Monday, 25 September 2017

"What I notice now in the game is a complete lack of respect"

Game 20, 2017-18

I'm sitting reading the walls in the referee's changing room before a men's first team game that has taken me some way out of town. There are four framed certificates on display that honour one man's devotion to the game - a referee who's a member of the home club, and who has put in 50 years of service to the amateur game. I mentally salute his devotion. I'm only in my tenth season, but I feel like I've been reffing much, much longer.

What Scots are good at.
A few minutes later, having inspected the pitch, I'm warming up close to the touchline when an elderly gentleman ambles by and begins to chat about refereeing. I soon work out that he's the ref whose certificates are on my changing room wall. He tells me how he skipped the country when he was young to avoid doing military service and travelled the world. He ended up playing for a Scottish ex-pat club in Adelaide. "Boy, could they drink," he says. "Every last one of them."

He also has a view on the problems referees face now compared with when he started out. "What I notice now throughout the game is a lack of respect," he says thoughtfully, and with some sadness. "A complete lack of respect." I agree, although I don't mention that I've a blog full of stories to back us up.

Played the advantage,
goal was scored. Yay!
The game starts well in the fourth minute when I play advantage after a dirty tackle, and the home team races up field to take the lead. I've written before about this being the closest a ref can come to feeling like they've scored a goal, and I have to really focus on not smiling as I note down the goal-scorer and the time of the goal. There's a crowd of 40-50 people and they all shout out, "Well played, ref!" (I just made that last bit up - in fact they spend the entire game incredulously contesting every last call against the home side.)

A quiet first half ends 1-1, but there are a number of notable incidents after the break:

1. A penalty for the home team after their captain heads a through-ball over the keeper, who stands his ground and blocks the attacker's path, knocking him to the ground. "What else was I supposed to do?" the goalkeeper yells at me. But it's not my job to answer what now seems to be the  recurring question from an updated edition of The Goalkeeper's Book of Alibis and Excuses. The penalty is scored: 2-1.

Hope Solo has
some advice for
 amateur goalkeepers.
2. A home attacker beats a defender for pace just beyond the half way line, and the defender upends him. His path wasn't directly towards goal and another defender could have conceivably caught up with him, so I only yellow card the defender - the first card of the game, in fact, after 74 minutes. Several players on the home team tell me hotly that it should have been a straight red.

3. Two opposing players get in a shouting and shoving match. I yellow-card them both and tell them we've only got 10 minutes to play, so can they just keep a lid on it, otherwise they'll be off. The away team player, the number 19, leaves it another two minutes before he starts shouting at and shoving a different opponent. So he's off, and his captain goes in the book for running up to me and yelling in my face about the terrible injustice of it all.

It's still 2-1, and the away team twice tries to buy a penalty when forwards go down in the box and yell dramatically, but I see no fouls on either occasion. Their bench and followers bellow along in anger and disbelief. In the last minute they get caught at the back and the home side seals the game with a breakaway goal.

After the final whistle, the away team coach comes to shake my hand, but then proceeds to outline all the ways I was biased against his team. That wasn't a penalty, that should have been a penalty, the sending-off was unfair blah blah. "It's funny," I say, "but almost every week the losing team says the same thing."

I think I've had an okay game, but immediately start to retrospectively doubt my decisions. Did I miss something in the box? Was the red card too harsh? At least there are handshakes from both teams, and no further comments. And then, by the clubhouse door, I see the elderly gentleman with 50 years of refereeing experience waiting for me.

Fellow officials in this country are not shy in telling you where you went wrong. I steel myself, expecting to hear once and for all that I messed up the penalty call. He steps forward and shakes my hand. "Congratulations," he says warmly. "Man of the match. You were the best man on the field today. I won't let it go unmentioned."

Instead of shaking his hand I want to give him a man-hug. I'm genuinely moved and can barely stammer out a thank you. During the 14-mile cycle ride home on a mild, cloudy evening, I'm humming all the way and thinking things like, "Foul. Play on. Goal. Get fucking in there!"

Final score: 3-1 (3 x yellow, 1 x yellow-red)

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