then this past weekend, I faced a new trial as a coach. A severe test of everything that I preach on this blog about decency, self-control and fair play. Because the only thing I can say about the referee consists of the following four words: Oh. My. Fucking. God.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Sorry's not always the hardest word

Game 15, 2018-19
It's rarely a good thing when a player you sent off the field three minutes before the end of the match walks towards you at the final whistle. In this case, the number 8 of the home team. It's a U19 game, so it was a five-minute time penalty that had followed an earlier yellow card.

A different kind of card
What had happened? In the 83rd minute of a most unfriendly and foul-ridden 'friendly' game, he had come in late on an opponent and left him on the floor, with no apology. He moaned about the yellow card for the foul, and I asked him kindly to keep it shut. Four minutes later he shoved over a different opponent, and complained again when I blew the whistle. This time I invited him to take a break on the touchline. He walked off without further protest.

So what does he want with me at the final whistle? "I just wanted to apologise for my behaviour at the end of the game there," he says. And then he shakes my hand. Well, I'm not expecting that, but apology accepted.

I've barely recovered my balance and my sense of speech when another player approaches me, this one the away team's number 12. In the first half I'd shown him yellow for laughing in a loud and

Thursday, 14 February 2019

What's the point of re-taking an illegal goal kick?

Game 14, 2018-19

There's one football Law that I dislike in particular. A given team is taking a goal kick, and the goalkeeper, say, plays it short to a defender on the edge of the area. There is no attacking player anywhere near the defender - that is, the opposing team are not part of the current craze for pressing, or counter-pressing, or whatever the 1001 Apostles of Klopp are calling it this week. 

The defender receives the ball just inside the penalty area, or on the line of the penalty area. The law says that you have to blow the whistle and make them take it again. The same if it's a free-kick taken from within the penalty area. So you're faced with the following choices:

1. You blow and insist on the re-take. Everyone sighs, some might utter an epithet. Bloody hell, ref, does it matter? Such a trivial stoppage for, really, nothing. The Germans have a great word for it - kleinlich, which covers petty, fussy, pedantic and nit-picking all in one. Sometimes Bundesliga refs will be marked down

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Mouthy Pensioner, 'Your Mother' insults, and "It's still 0-0!"

Game 13, 2018-19

There were some regular features in last night's game that anyone who plays or refs in local leagues will instantly recognise. Let's take it from the top:

A coach, yesterday.
Pre-match - the coach who hasn't got his player passes ready. It's like listening to a scruffy schoolboy explain why he hasn't done his homework. "They're in my car," he says. Well, could he go and fetch them, please? "I'm parked way over on the other side of the ground! There are only ten minutes to kick-off - can't I give them to you at half-time?" No, I want them now, otherwise we don't start the game. "But I'm an old man!" Then send a young substitute with your car key and I'm sure we'll have them in no time. Eventually I get them, and they've not even been chewed by the dog.

'Your mother' insults. It's been a while since I've had one of these staples of the amateur game. The away team's number 8 is chasing down the home team's right-back, who successfully shepherds the ball out of play for a goal-kick. Out of nowhere, the number 8 aggressively squares up to him and I go over to separate the two. "He insulted my mother!" whines the number 8. Yeah, well, I didn't hear it, so tough. And what is with the enduring macho bollocks about your mum being

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

When there's violence behind your back

Games 11-12, 2018-19

There are 15 minutes to go in a dirty and unpleasant U19 game. I've already shown five yellow cards and delivered several short lectures. The home side's number 6 plays a pass forward, challenged from the front by the away side's left back, the number 4. The two collide, but there's no 'after-foul', so I quickly follow the path of the ball. It's been received and controlled by the home player's team-mate when I hear cries of outrage and look back to see the number 6 and 4 squaring up and pushing each other in the chest.

