Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A relegation fight on 80s astro-turf - as bad as it gets

Game 21, 2017-18

Just how bad is it possible for a game of football to be? Today, the ideal conditions are all in place. The home team is bottom of the table with zero points after nine games. The likewise winless away team is one place above them with two points, and we're playing on one of those bald, hard, 1980s astro-turf surfaces you occasionally get out in one of the city's satellite towns, where time does indeed feel locked inside that plastic, Day-Glo decade.

Man of the match
The visitors bag a fortuitous early goal when a scuffed shot finds its way into the corner of the net, more thanks to the intrinsically malevolent bounce of the pitch than any skill on the part of the shooter. It turns out to be the most accurate attempt on goal all afternoon. The remaining 83 minutes are for connoisseurs of random pinball - though Tommy Daltrey's deaf, dumb and blind kid would have played more accurate passes than all these lads put together.

In their favour, they're a sporting bunch. Decisions are once or twice politely questioned rather than loudly scorned, other than by a female follower of the away team, who sees my throw-in calls as reason to squawk so vehemently about my crass incompetence that I'm tempted to turn around and parrot her complaints right back at her. That would be satisfying, but unprofessional, and as she's the only irritant during
the quiet first half I let her undergo whatever therapeutic process she's been prescribed. I hope it helps.

Meanwhile, the ball continues to run off the pitch like marbles off a glacier. Mutual desperation sets in. The away team sense their first victory of the season, two months in. The home team realises that if they can't at least get a point off this hopeless bunch, then the season's already over in the first week of October. The game morphs into a combination of flailing aerial challenges, blatant shoves, desperate tackles and theatrical flops. Fouls multiply like midsummer maggots on a rat's corpse.

With about 20 minutes to go, the game's taking a darker turn. I imagine the ball as a floating gas tank that the players are running after with flaming touch paper, attempting to ignite it and finish off the game with a furious fireball that will scorch the opposition and the earth too (which might at least have done the surface some good). The temperature rises to hot and irascible - the previous polite enquiries have transformed into loud appeals and bawls of protest. Can we make it to the end of the game before something bigger flares up?

Instead of booking the away team players for time-wasting (which just takes up more time), I add six minutes to the end of the game. And it's in the final minute of injury time that it happens. A last desperate free-kick from the home team passes over everybody's heads, and as I'm checking the ball's trajectory to see if it's gone out of play for a goal-kick, an away defender goes down, clutching his face. Half of his team surround the apparent perpetrator - a striker built like a rogue walrus who's been in the thick of the afternoon's multiple low points.

Mammoth of the match
It's quite possible he elbowed the defender (who recovered without the need for an ambulance, or even the magic sponge), but I didn't see it. I blow my whistle and separate the madding mob, and ask them to see out the final 30 seconds without any more unpleasantness. At the end, both teams are pissed off - the home team because they lost, the away team because I didn't show the red card to the naughty striker. Though one player says, "Thanks, ref. That wasn't an easy game."

That was a game? I thought you boys were just trying to set some kind of record for the number of times a ball can be ejected out of play from a given rectangular area over the course of 90 minutes. Anyway, you're welcome. Good luck with your forthcoming six-month battle against relegation. And if it gets any more ugly than this, please don't post me the highlights.

Final score: 0-1 (4 x yellow)

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


  1. Hello - just discovered this blog via wsc and found it really fascinating. Am much more impressed than before by the small scale heroism of the referee!

  2. Cheers, Joe. Usually updated about once a week during the season (though where I ref takes a long break in winter).

  3. [this comment reached me by email but for some reason didn't appear here]

    DaveB has left a new comment on your post "A relegation fight on 80s astro-turf - as bad as i...":

    Must say I have added this as a favourite to read each week. Being an ex-referee at about the same level most of the incidents I am nodding to, but we still come back each week for more punishment for peanuts. But as a well known referee once said “refs are not in the game for payment, but if there were no payments there would be no refs”.