Game 35, 2016-17
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In the refs' changing room, I talk to the lad who's just finished whistling the U13 game before me. By coincidence, he plays for the second-placed team in the U17 league. When they played today's hosts, he tells me, "they tried to kick us off the park".
Does that mean I go into the game expecting trouble from the home team? Not at all - just as the game starts at 0-0, so does the punishment card. It does no harm, though, to be aware of a team's reputation. Just as any referee might be suspicious at the sight of Joey Barton rolling around on the floor of the penalty area claiming to have been surreptitiously elbowed by the opposing striker's pet kitten.
In fact the opening yellow card goes to a visiting player's midfielder, for a tactical foul. Then the home team's robust approach begins to kick in. I book their number 6, a central midfield enforcer, for three successive hefty fouls. And I notice how their striker, number 11, keeps following through on challenges long after the ball has been played by his defending opponent. Our exchanges for the rest of the half are as follows:
Minute 20, warning 1 - verbal: "Quit playing like that."
Minute 30, warning 2 - yellow card: for a late challenge, crashing into a defender full body and knocking him to the ground.
Minute 32, warning 3 - stern lecture for a trailing elbow to the side of a defender's head. "You're already on a yellow, this is your final warning." He nods.
Minute 35 - straight red card for violent conduct. Just three minutes after his final warning, number 11 deliberately kicks an opponent in the ankle after the ball has already gone out for a throw-in.
His team's already 3-1 down by this point, and after that they fold. At half-time I hear their captain, who's also got a yellow card for gesturing at the opposition bench, absorb a bollocking from one of his coaches for his lack of control. A club official apologises for the striker's conduct and says they have no quibbles with the straight red. They all saw me repeatedly talk to him.
All the same, there's little joy in a game like this. The red card kills it as a competitive encounter, and I dislike sending players off, especially in youth matches. The away team's coaches are grateful that I clamped down on the violent play, but to have reacted any other way would have been seriously negligible refereeing.
Still, it took 35 games this season before I had to show a straight red card. On the other hand, it could easily have been avoided. Even allowing for the fact that the player was too dim to take on board my clear signals, his coach should have taken him out after the third warning, at the very latest, and had a proper word. Or have taught him long ago not to play like that in the first place.