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 J├╝rgen 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
me. I ignore him and instead send the team manager of the home side off to the changing room to grab as many shin-guards as he can find. He's a nice bloke, but very chaotic. The last time I refereed a game here, he oversaw an almighty organisational cock-up on several levels. But he apologised repeatedly and sincerely and it was just impossible to get mad with him, despite the extra hour of administrative work for me that his inefficiency caused.

He returns with a sack of shin-guards, while I have to direct the away team one by one to their subs' bench to grab any spare equipment going - they've been standing around like the directive doesn't affect them. You can tell that every single player on the pitch thinks I'm a wanker for enforcing this. As though I'd expressly told them before the game not to wear shin-guards, and now I'd changed my mind just for the hell of it.

Finally, we start again. Someone asks about injury time, which would probably be around seven minutes, but no one complains when I blow for half-time on the dot at 45 minutes - they're all too knackered and out of shape from doing fuck all exercise over the summer.

In the second half they get cranky too. I've noticed this a lot - after the break teams can get extra dirty. Either they've been bollocked at half-time for not being aggressive enough, or they're pissed off at missing their afternoon naps. There's some pushing, threats and half-hearted squaring up, so I get the captains to substitute the worst perpetrators because I can't be arsed to card anyone. Besides, they're all friends, right? Then the away goalkeeper has a bust-up with an opposing forward, and again I step in. "He insulted my mother!" the keeper shouts at me in self-mitigation. Other players' Mums are a recurring theme in adult football games.

Despite all this, I'm in a serene mood today, unfazed by fights, fouls or fractiousness. After the game, the nice team manager thanks me some more. We talk about the shin-guard thing. "Well, they have to learn some time," he says cheerfully, as though they were all playing their first game ever, and he bears no responsibility for the situation at all. Nothing stops this bloke from smiling, not even the final score of 1-4. If only everyone at a friendly was this friendly. 

You can support this blog by buying Ian Plenderleith's latest book, The Quiet Fanhere.

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