Monday, 28 August 2017

"Meet my imaginary linesmen"

Games 12-13, 2017-18

"We were very impressed with your pre-match speech," says the steward. "We've never heard anything like that before." Look, I don't want to show off here, but it's extremely rare as a referee in this country to have 'impressed' someone. At all. So forgive me for cherishing the moment and going into some more detail.

Fictional linesmen - marginally
better than none at all.
I've tried lots of different pre-match speeches down the years. In the US there was a particularly difficult boys' "elite" league where all the players had supposedly signed a Code of Conduct. During the games, though, there was little sign that they'd taken it on board - among refs it was known as the Whiney Suburban Brats' League. I ended up taking a printout of the Code to games, holding it up to the players, and telling them I was sure that over the coming 90 minutes they would all be taking very seriously the document that they'd read, signed and promised to honour. It was surprisingly effective.

In my current country, I've tried being nice and I've tried to be stern. Any nods or even short applause following these speeches were frequently rendered laughable by the ensuing game (see previous blog entries). I've also tried keeping it very short: "So, let's play. Good luck and enjoy the game." That particular speech will appear in the satirical version of My Life as a Referee.

So here is my latest attempt to set the tone (the one that apparently impressed yesterday's home officials), which I've used twice this week as I stood in front of both teams at the half-way line ready to take the field: "I'd like to introduce my Assistant Referees today, Mr X [I point to my left] and Ms Y
[I point to my right]. Also [pointing vaguely towards the club-house], my video assistant, Mr Z. On the off-chance that these people are not visible to you, then please show some understanding for the fact that I only possess two eyes [I point to my eyes]. Don't moan about every single foul and every single offside decision. For dissent there's always the strong possibility of a yellow card. So, good luck and enjoy the game."

My reliable Sunday League back-up team.
As I'm pointing at my imaginary linesmen, some players laugh, some look baffled, but in both games it's generally seemed to work - just one card for dissent. In yesterday's game, when an away team forward instinctively howled about an offside call early on, I snapped, "Hey, what did I say before the game?" and his team-mates shushed him. He apologised. The yellow card stayed in my pocket. The three first-half cautions - all for persistent foul play - remained the sole yellows of the day.

I'm not naive enough to expect a revolution of good behaviour, because I've already experienced too many false dawns of enlightenment. Still, I really enjoyed both games this weekend. On the other hand, the past few weekends continue to weigh on me. In fact last night I had an email assigning me to a game next month at a club where I had a particularly bad experience a year ago. I sent an email back saying that I would never referee this team again. Had they not read the long report I'd written after that game about the barrage of insults I'd been subjected to, and the home team's refusal to confirm the name of the coach I'd sent off?

That was just the first paragraph. I felt compelled to write more, and to copy in all my refereeing overlords. The situation in the city's lower amateur leagues is catastrophic and out of control, I went on. There's an almost constant threat of violence, while fairness and sporting values have been usurped by endless tantrums, foul play and intimidation. I was sick of spending my Sunday evenings writing detailed disciplinary reports and never hearing anything back, apart from seeing that certain players, like the one who threatened to break my neck, were still playing several weeks later. Referees were receiving neither the protection nor the support they needed from the state FA and the refereeing body.

Maybe someone will be "impressed" enough to take me seriously. So far all I've had back is a form notice that I've been withdrawn from that particular game, though that'll do for now. In the medium term, however, there needs to be the frank discussion that everyone's avoiding, but that will probably only happen once there's been a serious assault. Until then, the unspoken message appears to be: 'Man up.'

Game 12: 3-1 (2 x yellow)
Game 13: 5-2 (3 x yellow)

Ian Plenderleith's next book, 'The Quiet Fan', will be published by Unbound in 2018. Click here to pre-order an e-book or paperback copy.


  1. Just new to the blog and I have just completed my referee course too. This blog is a masterpiece and is compelling reading. I had thought about doing a similar blog but I doubt whether I could beat this.

  2. Thank you for reading and the generous comment. I would encourage you to write a blog, nonetheless. First, it's very therapeutic after a bad weekend. Second, and more importantly, I don't think there are nearly enough referees online discussing their experiences and shaping the honest, open dialogue we very much need about the Laws of the Game, and how to better handle the pressure that refs even at the lowest levels are facing every weekend.