Monday, 12 December 2016

The creeping melancholy of the mid-winter break

Game 29, 2016-17

It's just before midday and 45 minutes before kick-off. I'm waiting outside the locked changing rooms with players from both teams, and nobody seems to know who's got the key. "We had our Christmas party last night," a bleary-looking player from the home team tells me apologetically. "It went on until 5.30." A couple of his team-mates manage a tired, knowing smile. They're almost bottom of the table, with 14 points. The visitors are top, with 46. No one's expecting any shocks today.

Almost clean sheet - players too
hungover to argue? 
The home team represents Sunday football in all its glory - hopelessly disorganized and severely affected by last night's alcohol. Late arrivals dribble in looking pale and fragile, then once out on the pitch chug around like dysfunctional steam trains clanking between randomly programmed lower gears. The ball seems to be permanently just out of their control, as though it's being manipulated remotely by a snickering deity with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than taunt hangover-prone amateur sportsmen. Somehow they hold out for 20 minutes until the league leaders finally go one-nil up.

The hosts do have one good player, though - a grey-haired but slim number 10 who controls their game, distributes the ball, turns up wherever the play is, and is pretty much doing the running for all ten outfield players. Improbably, he scores the equaliser just before the half hour mark, but that's it. He can't carry his rapidly fading team for the whole afternoon and eventually they bring him down to their level.

The number 10 is a talker too, but he doesn't know the local language - he chivvies his team-mates

Monday, 5 December 2016

Winter tames man, beast and footballer

Game 28, 2016-17

It's one degree centigrade, and the pitch is semi-frozen. Is it playable? I have no idea - I've never had to judge a frozen pitch before. Usually at this time of year teams play on turf or cinder, and the grass fields are locked and bolted until late spring. I run up and down it without falling over (always an achievement at my age), but that's nothing like turning on it with a ball at your feet.

Standard winter playing
 conditions, in 1980s England.
I think about the frozen English pitches I sometimes played on as a kid. During one foggy game the grass was stiff with frost, and all I could do was pray that I got substituted. We were losing by several goals to a team of big lads and I didn't care. All I wanted was to feel my frozen toes and fingers again. Finally my number came up and I ran for the changing room, faster than I'd run all afternoon. It was locked. Longing for warmth and the final whistle while on the touchline, it turned out, was even worse than longing for warmth while playing, when you could at least run around (there were no such thing as training tops in 1980s Lincolnshire).

So, according to my memory, you can play on a semi-frozen pitch, just not very well. But both teams are here and warming up vigorously. No one's falling over. Bugger it, if they're happy to play then let them. If people start slipping up and breaking limbs, I can always call it off.

As it turns out, the semi-frozen pitch is not really a problem. A few players fall on their arses, but they

Monday, 28 November 2016

What happens if the ref swears back?

Game 27, 2016-17

"November seems odd," Tom Waits once sang, and the gravel-voiced troubadour would have had his suspicion confirmed if he'd shown up to watch this gravel-pitch game on a still, grey, dying day in the year's eleventh month.

Failed sobriety test
(pic: Referee Tales)
The first thing I notice is how crooked the freshly painted touchlines are. I'm about to ask the groundsman if he can quickly re-do the goal-line, at least, when I smell his breath. It's 1pm on a Sunday afternoon and he's already shit-faced - very slow to move and barely present in thought. I stick with what we have (see pictures) for fear of getting something worse.

The two teams are second and third bottom, but both are near the top of the Fair Play table. Only one red card between them all season. Should be a quiet game, I think. Stupidly.

The two defences are just as wobbly as the touchlines, and both teams hare out of the traps with four goals in the first 13 minutes. 2-2. There's another burst of scoring just before half-time, and we go in with the away team leading 4-3. They've only won a single game all season, and seem touchingly surprised and delighted every time they score a goal.

In the second half the goals dry up, and the spectators (two young boys - the sons of one of the home team's players) are now subject to watching something more akin to 22

Monday, 21 November 2016

Sarcastic Applause really shows it to The Man

Game 26, 2016-17

The away team's defender knows that he's going to get a yellow card, but he can't help himself. He claps in my general direction. His applause is not genuine. The number 6 is not actually appreciating my gifts as a referee. Despite having long since gone through puberty, he is conveying sarcasm.

