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 JΓΌrgen 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

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

"Oh shut up Danny, you twat"

Game 1, 2016-17

I recognise the away team's striker. Let's call him Danny. We last saw each other three months back at a disciplinary panel hearing. A few weeks before that, I'd sent him off while he was coaching a youth team because he wouldn't shut his mouth. 

The tales start here...
You're supposed to give a coach two verbal warnings for "irresponsible behaviour" (that is, "being a twat"), and then the third time you order him off. I'd given Danny four clear warnings because I genuinely don't like sending anyone off, player or coach, but he didn't take any notice - he still kept yelling at me for every perceived injustice against his team. The disciplinary panel landed him with a three-figure fine. It wasn't his first offence, and they said that if they saw him again he'd receive a lengthy ban.

And yet now, Danny and I greet each other like old friends. We shake hands. "How's it going, how was your summer?" Back in April, outside the disciplinary panel hearing as we'd waited for the verdict - and just a few minutes after he'd basically accused me of being a liar - we chatted about football like we were old mates down at the pub. Now, just before a pre-season friendly, we're all smiles and small-talk.  

Danny plays for a reserve outfit in one of the city's lowest divisions. Once the game starts, he and his striking partner, both in their mid-20s, work well together - at gobbing off at me, the referee. As football players, they are less talented. The pair's main complaint is that they are being fouled every
time they don't win the ball (that is, almost every time). From my point of view, they're simply being outmuscled by superior defenders. Around ten minutes before half-time I show Danny's partner a yellow card for dissent, hoping that will shut them both up. But it doesn't.

Danny's team-mate continues mouthing off at me, diligently moaning at every last decision. In a league game I'd have shown him a second yellow and bid a tearful adieu. But it's just a pre-season friendly, and they only have eleven players, so I'm lenient. Rather than sending him off, I ask a rhetorical question: "Hey, how about you just play football and shut your trap?"

The two are comically indignant at this. How dare I speak to them in this fashion? Well, lads, respect is a two-way street. I laugh and tell them that I can say whatever the hell I want (which is not strictly true, but a friendly suggestion to 'shut your trap' falls well within the realm of acceptability in a fag-end of a game like this). Danny then has a brilliant idea and calms his partner down. "Don't worry," he tells his fellow forward, "we'll report him." He's imagining an hour of revenge in front of the disciplinary panel, bearing witness. Maybe it's this future call to justice that causes his striking partner to actually shut his trap for the rest of the game, or maybe he's still in shock that the nasty referee was so rude. 

At half-time I talk about Danny with an official from the home team, who's also a referee. "I've come across him when reffing youth games," he says. "If his team's ahead, he tries to sub in every 30 seconds to waste time and then gets mad if you wave him away." That sounds like Danny the coach I came to know, love and dismiss on a miserable, wet and dark winter's afternoon.

Danny the player continues to moan in the second half, but I've moved ahead. "What did you see this time, Danny?" I ask him when he whines about me giving a goal kick. "A deliberate handball? Did he trip you? Did he grab your balls?" He says it was a corner, though he barely sounds like he believes it himself. Every time he whinges I sing a little song to myself, "Shut up Danny, you twat/Oh, shut up Danny, you twat." At the final whistle, he doesn't come over to shake hands. That the result is only a 3-3 draw is clearly the fault of the terrible referee.

It's July. There are several weeks to go until the start of the new season. It's going to be another long and frustrating year for Danny, whether he's coaching from the touchline or struggling out on the field. Provided that his hobby isn't curtailed by another date with the disciplinary panel.