Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The culture of anger and violence has become the norm

Sometimes after a bad game you can't help but thinking, "Maybe it's just me. Maybe I have no control over these games. Every other amateur game in the country went fine today except mine. I just have a way of winding players up. I really am getting all the decisions wrong. The players are right - I need new specs."

No ball, no whistle, no game
This is when sharing experiences with other referees becomes of paramount importance. I won't lie - in general, refs are a weird bunch. They don't necessarily have a great sense of humour, they are very rules-oriented (and thus rarely of a radical bent), and they are not particularly ready to open up or criticise authority. Which is a shame, because dialogue is essential to help us communicate what's going on out there, and how we can act to improve the levels of sportsmanship in the amateur game.

So whenever I encounter a fellow ref, it's usually me who does the running. "Where are you from?" and, "How long have you been reffing?" are the two standard opening questions of any polite conversation between two officials. Then I follow up with the question that takes us to a higher level
of confidence. "Do you still enjoy it?" I've yet to hear a referee effusively reply, "Oh, yes! I absolutely love it!" But it's a good trigger for letting all the frustration spill out. 

Last weekend I was sharing a changing room with a referee who was in charge of a match on the field next to mine, but one league below. The ref was about my age, about my experience. At half-time, I asked him how it was going, and he sighed.

Enough is enough - game's over, suckers.
"Just two yellow cards so far," he said. "But there are going to be more. I can tell." I said that so far I'd shown just one yellow, but I had the feeling my game was going the same way. The second half is almost always much dirtier and considerably more angry than the first. And so it proved. When he came in after the final whistle, I didn't even need to ask him. He looked exhausted, and I could see and hear through the changing room window his two teams still arguing loudly with each other as they took off their boots.

"Seven yellows and one red," he said, looking at his notebook. "And there were at least four other players who deserved to be sent off." It almost exactly paralleled the way my own second half had gone. Both of us offloaded about the poor character of the players we'd just been doing our best to control for 90 minutes. It's terrible to say, but I was glad that his game had been just as bad as mine - our mutual empathy was the first stage to getting over it and coming back out again the following week.

I'm once again indebted to the magnificent German magazine 11 Freunde, whose current special edition on the amateur game includes a four-page feature on the travails of being a referee at the game's hairy, lairy arse-end. One referee with over 30 years of experience, Markus Weber, has the following to say about the current levels of decency:

"Hey, ref!" Brilliant piece in the
11 Freunde 'Amateure' edition
"A few years ago there was just as much moaning as nowadays. But after the final whistle, it was over. At the very latest you got a handshake over a post-match beer. That's no longer the case. You get more and more criticism, and after the game it's often even worse. The criticism comes not just from the players and coaches, but also from the spectators. Sometimes you're just happy to come away from the ground with your health intact." He's not at all surprised that there have been numerous cases of physical violence against referees.

The German FA points out that only 0.05 per cent of all its games have to be abandoned, but that's disingenuous. In their guidelines to abandoning a game, they specify: "A referee can abandon the game, but this should only happen when all available means of continuing the game have been exhausted" (my italics).

Although this directive also applies to weather and pitch conditions, I found out two years ago what it means in practical terms when there's aggro involved. I abandoned a cup game on 70 minutes after a fight broke out between both teams and both sets of spectators, and my efforts to break up five separate feuds met with no success. Both coaches came to my changing room and begged me first to continue the match (I refused), and then to report the final result as it had been at the time of the fight, and not to mention the incident in my match report because they knew they could face sanctions (I refused again).

The fine for a mass brawl
in the German amateur leagues
Yet at the disciplinary hearing two weeks later I got the distinct impression that's exactly what I should have done. The home team were fined €50 for not having two stewards available. The result was allowed to stand. And I was left feeling like I was the one who had let things get out of control, even though I'd been the sole neutral in a mass confrontation involving around 50-60 people, and the fight had no relation to the game I was refereeing - it had been sparked by a verbal insult from the crowd.

Just men being men. Once they'd dusted themselves off, we should have got on with the game. What's the fuss, ref? It was nothing but a wee heated brawl. And that's the problem that Markus Weber's quote highlights. This behaviour has become the accepted norm, and referees are expected to mutely conform to the latter-day culture of bitterness, fury, ceaseless dissent and the underlying threat of violence.

The big question is, though, "Why the hell should we?"

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


  1. Ian, I've been reading through your blog, and am wondering the same thing: do you still enjoy it? I've decided for me that younger amateur matches with a 3 man crew are more enjoyable and less contentious than to solo referee mens league matches that can be exactly as you describe. You deserve a halo for your persistence in serving the game in the face of all the negative feedback. I appreciate your writing style and commentary--looking forward to getting a copy of your ebook. John

  2. John, thank you for your kind comments (and all the other comments you've left across my blog the past few days). Broadly, I still enjoy it. I love being involved, I do love getting to ref a challenging game, and I do feel that, even at my age, I am improving all the time in terms of managing games, and having the confidence to clamp down on the players, coaches and spectators who look like careening out of control. Writing this blog certainly does help to sort my head out after a tough game, though.