"I say, thank you for applauding
my decision, young man."
It's not that he disagrees with my decision - it's a clear penalty that his team mate's just conceded with a blatant trip in the box, and no one's protesting. Rather, it's the post-script to an incident two minutes earlier when I'd failed to call offside for the home team's eighth goal. The away team had let it all out after that. Tired of yelling at each other after every defensive fuck-up, they went for me instead.

"Why can't you call it offside when they've already scored seven?" yells the central defender. That's an interesting idea, but there's no Mercy Rule in this league, and I can't see any committee passing the proposition that when one team leads by seven goals or more, every subsequent goal should be automatically judged as offside.

The goalkeeper is even more incensed, and runs 40 yards out of his area to bark at me. Before the

Monday, 14 November 2016

The raging of the TWAT with Touchline Tourette's

Game 25, 2016-17

I'm warming up next to the two teams on a chilly but still Sunday lunchtime, and already the crowds are gathering. Not fans, but Egyptian Geese. They've occupied the tops of the floodlight pylons and are making an urgent racket, honking and squawking off-key songs and cranky calls. One of them dive-bombs an innocently stretching player on the home side, much to the delight of his team-mates.

An Egyptian Goose contests an offside
 decision (picture: Harvey van Diek)
Christ only knows what these invasive, aggressive creatures are so excited about. I doubt it's the prospect of 90 minutes of level-nine football between two men's reserve teams. I go back into my changing room to deal with the pre-match paperwork and by the time I've come back out, they're gone. There must be a more attractive fixture in another part of town.

No worries, though, because they have an able replacement in the Totally Wacko Arsehole on the Touchline (TWAT). There's always one. Today he's a member of the away team's entourage, and it's apparently his job to loudly contest my decisions. His two main contributions to the afternoon's entertainment are to yell, "Referee!" on unfavourable calls, and "Offside!" every last time the home team plays a through ball of any description.

It would make sense to point out to TWAT that he might be better focused on coaching his team,

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The challenges of a split-second penalty call

Game 24, 2016-17

City Cup, quarter-final. I'm standing on the end line in my usual position for a corner kick, about 35 minutes in. It's 0-0. The corner comes to the home team's defender directly in front of me, just ahead of the near post. He tries to clear first time but, because it's a wet evening, the ball slices off his right foot and hits his arm. It bounces back down favourably for him and he clears.

Cup football under floodlights - otherwise
known as 'paradise' (pic: Referee Tales)
"Penalty!" scream several players on the away team. Instinctively, I'd raised the whistle to my lips as the ball hit his hand, but in that split second I decide against blowing. "No intent!" I yell and start to follow the game upfield. There's an immediate foul committed against the home team as it tries to quickly break, and in the ensuing pause the away team further protests about the non-call.

Their main lobbying point is not that it was a clear penalty, but that I'd raised my whistle to my lips. To them, that meant I was already on the way to making the decision in their favour. To me, it was just a preparatory move in case I made the handball call. I do it a handful of times every game, largely unnoticed - it's the sound of the whistle players react to, not your body language.

In my pre-reffing years I used to sometimes see officials do the same, and it irked me too. To an observer, it's hard to understand that a referee can see a possible foul one second but then change

Friday, 28 October 2016

Football without Offside - a German experiment

Can you imagine football without offside? 11 Freunde magazine was so inspired by a rant on TV from actor Til Schweiger about the need to abolish Law 11 that it turned theory into practice. It staged a 60-minute game between two Berlin Oberliga (fifth tier) sides to see if the game would really be as exciting as some people suppose.

Bruce Willis stars in: The Hardest Call
The game is described in its latest issue (#180), outlining the presumptions beforehand. Abolishing offside would 1. Give players more space. 2. Encourage wing play, as happened when field hockey abolished the rule in 1998. 3. Teams would be prompted to give up the midfield. 4. There would be more shots and goals and 5. The game would go nuts! One interested observer was the manager of second division Union Berlin, Helmut Schulte, who criticised what he called the "crush football" of the modern game - characterised in his view by too many tight midfield battles.

