Thursday, 17 August 2017

Reffing like a UN envoy - ignored, deplored, reviled

Game 9, 2017-18

Three days after being assaulted for the first time as a referee, you'd hope for a gentle game. Maybe a friendly in a U9 league where both teams have kittens for mascots. As it is, I realise that weeks ago I was assigned to a City Cup first round game between two teams of distinct ethnic origins. They hail from a part of the world far from my city, and have been in conflict for well over a century. It's the luck of the draw.

Please can I ref
a game in the Cute
 Kittens League?
It's due to get dark around half-time, so the home team asks if we can play the first half on their smooth and kempt grass field (no floodlights), then move to the neglected cinder pitch, weeds and all (but with floodlights), at half-time. The answer: no. So they haul the wheelie out of the shed, paint the lines, and clear away the debris from a storm the night before. What follows on this decrepit surface is the most intense and challenging game I've ever refereed.

There are so many fouls that it's hard to recall more than a handful of clean challenges throughout the entire match. I play advantage multiple times just to keep the game flowing. This irritates the away team in particular when they don't make good on the advantage. Yet in between the dirty play there are some cracking goals - these are good teams. We go in at half-time with the score at 3-2 and a count of three yellow cards.

"You're as much use as a UN resolution, ref!"
I fear, though, that they are just getting started, and I'm right. In the second half the game remains closely fought, and highly fractious. I run around putting out fires with a water bucket like a lone United Nations envoy in the middle of a city under siege. My appeals for calm and a steady stream of yellow cards for foul play and dissent are about as effective as a UN resolution drafted and passed in faraway New York. There is something going on here far beyond my remit, on the brink of an explosion - five times I have to separate players or groups of players yelling and squaring up to each other. A chat with both captains makes no difference at all.

I don't help matters by making a significant mistake. I let play continue after an aerial challenge between the home team's robust centre back and the away side's already fuming centre forward. The striker goes down with a dramatic yell (not for the first time - every foul in this game is a short and
outraged one-act play), clutching his back. When I go over to look, I realise that he was genuinely hurt in the challenge - a knee or an elbow into his back that I hadn't seen under the deficient floodlights. The away team now feels that I'm 'against' them, and starts to foul with even more deliberate intent, while letting me loudly know that I'm the carrier of injustice.

Out of the ten cautions I issue, at least half a dozen could easily have become reds for second offences. Gauging the already blazing temperature, though, I refrain from sending anyone off - it feels like that would be the final spark needed to propel the random skirmishes into an ugly, full-on mass confrontation. Instead I continue to talk, to try and mollify the aggrieved, even the ones accusing me of bias and incompetence. The away team's number 21, already booked for dissent, rants on and on until I tell him, "I'm not even listening any more. Save your breath."

I run like a fledgling hare throughout the 90, petrified of missing the foul that might push us over the edge, though this at least helps me to stand on the back line for several offside calls. That's the one area tonight where no one actually moans. When I blow the final whistle I'm so relieved that I don't give a fuck when the away team's number 7, already booked, tells me what a useless waste of space I am. "Have a nice evening," I reply. Although I should have said, "You're right - if I was any good I'd have sent you off hours ago, you moaning, fouling twat."

One world, one ball.
As it turns out, that's the last of the abuse. Players from both teams thank me and shake my hand and say, "Well reffed." Some even come into my changing room to drop a kind word. I've a suspicion they might have been told to do so by their club officials for fear of a searing disciplinary report, but it could also just have been an acknowledgment that I'd done my best during a grimy, belligerent encounter.

I'd give myself six out of ten - I feel the game got out of control in the second half after I missed that serious foul. Still, we all come out the other side alive and mainly unscathed, which is more than you can say for the real-world conflict between these two particular peoples. I come home mentally and physically shattered, unable to eat and feeling nauseous. But I also belong to a nation state, enjoy freedom of movement, and live in a wealthy democracy. I got a lucky draw. I think I'll survive.

Final score: 5-3 (10 x yellow) 

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


  1. Lots of parallels with Howard Webb's World Cup Final - sounds like you did a fine job in impossible circumstances.

  2. you my good friend are a brave brave soul

  3. I'm glad there are referees like you to do these matches. We have a similar league that I refuse to officiate. One of those matches ended in a knife fight, and I have zero interest in rewarding those players/fans with my services. john