Games 44-45, 2017-18
It's quiet and sultry in the park, with death and distant storms in the air. Two teams of men lazily warm themselves up for the 1pm kick-off. Four days earlier, just a few hundred yards from where we're about to play sport, a dog-walker found the body of a 29-year-old woman. Life must go on, though - this end-of-season dead rubber at the middle to lower end of the city's bottom league abjures all musings on mortality. After all, there's 13th place to defend.
|"But ref, I was trying to play the ball!"|
It doesn't take long for the afternoon to plummet from meaningless kick-about to a prolonged and rabid expression of collective outrage. It's all my fault, of course, when in the ninth minute an away defender chooses to upend the home team's forward, who's through on goal in the penalty area and about to shoot. It was I who personally wrote the rules saying that the denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity is a red card offence. And no, there was no attempt at all to play the ball, which was far beyond the lugging defender's reach. It was a cynical, calculated trip.
The red-carded player and his team-mates all surround me, shouting and gesticulating. I've rarely been less moved by such a display of raw emotion. The home team converts the penalty and the away team spends the rest of the afternoon playing the victim, penalised by the mean referee who'sspoilt the game. They foul, they moan, they shout all the way up until their third red card in the 85th. minute, shown to their sneering, hostile number 6 whose presence on the field is solely thanks to my lenience.
He's been booked already in the 17th minute for dissent, after which I follow him around the field exhorting, "No foul! No foul!" every time he's heading towards a challenge. Not my job, I know, but I also know that if the away team is reduced to nine men while we're still in the first half, the already toxic tenor of the game will sink through the bottom of the rotten barrel and pollute the dark, thick mud below. Two borderline yellow-card fouls exact stern warnings from me, but he doesn't seem to give a fuck. Mercifully, he gets subbed out before half-time.
In the second half he's back, unreformed. He rips the shirt of an opponent at a corner kick, but they're standing on the edge of the area and I'm looking at the six-yard box, so I miss it. The opponent, laughing incredulously, has to change the shredded jersey. A few minutes later - just after his captain has been dismissed for sarcastically applauding and commenting upon the afternoon's second clear penalty - he clatters into the same opponent, then leans over the player, who's shouting out in pain, to let him know that he thinks he's faking it.
When I show him his second yellow card, then the red, he's so outraged that he walks up to me and pushes me in the chest. I take two steps backwards, arms raised. He turns to leave the field, then comes back for more, but is prevented from reaching me again by his team-mates. As the downed player gets treatment there's a noisy exchange of views all round. I blow the whistle, abandon the game, and walk off.
The away coach actually thanks me, shakes my hand, informs me that all my decisions were correct, and says that it's "always the same ones" who cause the trouble. Which makes me wonder why he keeps picking them every week, but as he's attempting to be conciliatory I don't say anything. In fact, I'm barely capable of speaking. It's been a rancid 85 minutes of non-stop harassment and I'm absolutely distraught - three red cards is the very least this team deserves.
In the changing room, I talk to the referee who's shaping up to officiate the same two teams' first XIs. "That's not a league, it's a punishment," he says. He's right, but I wonder what I'm being punished for, aside from ordering off a player according to the laws of the game. Was I a brutal central defender in a previous life?
They've arrested a middle-aged man in connection with the murdered woman. According to the papers, the attack on her was so severe that it could only have been the result of severe rage. There's a lot of it about. On Saturday afternoon I'd reffed a boys' U15 game. Before, during and after the very heated match, two sets of fathers set a wonderful example to their sons by yelling at each other and gesticulating.
Amateur football - the wrong place for anger, over and over again.
Game 44: 2-1 (5 x yellow, 1 x time penalty, 1 x red)
Game 45: 5-0, abandoned after 85 minutes (3 x yellow, 2 x yellow-red, 1 x red)