The referee was 24-year-old Hüseyin Erol Özadali, who was looking forward to a quiet game. "Offside is one of the most difficult decisions for a referee," he understated. Because of course the

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The greatest time and place - autumn, on the football pitch

Game 23, 2016-17

I'm cycling to the game and already there's a fight going on, but only between summer and winter. A chill breeze cuts across a silent Sunday afternoon, while a brittle sun struggles to find cracks in the clouds. The result: the comfort of festering autumn and the dying of the leaves. It's back to long-sleeved shirts for the next five months at least.

Oh Christ, the fucking ref's banging on
about autumn again.
I'm also thinking about all the things that could go wrong today. You try not to expect anything bad ahead of your games, but I last refereed today's home team 18 months ago. On that day I red-carded three of their players in the last 12 minutes of a fractious and filthy adult men's match that ended with them losing 1-0 to an injury time penalty. After the game I had to lock myself in my changing room while a drunk representative of the club banged on the door.

When I saw today's match-up in my inbox last month, I thought about asking for another game. Then I thought, What for? What are you scared of? Nothing really, is the answer. Today, I check the team

Monday, 17 October 2016

Penalty! Dissenting with the majority view

Scunthorpe United v Milton Keynes, 15-10-16

On a short enforced break from refereeing, I ended up at Glanford Park, Scunthorpe, to watch the current leaders of the English third division take on Milton Keynes, the much vilified entity that stole Wimbledon FC’s identity at the start of this century. It wasn’t a great game – too many long balls, from Scunthorpe in particular, for my taste – but as a neutral it was fascinating to watch the reaction of the crowd to the referees.

In the eleventh minute, Scunthorpe striker Tom Hopper followed one of those long balls over the top of the MK defence. Just inside the penalty area, he beat the keeper to the ball, heading it to his left, then collided with the keeper, who by this time had stopped and was holding his arms in the air, realising he wasn’t going to beat Hopper to the ball. Two defenders were in close attention, and one of these picked up the loose ball (which they likely would have done even if Hopper hadn’t gone to ground) and cleared.

The crowd screamed for a penalty, but none was given. The fans around me moaned about it for 20 minutes. The linesman directly in front of me received abuse for the rest of the first half. The Scunthorpe bench harangued the fourth official (like it was his fault). All three officials were booed off the pitch at half-time.

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Game of Moans could do with more levity

Game 22, 2016-17

"And so ends this instalment of The Game of Moans," I announce as I blow the final whistle. The player standing near me starts to laugh. "Heh, sorry about that," he says. "I know it was pretty bad today." I point out that it's always pretty bad. But really I'm just delighted that he laughed - it doesn't happen often enough on the football pitch.

Gareth and Cristiano setting an example
- football's just for fun, right guys?
Next I walk up to the home team's left back. A few minutes earlier he'd made a fairly sour comment about me needing glasses. In keeping with the Artur Alt Philosophy of "Hear less, see more", I decided to ignore him. Two weeks ago I'd have pompously show him a yellow card. "Thanks for your touching concern about my eyesight," I say, "but in fact I already wear contact lenses." For the first time all game he cracks a smile too, then shakes my hand.

It was a bit of a knockabout afternoon. While inspecting the pitch before the match, I found the abandoned packaging of an eight inch rubber dildo. I picked it up to take it to the rubbish bin, and passed a group of players waiting outside the changing room, not yet in their kit. "Can anyone tell me which team this belongs to?" I asked, holding it up. Ho ho ho, much laddish chuckling.

Otherwise, though, amateur football is a deeply serious affair. The occasional moments of lightness usually come when some gawky hacker tries the spectacular, like an overhead kick from 30 yards out, and misses the ball completely. Only goals result in smiles. Even at this level, goalkeepers do that thing of pulling off a spectacular save and then chewing out their defence for letting the shot happen at all. You'd think they'd be happy to get the chance to show off their skills.

It will be a challenge, and I won't let it interfere with my running of the game, but for a while I'm going to see where the following approach gets me: "Card less, quip more."

Final score: 2-2 (four yellow cards)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The wisdom of Artur Alt, a ref for 56 years

Game 21, 2016-17

"Hear less, see more." That's the advice of 77-year-old Artur Alt, who's been refereeing for 56 years. This past August, according to a feature in the latest issue of the magnificent German monthly football magazine 11 Freunde, Mr. Alt refereed his 8000th game. In the last 1000 games he says that he's only shown two red cards. "He's very relaxed at dealing with agitated players," says a fellow member of the club he represents, TSV Steppach near Augsburg (in Germany every ref must be a member of a club, whose games he or she then never officiates).

