Sunday, 7 May 2017

A foul, a shove, then a full-blooded fist-fight

Games 47-48, 2016-17

The coach of the away team is on the pitch and yelling at me, even though his side is 3-1 up. I've just shown one of his players a red card. He's so outraged that he wants to take them off the field and concede the game. Even his own players are telling him that's a bad idea. They would rather play another ten minutes and take the three points than forfeit for a 3-0 loss on a matter of principle.

What's going on? It's a boys' U17 game, and up until the 68th minute it has been relatively peaceful. Only half an hour in, when the home team subs in a burly latecomer, do things heat up a little. He slots into the back four and immediately starts a little something with the opposing number 7 after a clash of adolescent bodies and egos. "It was pretty peaceful until you turned up two minutes ago," I say. "Cut it out." And he does.

Bremner and Keegan in the
good old days. 
The away team are league leaders and on the edge of winning the title. The home side are in mid-table, playing out the season without too much enthusiasm. One of their players, the number 16, takes exception to being fouled near the halfway line. He pushes the player who fouled him, the away team's number 15, who pushes him back. So then the number 16 thumps the number 15, and the number 15 thumps him back, and in the course of two seconds it has escalated to a full-blooded fistfight. Think Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan at the 1974 Charity Shield.

I run over, blowing away on my whistle, but by the time I arrive at the scene of the scrap the coaches on the touchline have intervened to break it up. I show both players the red card. The home team's miscreant is already running off to the changing
room, but the away team's player can not believe he has to go too. Neither can his team-mates. Neither can his coach, which is why he starts yelling at me.

"Our player was only defending himself!" they all proclaim, and they are quite serious. It takes two to have a fist-fight, though, and after the first shove all he needed to do was raise his arms in the air and walk away. I'd have shown the number 16 a red and that would have been it.

"If we play on, anything that happens from now until the end of the game is your responsibility!" the coach raves at me. I'm confident that things will be fine. I talk to the 20 remaining players and ask them to play a calm and sensible final ten minutes.

I've got my own reasons for not wanting to call off the game - it means extra paperwork and an appearance before a disciplinary hearing. The last (and only) time I called off a game, after a mass fight involving all 22 players and several spectators, the four judges gave me the distinct impression that I'd made the wrong decision and should have played until the end. It's probably considered unmanly to throw in the towel. Or something.

"Yeah, but he started it!"
We even have directives from the country's FA now telling us that calling off a game should be considered the last resort. So I take the risk, because it's clear no one else is covering the referee's back, despite the posters and slogans saying how much we all appreciate our wonderful and barely paid match officials. In the end, the final ten minutes pass with one more goal and no more incidents. The home coach apologises and tells me he's already thrown the number 16 out of the club. The away coach is no longer speaking to me, but that's fine because he's a twat.

Next morning I'm back out for another boys' U17 encounter. I look at the match report from when the two teams met earlier in the season. Seven yellows, three reds. Fuck, here we go again. As we line up to walk out on the field, I let them know that I know - that there had been more cards than goals last time they played. They all look sheepish, with the exception of a couple of smirks. These are teenage boys, after all.

The away team behaves impeccably, the home team accumulates a quartet of yellows for foul play, mainly because they're one step slower than their opponents. There are no full-on fist-fights, however, and I just about hang on to my faith that football is a worthwhile and wonderful game.

Game 47, final score: 1-4 (2 x yellow, 2 x red)
Game 48, final score: 1-7 (4 x yellow)

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