Sunday, 3 December 2017

What to do if a player throws a snowball at a coach

Game 29, 2017-18

Last spring at one of our regular referees' meetings aimed at our ongoing edification, I presented a critique of our online test on the Laws of the Game, where the object seems to be not to test you and make you a better referee, but to catch you out and go, "Ha!" As an example of the multiple stupid questions we are obliged to research and correctly answer once a month, I cited the following puzzler: "During a game on a snow-covered pitch with the ball in play, one of the players throws a snowball at the opposing team's coach. What is the referee's decision?"

White lines - don't do
 it! Bravely, we did.
Why is this such a stupid question? I asked rhetorically. First, there's a long winter break in this country, so you rarely if ever officiate matches in the snow. Second, due to global warming it hardly snows during the winter months any more at all, let alone outside of the winter break. Third, a game on the hypothetically snow-covered pitch would probably be called off anyway. And finally, in the very unlikely event that you ref a game on a snow-covered pitch, what are the odds of a player throwing a snowball at the opposing team's coach?

The answer to the question is clearly 'red card' for the offending player (and even then it depends on context - the question doesn't allow for the fact they might be arsing around). But the monthly test wants to know more than that. What's the re-start? Drop-ball, direct or indirect free-kick? Get that part wrong and you lose both points - you don't even get a single point for getting the 'red card' part right.

The problem with our online test, I argued to my doubtless captive audience of colleagues, is that I will never remember the correct answer to such an obscure question. And should it somehow ever happen, not a single other person present will have a fucking clue if I've re-started the game in the

Monday, 27 November 2017

Spectators racially abusing a player - how should a ref react?

Game 28, 2017-18

When a player swears at someone in the crowd, it's supposed to be an automatic sending-off. Just before half-time in yesterday's game, the away team's left-winger is standing in front of a bunch of kids, aged around 5-12 years old, telling them furiously to "piss off" just before he takes a throw-in. I leniently show him the yellow card, but he barely seems to notice, he's still so steamed. Coming off the field at the break, I ask him what the problem was.

Lenient yellow proved to be a lucky call...
"One kid was spouting off anti-semitic insults," he says. "A ten-year-old kid!" That's problematic, as the home side is ethnically north African, while the visiting side is the city's principle Jewish club. I rescind the yellow card, and am very happy that I hadn't shown him the red. I also ask him to avoid slanging matches and come straight to me if there are any further incidents in the second half. Then together with a reluctant steward, I oversee the expulsion of the kids from the ground.

The game itself is fine, for once - the few moments of tension quickly de-escalate either through my intervention or the conciliatory behaviour of the players. Are they perhaps overtly aware of the potential uproar should there be any nasty incidents

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The curse of neutrality - referees as fans

Lincoln City v Coventry City, Nov 18, 2017

Almost 36 years to the day before this game I was watching the same home team, Lincoln City, in the same stadium, Sincil Bank. I was on my own, and standing on a long since demolished section of terrace close to the player’s tunnel. I’d never stood there before and I never stood there again, but when the final whistle went I moved close to the tunnel to take a closer look at my heroes as they left the field following a 2-1 victory.

A game I was at just
36 years ago.
You’d think the fans would have been happy at the result, and I believe that most of them were. One man was genuinely furious, though. As the three referees approached the tunnel, I could see him jumping up and down in anticipation. As they walked down the tunnel he yelled, “Bloody disgraceful, referee, you’re an absolute bloody disgrace.”

The referee’s performance had been entirely unremarkable.

Fast forward three dozen years and I’m standing at almost exactly the same spot, except on the other side of the tunnel - it’s the first time I’ve been this close since that game in 1981. This time Lincoln have deservedly lost 2-1, but myself and several fans are applauding them off the field for their effort, and because they played their part in a fast and entertaining game of football.

Then the three referees approach the exit. In my view they have done well to keep a furious party under control, even as they followed the modern trend for ignoring several clear cases of pushing, shoving and holding. One man among us, however, is livid. As soon as the officials are within earshot,

Monday, 13 November 2017

When your family comes to watch you ref

Game 27, 2017-18

There’s a short history of family members coming to watch me referee over the past decade. The pioneer was my father-in-law, who watched me in action all day at a youth tournament in the US a few years ago. On the ride home, he was resolutely silent. He remained so until two days later when we were watching a game on television. Then he remarked: “This referee’s a lot like you. Very frugal with the whistle.”

Bright shirt on a grey day (pic: N Lotze)
Last year, Mrs RT came along to a men’s game, bringing a book in the expectation that she would be bored. She never even opened the book, being in equal parts horrified, fascinated and entertained by all that unfolded before her, with her husband the centre of attention for 90 minutes. For the following two weeks she followed me around the flat shouting, “Hey ref, what the fuck is that dirty fork doing on the draining board? And where the fuck’s my dinner? Come on, referee!”