Artur Alt: still an inspiration after 8000
games (pic: Conny Marbach/11 Freunde)
I thought of Artur Alt yesterday afternoon at the end of a boys U15 game. The two losing coaches were looking for someone to blame. I could see them marching towards me as the home team shook my hands, and the dejected away team trooped off the field. I knew they weren't coming over to wish me well and thank me for turning out on a wet, windy afternoon. They'd already spent the entire 70 minutes of the game screaming, "Referee!" at every single hint of contact. They'd only shut up when I threatened to send them off.

Away they went. Hey ref, why did you give a free-kick for that foul on the edge of the area when it had clearly been a penalty? Also, had I not heard the insult? They were both babbling so fast that it was impossible to determine who had been insulted and when. I should have pointed out that they had spent so much of the game screaming at their players (and so, to be balanced, had the home coach) that it would
have been impossible to hear any insult on top of their ranting. But I only thought of that later, so I wrote it up in my match report.

"No, I didn't hear any insult," I said. One of their players came over to join in. "Are you deaf?" he

Monday, 26 September 2016

Yellow leaves, yellow cards, mellow fruits and the smell of weed

Game 20, 2016-17

Yet again it's a gorgeously warm weekend, despite the first yellow notes of autumn. My game's south of the city, across the river and then five miles through the forest. The whole world's out doing normal Sunday afternoon things. Couples cross the foot bridge holding hands, on their way to an art gallery or a museum. Others lie by the water, reading books, unpacking picnics, drinking a beer. In the woods, people are dog-walking, bird-watching, horse-riding.

Where John Keats might suggest spending
 Sunday afternoons (with a fat joint).  
The strong smell of weed hits me before I see two young men finishing off a joint and flipping the tab end away. That's something else I wouldn't mind doing on a day like this. But hang on a minute, I'm already at the ground, and these young men are walking in there too, just ahead of me. One of them stretches out his arms and runs on to the field like an aeroplane. His friend laughs and then they make their way towards the away team's changing room. Well, maybe today's game will be all relaxed and mellow fruitfulness.

Yeah, right. It only takes 13 minutes before the first histrionics. Three away forwards are behind the home team's defence. One of them receives the balland he's the only one of the three to run

Friday, 23 September 2016

Is selective deafness the best approach?

Game 19, 2016-17

Uproar in the 70th. minute in the penalty area. We're waiting for the home team to take a corner kick when all of a sudden the defending lads - a boys U17 team who are seven goals down in a last-16 cup tie - erupt in outrage at "an insult" from one of their opponents. The only problem is - I didn't hear it, and even if I had heard it, I probably wouldn't have been sure which one of the players had actually said it. Play on.

"What's that you say? I'm the
best ref ever? Thanks!"
This leaves the away team with a sense of injustice for the rest of the night, enough to sway focus away from the fact they took a hammering. At the final whistle, a player makes a comment about my reffing, but I just ignore him. Can't be arsed with another red card and disciplinary report. Their coach comes over and says that though I had a good game, surely I'd heard The Insult. Everyone heard it, even over on the touchline.

I tell him that what I didn't see or hear, I can't whistle. I make my favourite point about having no linesmen. I also point out that I'm hard of hearing and wear hearing aids. He's understanding about all of this and, for once, I part on good terms with a losing coach. I mention the incident to the home coach and he says, "They always find something to moan about. Sometimes it's best not to have heard something."

There could be something in this. I've been thinking a lot about last weekend's game and how I could

Sunday, 18 September 2016

"Your refereeing's a pile of shit today!"

Games 16-18, 2016-17

"No, he's a shit ref!" the coach screams. He's not actually yelling at me this time, he's screaming at one of his own players, who's just offered me his hand after the game and said, "Well reffed." I'd already sent the coach off half an hour earlier for his seemingly addictive hysteria. Even once I'd sent him off, he kept on screaming, "You should go back to England! Go anywhere, as long as it's far away!" (Oh, my friend, you can't imagine where I'd like to be right now.) Now, after the game, he curses at me in a non-stop choleric tirade until I've disappeared into my changing room and shut the door.