"Ref, ref, he said/did this or that!"
I don't know exactly what happened, because I barely saw it out of the corner of my eye. I'm told by several home players that the away defender, number 4, kicked out at the number 6. If that was the case, and if I'd seen it, then obviously it was a straight red card. Unfortunately, I didn't see it. After I've separated the two, and listened to them both complain loudly about the other, I can only give number 4 a yellow for unsporting behaviour (pushing his opponent in the chest). I explain to the number 6 that my eyes were already on the next passage of play, so I can not punish what I didn't see. Even if I can tell from the players' reactions what almost certainly did happen.

The home coaches ask after the game how that wasn't a red card, and accept my explanation. They're nice blokes, and they agree with me that, for a friendly, it was a hostile, ugly game. They play

Monday, 21 January 2019

A Full Moon and the Perfect Friendly

Game 10, 2018-19

"We have some guest players, but they don't have player passes," the two coaches tell me half an hour before kick-off. "As it's a friendly, is it okay if they play?" The clubs played against each other last summer, and they all get along. They promise me that there will be no problems.

Last night's full moon calms the players down
And what does the obstinate referee say to that? There's a part of me, as always, that just wants to so say, "Give them jerseys, I don't care." There's another part of me imagining one of the guest players starting a ruckus - with a team-mate, an opponent, or with me. There's violence and blood, and he runs from the field never to be seen again. Who was he? No one really knows, or no one's willing to say. And my referee overlords want to know, "Why on earth did you let someone play without a pass? Now we have an assault case on our hands and possibly a civil law suit."

So, I won't let them play. It's a decision that I come to mildly regret, because these two teams really are fine with each other. It's the most peaceful adult game I've refereed in my entire life. There's one

Monday, 17 December 2018

The Moaners in the Snow

Game 9, 2018-19

It's snowed all morning, and I hold off leaving the house in case there's a late call to postpone the match, a lunch-time kick-off in the City B League. It isn't that I necessarily want the game to be called off, but the prospect of several hours of unexpected free time on a Sunday afternoon has its attractions.

Just about playable, with help from a shovel.
So because I leave the house later than usual, and cycle at first to the wrong ground, I end up arriving cold and wet with just half an hour until kick-off. There's half an inch of snow on the grass pitch, but both teams are eager to play. "Have you got an orange ball?" I ask after looking at the surface, which is moist underneath. They do. Will they promise to play sensibly and help me out with touchline calls? Oh, of course.

Things start gently enough as the players adjust to the conditions. There are numerous short passes that get stuck in the snow, and several players from both sides flail for balance and slide around on their arses. I wonder whether or not it was wise to let them loose. The home team goes 1-0 up after 15 minutes with a penalty for a full-on foul by the away team's captain. He's the only one who bothers to complain, citing the word "body", which you hear a lot. It translates as, "Football is a physical sport, so what's wrong with me recklessly charging into a player and flattening him?"

Then there's another B-League staple - the collective roar of outrage at an offside decision. The away team's number 5 screams at me by way of re-interpretating this law in his favour. "Shut your mouths

Friday, 14 December 2018

Preparing for teams with atrocious disciplinary records

Game 8, 2018-19

A freezing night, a cinder pitch, and a relegation battle in the city's A League between two men's teams who are not only very low in the standings, but last and fourth-last in the disciplinary table. Between them, they've managed 16 red cards this season (eight apiece), with the home side racking up six straight reds and an almost impressive 57 yellows in just 19 games. 

Home team's appeal: "Fair Play - also applies
please to PARENTS and FANS. Thank you!"
I spend the ride to the ground pondering the best way to broach this in my pre-match speech. Sometimes I think about saying nothing at all, and that instead I should try and come across as silent, stern and unapproachable. I used to know a ref in the US who'd come to games glowering like a pensioner at a swingers' club, wearing a hoodie and dark glasses and looking like he was about to discharge a semi-automatic on both teams (always a possibility in the US). He was told either to quit or drop the attitude - he was scaring the kids, and the parents too.

I'm not much good at looking like the hard man, though. My first instinct when I meet the coaches is always to smile, introduce myself and shake their hands. No one likes an asshole, and why get things