This weekend it was my youngest daughter’s turn. She was telling us about an exercise for her design course where she had to take a photograph to illustrate an article for which the students only knew the headline: “Compassion is an unlimited resource.” Oh yes, come along to my game tomorrow, I said, you’re sure to see plenty of examples of

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Stop screaming at kids. And at referees. In fact, just stop screaming

Game 26, 2017-18

I coach a boys U7 team, and on Saturday morning we had a home game in the Fair-Play League. I am very hands-off and let them scurry around after the ball, backed by lots of encouragement and very little guidance. I stick closely to the League's instructions to keep my team's parents well away from the field of play.

Sticking it to The Man
The away team, however, allows a father to stand behind one goal coaching his son. The kid has the ball in his hands and kicks it straight to one of my players. The father screams at his son for the mistake. My player shoots, the goalie saves (very well), then another one of my players nets the rebound. Making the score... it doesn't matter. We're not supposed to count the score. The father is now gesturing emphatically and screaming at a whole bunch of wee lads: "Where was the defence?"

His two coaches are doing nothing, so I walk up and ask him what on earth he's doing yelling at five- and six-year-old kids. He suddenly looks ashamed, apologises, and then moves away from the goal. Afterwards, he comes to shake my hand and makes an excuse about it having been "in the heat of the game". I'm so irritated by this remark that I just ignore him. Though in hindsight I wish I'd said,

Sunday, 29 October 2017

"Someone's playing, Lord, kum-ba-yah"

Game 25, 2017-18

I last saw today's home club in March when I red-carded three of their players in a particularly ugly game. I concluded the disciplinary report with a lengthy musing on why teams like this bother to play sport at all, some of which read:

Message not received last time around.
"The way [the away team] played football today is an absolute mystery to me. Why bother playing if you're going to moan at your own players, your opponents and the referee all game long? What's the point of playing sport when, instead of reaping any joy from the game, you only seem to suffer pain? The disgraceful behaviour of the away team ensured that today there was not even the slightest trace of fair play, sportsmanship, enjoyment or respect on display."

I never heard anything back from the local FA (you never do - unless it's something bad), so when I received today's fixture I was interested to see if anything had changed in the club's playing culture. At the same time, I'd be lying if I said I was looking forward to the game. In fact, I mope around all morning wishing that I could go back to bed. The weather's rough, wet and windy. I'm suffering from

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Referee - "Judge, Jury and Executioner"

Game 24, 2017-18

On Friday I took my niece to see the German women’s team play Iceland in a World Cup qualifier in Wiesbaden. Just as half-time arrived, the sun began to go down directly opposite us, shining directly into our eyes. So we moved to the two-thirds empty West Stand opposite so that we could watch the second half in more comfort.

The sun sets on a German
 defeat. Note empty seats
 in the background.
At least, we tried. But the steward wouldn’t let us into the West Stand because we didn’t have the right tickets (though there was no price difference). Our story of the setting sun did not move him. Neither, I suspect, would a crazed gunman on the loose in the East Stand or an incoming North Korean missile have stopped him telling us several times, “I have my instructions.”

We returned to our original seats and watched the rest of the game with our right hands covering our eyes (and I blamed Germany’s first loss in a qualifier since 1998 on the bad karma generated by one of their overly conscientious stewards). Later, Mrs RT and all my in-laws were in agreement about one thing – I was in the wrong. The steward was only doing his job. I argued that the situation called for flexibility – that particular section of the stand was around 90% empty (see picture left), and clearly neither I nor my ten-year-old niece were intending to go in here and start a riot.

What does this have to do with refereeing? The next day I arrive at my game – a boys U15 friendly – to be told that the away team’s coach has been called suddenly to work, that he has all the team’s

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The culture of anger and violence has become the norm

Sometimes after a bad game you can't help but thinking, "Maybe it's just me. Maybe I have no control over these games. Every other amateur game in the country went fine today except mine. I just have a way of winding players up. I really am getting all the decisions wrong. The players are right - I need new specs."

No ball, no whistle, no game
This is when sharing experiences with other referees becomes of paramount importance. I won't lie - in general, refs are a weird bunch. They don't necessarily have a great sense of humour, they are very rules-oriented (and thus rarely of a radical bent), and they are not particularly ready to open up or criticise authority. Which is a shame, because dialogue is essential to help us communicate what's going on out there, and how we can act to improve the levels of sportsmanship in the amateur game.

So whenever I encounter a fellow ref, it's usually me who does the running. "Where are you from?" and, "How long have you been reffing?" are the two standard opening questions of any polite conversation between two officials. Then I follow up with the question that takes us to a higher level

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