The English countryside - where I'd rather
have been this afternoon.
Guess what? His team lost 1-5. It's my fault, obviously. He wasn't the only member of the home camp who was unhappy with my performance. One of his players had a predilection for using his hand to control the ball, which - as many of you will know - is contrary to the Laws of the Game. The first time was right outside his own penalty area, and when I whistled, he yelled, "Why don't you just give a penalty and be done with it?" A highly curious suggestion, but I stuck with the free-kick, which his opponents scored from anyway.

Ten minutes later and he did it again, this time to the left side of the penalty area. He loudly protested the decision once more, so I gave him a yellow card. "I don't give a shit!" he shouted. One minute later I was standing next to him, after having actually just

Friday, 16 September 2016

The best look for referees - just a little bit psycho

Game 15, 2016-17

I went for a haircut before last night's game. That might sound irrelevant, but the two events were connected on some level. I like my hair cut short, and it's been hard to find a barber's shop in this city willing to do that. They always try and talk me out of it, and when I insist, they just ignore me and finish up presenting my greying strands to me the way that they think is best. I smile, leave and look for another barber.

Unbalanced? Moi?
Yesterday I found my perfect salon - they listened, and cut my hair short. "We've had this business for 48 years, do you think we're not going to pay attention to the customer?" the barber asked me after I'd explained my dilemma. "I'll be back," I promised as I paid. And looking in the mirror, I felt ready to referee. It's not that my short haircut makes me look psycho, it's just that... well, maybe there's a Hint of Psycho. A suggestion that, under certain circumstances, I might be pushed over the edge. Beware The Unhinged Arbitrator - he's got a touch of the Collinas.

So, another men's third round Cup tie. I talk to the coaches before the game, because the away team plays higher up the pyramid in a league where they actually have assistant referees. "Remember, I have no linesmen," I say. "Please tell your players not to bother shouting about my offside decisions. Last night I showed three cards, all to players moaning about offside. I'm not going to change my mind just because they moan or yell at me, but I promise you that I will show them cards."

They nod - coaches are always very understanding people before the match. It's a pacey, hectic

Thursday, 15 September 2016

"Are you blind?" A referee responds

Game 14, 2016-17

There was a player in last night's third round City Cup tie who had a question for me. "Are you blind?" he wanted to know. A goal had just been scored by the opposition, and from his position 50 yards away in the waning daylight, the home forward maintained that it had been offside. And yet, I was allowing the goal to stand. Was there perhaps a problem with my vision?

Glasses for the referee:
available here
It's a reasonable question, right? If you're playing football and you've got a referee there, one of their core competencies (this is a concept I learned while working at John Birt's BBC in the 1990s) should be the ability to use their eyes as a decision-making aid. I considered my answer, and then summoned my personal secretary from the touchline. I dictated the following letter, which was soon enough delivered by my butler on a silver tray to the home number 10:

"Dear Home Team Forward,

Thank you so much for your query concerning my eyesight. Your compassion does you great credit as a human being. Without such touching fraternal concern, the football community would doubtless fall apart at the seams.

Fortunately, I am able to allay your fears that I am optically damaged. Let us recall that incident in the first half, for example, when you received the ball in your opponent's half. I clearly remember seeing you at least five yards offside. And I can, with total clarity, recall the image of you running over towards me in a state of uncontrolled rage at my decision to blow for an indirect free-kick. Using both

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Maybe I'm not a shit ref after all

Game 13, 2016-17

A game where nothing remotely controversial happened, and that was exactly the game I needed just over 24 hours after being threatened with a broken neck.

I'm refereeing a boys U15 cup tie, first round.  These lads are fit and fast, but they're also playing a compressed game, trying to spring the offside trap. This means lots of running for me as I not only have to keep up with a game that flows in both directions, but I'm trying to straddle the final line of defence to get the offside calls right.

So I run my ass off, and although the game's only 70 minutes long, it's another humid evening where the hard running makes it feel like I'm in a gratifying race to get back in to the whistling groove. The longer the match goes on without protests from either on or off the field, the more I can feel my brain and body becoming re-infused with self-assurance. "Maybe I'm not a shit ref after all," goes through my head.

There's just one squeak of dissent, from a pubescent home defender after the away striker has yet again slipped past their broken offside trap and finished. "Clearly offside," he mutters. "Clearly a good goal," I mutter back as I note down the scorer's number and the time of the goal, resisting the temptation to add, "And clearly crap defending." That's the end of the discussion.

Alternative pleasures to football
The away team plays in a higher division and tears the home side apart with some nice passing football, even using an out-and-out left winger who teases and terrifies the opposing right-back. The night ends with smiles and handshakes, and not a single question about a single decision. The waxing moon is a beautiful pallid pink, and on the other side of the park the kinetic, poly-hued lights of the fairground's revolving rides showcase a field of alternative pleasures. It only took me a day to become besotted with football again.

Final score: 2-6.

Monday, 12 September 2016

"I'm going to break your neck"

Game 12, 2016-17

Before this game I'd only once been threatened with violence in eight years of refereeing. I sent off the coach of a boys U11 team who went nuclear over an apparent handball and didn't want to let it go. He also didn't want to leave the field. When he finally went he asked me if he should wait by my car. I should have called off the game right there and called the police, but two teams of ten-year-old boys were staring at me and I didn't want to create any further drama or ruin their Saturday morning.

Professionals setting a model 
example (Pic: Reuters)
Yesterday's threat was less nuanced. The usual Sunday afternoon scenario: two men's teams with little ability, a very bouncy plastic pitch, temperatures in the low 30s, lots of fouls, lots of moaning (mostly at each other, some aimed at me), the odd piece of football. A bullet-headed player on the away team becomes conspicuous by his general anger. After one foul against his team he screams and whacks the ball against one of the subs' benches out of frustration (fortunately there's no one sitting on it). I show him a yellow card and he looks at me and asks with genuine bewilderment, "What's that for?"

A few minutes later, the same thing - a free kick against

Sunday, 11 September 2016

'Well reffed!' from the winning team is no compliment

Game 11, 2016-17

The two teenage players are in buoyant mood, sitting on a moped, ready to leave the ground. They're honking at some fellow players about to set off in a car. They're young, they've won, and Saturday night's about to start. They see me come out of the changing room and heading for my bike. "Referee! Referee!" they start chanting in sync with the moped's horn. I give them a wave and they scoot off to whatever awaits them - most likely girls, weed and alcohol.

Saturday night, game's over...
It beats the hell out of being stared at or abused on my way off the premises. One time I was actually escorted to my bicycle by a burly minder after showing four red cards in a single game. For weeks, when out running, I replayed those four red cards in my head time and again, and every time I came to the same conclusion - all four were justified, even though showing four red cards in a single game was more than I'd shown in my first four years of refereeing. But that was in another country with a completely different football culture.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The referee's fear of the penalty

Game 10, 2016-17

Four minutes to go, the score's 2-3 in a furious and foul-ridden boys' under-17 game, and I blow for a penalty to the home team. It's an unnecessary foul from the defender, who stands his ground and then backs into a forward as he's jumping for the ball. The forward goes arse over tit and lands in a heap. I'm five yards away - a clear foul, a clear penalty.

Yet again, the ref uses his special powers to force
 a defender to commit a foul in the penalty area.
The away team sees it differently. Five players surround me and yell. Their bench is up on its feet, expressing solidarity through raised arms and rubicund outrage. It's been like this the whole second half, from both teams. Amazingly, I don't change my mind. I show a yellow to the loudest dissenter and they back off. The home team converts the penalty.

I'm not fond of penalties. So often the foul doesn't fit the punishment. Once I was reffing a men's game and a defender committed a soft foul at the top corner of the penalty area, seven minutes after kick-off. I blew for the spot kick, and the captain pleaded, "You can't give that, we've only just kicked off!" In a way, I sympathised. I'm sure he and his defender would have liked to go back ten seconds to make it not happen. His team didn't deserve to go 1-0 down for such a pointless infringement.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Don't let your mind wander during one-sided games

Game 9, 2016-17

Boys under-17, it's the first round of the Cup on a close late summer's night. I can already tell by watching the away team as I warm up that this game's not going into extra time. The goalkeeper's not a goalkeeper, they only have eleven players, and there's a certain lack of intensity to their pre-match drills compared with the well synchronised home team. Okay, make that a complete lack of intensity.

Don't think of beauty sleep 
while you're reffing
The away team play with one forward, a striker with the mobility of a cruise ship in a swamp. The passes played up to him seem clouded in a heavy pessimism as they leave the defender's foot. They come straight back and the pressure is unforgiving. The home team's goalkeeper doesn't get a touch of the ball until the 30th. minute, by which time his side is already 4-0 up.

The temptation for the referee is to switch off and discount the game. To start planning in my head what I'm going to be doing tomorrow. To make a mental list of the 92 English league clubs, and to tally how many of their grounds I've been to. To name all the Tanya Donelly solo albums.

You have to remember to keep concentrating, though, because this game is still important to all the 22 players. The lads on the home team - fit, slick, and focused - are all playing for their starting spots. Against an opponent like this, they sense the chance to get on the score sheet. Every pass, run and tackle is a stage in their development and a snapshot of their youth. Maybe by tomorrow I won't remember the central midfielder's cracking shot from 30 yards out, but he might re-live it for years.

Their opponents too never give up for one second, despite being outclassed in every conceivable way. One midfielder has no football talent whatsoever, but doesn't stop running for the whole 80 minutes. When he finally makes a successful clearance late in the game, I almost cheer out loud. At one point, his side string together five successive passes, and their coach and some of the parents yell out praise and encouragement.

There are no yellow cards, and only one murmur of dissent. Honestly, the away team seems to enjoy the game as much as their victorious opponents. Final score: 14-0.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Showing the yellow to a fellow ref

Game 8, 2016-17

I used to run a football team for mature men. Like every team, it had its share of hotheads. If they didn't fall out with referees and opponents, then they fell out with each other. I'd have to reconcile an economist, who had screamed for the ball out on the right wing, with a management consultant who had refused to pass to him because he didn't like being screamed at. Rather than giving the economist the ball, the management consultant had kicked it into touch and squared up to him instead.

The easy way to end an argument
At half-time or after the match I'd find myself in the awkward position of taking these professional men - in their 40s and older - to one side and telling them off. The day after one such incident the management consultant wrote me an email saying he would no longer be playing on the team because he didn't appreciate being treated like a child. I didn't respond to the email because the retort was too obvious - if you don't want to be treated like a child, then don't act like one to start with. (The other obvious retort was: good riddance, you stroppy twat.)

I was reminded of this during yesterday's game - the familiar
scenario of two men's reserve teams on a crappy old plastic pitch out on the edge of town.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Did the ball cross the line? "No clue!"

Game 7, 2016-17

One of the main challenges of refereeing games with no linesmen is when you get caught behind the play and the ball is cleared off the goal line. The attacking team cries "Goal!" The defending team screams, "No way!" Due to the unfavourable angle, you could legitimately shout, "No clue!"

"Was it in?" Not the best body
 language for a referee
I'm reffing two skilful men's teams on a plastic pitch, with the temperatures in the mid-30s. Intense heat, intense game. Midway through the second half, the home team is 1-2 down when they break quickly and play the ball into the opponent's penalty area. There's a goalmouth scramble, the goalkeeper saves a shot and knocks the ball back to a home forward. His second attempt is held by the keeper right on the line. Three forwards from the home team turn to me and loudly claim the first shot had gone in before it came straight back out.

The defenders claim just as loudly that the ball did not cross the line. From where I was running at the moment of the incident - about 30 yards from goal - that's how it looked to me too. I look to the goalkeeper and he shakes his head. At this point only an honest confession from him can sway my

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Strange objects in the ref's changing room

Game 6, 2016-17
What's the vinyl score, ref?

There should be an online database of referees’ changing rooms so that we can warn our colleagues of the potential hazards. There’s one club I’ve reffed at a few times where the changing room seems to be right on top of a severely defective sewage outlet. Sometimes you do without a shower because you know you’ll come out dirtier than when you went in. The groundsman might have left his overalls and a long history of their sweat out to hang on a peg. If the floor’s been swept of last week’s stones, mud, scuzz and dead skin then you’re generally happy.

Then occasionally you’re in for a pleasant surprise. There are three different kinds of drink and a snack laid out on a clean table. The team sheets have been printed out and signed with over half an hour until kick-off, just like they’re supposed to be (this has happened to me twice, at most). There’s a working radio so you can keep up with the action in games around the country. Or there’s a box of used LPs.

Some refs might not get that excited by the latter, but for me there’s nothing I’d rather see when I

Friday, 12 August 2016

"Advantage!" When referees feel like they've scored a goal

Game 5, 2016-17

Taking advantage and running
with it (image:
Occasionally, a referee may experience his or her moment of glory. It's not like scoring a goal, but it's similar. And no, it's not when you - straight-armed and righteous - raise the red card to that purple-faced midfield goblin who just called you a blind, clueless twat. It's when you cry the words, "Play on! Advantage!" and just a few seconds later the attacking team sticks the ball in the net.

It happens last night just over an hour into a closely fought and very well played game between the first team of a small town and the reserve team of a neighbouring, much bigger town. The score is 1-1. The home team's number 7 - a hot-headed but extremely nimble central midfielder - has been sandwiched by two opponents just inside the away team's half. As he falls and howls for the foul, the ball squirts forward to one of his team-mates, who with a first time pass puts their number 11 through on goal. The whole time I have my arms stretched out and am exhorting them to play on. The number 11 needs only two touches to shoot the ball into the corner of the goal from just inside the penalty area.

In such moments, you remember what it was like to score a goal. In the interests of neutrality, it's

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

How to play "in the spirit of the game"

Game 4, 2016-17

New revisions, open to more interpretation
The new Fifa directives for this season advise referees to control play not just according to the Laws of the Game, but in "the spirit of the game" too. They could hardly have phrased it more vaguely if they'd written, "Yeah, just go out and there and blow your whistle whenever you feel the urge. Actually, we don't care any more what you do. Most of our Laws are open to interpretation anyway. Do whatever the hell you want."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. We can interpret "the spirit of the game" any way we like, mainly to suit ourselves. Can I kick the niggly midfielder who bleats about every decision hard in the bollocks? That would seem, under the circumstances, to be in the spirit of the game. Can I accept a bundle of hard currency in a brown envelope to favour the team that discreetly placed the cash inside my sports bag as I walked into the changing room? Sure. What could currently be more in the spirit of the game than the richest team buying victory?

So anyway, to last night's cup game. First round. The away team has as its honorary president a

Monday, 8 August 2016

"Last time we played this team the ref fucked us over"

Game 3, 2016-17

First league game of the season, and it's a very local derby. The two small towns are separated by three kilometres of road, and several fields of corn. I set off in the naive belief that it will be a celebratory summer festival. After a lively game played in great spirit, the hearty locals will toast each other while quaffing copious beers and chewing on browned meat from an open grill. They won't care about the result. I picture myself standing among them, spinning great yarns from my refereeing travels, enjoying a couple of ales and some roasted pig before they bid me a cheery farewell.
"Sorry mate, got to go and
check the corner flags."

Well, that's how a whimsical film director might have scripted it. The reality is as grim as the away team's assistant coach who comes over to brief me while I'm warming up. "There's a fierce rivalry and a lot of bad blood between our two teams," he says gravely. "Last season we lost here 2-1 because the referee fucked us over." He proceeds to describe in great detail what happened, something to do with a red card and a free-kick. "Sounds like the ref had an off day," I reply cheerfully. "It can happen to all of us. Maybe it'll happen to me today." And with that I run off to check the corner flags.

It's the last time I speak to the away team's assistant coach,

Friday, 5 August 2016

Fights, fouls and insulting the goalkeeper's mum - must be a friendly

Game 2, 2016-17

We're just about to kick off when I notice that at least half of the home team are not wearing shin-guards. I turn around and look at the away team. Same thing. No, it's not an under-7s game. These are all adult men. Though sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Everyone's ready to go, it's very hot, and it's only a pre-season friendly. I hadn't didn't bothered checking the players' equipment because, for adult games, everyone usually knows the rules. So I point out the all-round lack of protective leg gear. "Ah, come on," says one player. "We all know each other - it's going to be very laid back." With an uneasy feeling, I start the game.
Be sure your shin will find you out...

Ten minutes later I stop it and order all the players who don't have shin-guards to put them on. The tackles are going in thick and hard. This is about as laid back as Jürgen Klopp barefoot on a hot tin roof. One player has already limped off with an ankle injury. I can picture health insurance companies suing me on behalf of their client and his triple shin fracture, while my refereeing overlords will wonder why on earth I overlooked such a basic law. I will be banished for five years to the pre-adolescent leagues, kicking off on Sundays at 8am.

Most of the players without shin-guards just stand and stare at me. A few are annoyed that I'm delaying the game and urge me just to play on. One player yells at