Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Another ref's struggle against the wind and the rage of 22 men

Game 41, 2022-23

I have a half-hour walk back to the train station after Sunday's game. It's finally stopped raining, but it's still blowing a shitter. I pass a grass football field that had been empty and quiet on my walk in a few hours earlier, but which is now hosting a bellicose men's game. The first thing I see is is the referee showing a red card to the home team's number 4. Mayhem immediately ensues.

Needless to say, I stop to watch the drama. The referee is surrounded by the entire home team and their coaches, presumably pleading that he has made a dreadful error. The way team gets involved too, and there's a whole load of shouting and shoving. Then there's the usual slow infusion of reason and calm. It just takes a few minutes. The referee takes the number 4 to one side, and they have a long talk. The player stays on the field. The game resumes, and after clocking the dreadful quality, I continue my journey home.

Of course, the referee caught in the middle of this turbulent stramash has my sympathies. At the same time, I'm reassured - as always when I witness such scenes - that it's not just me. That I am not the sole and personal cause of all the hot and bothered emotions at the games I officiate. That there really is a general malaise infecting our rotten sporting culture all the way down to the bottom of the game.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Book review and author interview: Ashley Hickson-Lovence

Last week I had the pleasure of talking to the excellent up-and-coming novelist Ashley Hickson-Lovence (pic. below), now published as a podcast at Halcyon Publishing's website. You can listen to us here talking about our dual  roles as writers and referees.

His superb novel Your Show, narrated through the eyes of the English Premier League's first (and so far only) black referee, Uriah Rennie, has just come out in paperback. Last year, I reviewed the book for Soccer America and interviewed Ashley by e-mail. The results are re-printed below (with the kind permission of Soccer America).

Your Show by Ashley Hickson-Lovence (Faber & Faber)

How many autobiographies written by professional referees have you read? How many can you even name? I've read books by the English refs Mark Halsey and Paul Durkin, but they were self-serving and threw sparse light on the game of soccer or the art of officiating. There was a decent effort by German ref Patrick Ittrich a couple of years ago, but I honestly can't recall much about it. When it comes to producing readable literature, referees tend to fall into the same trap as players - settling scores no one else cares about, and offering points of view that come nowhere close to touching on the revolutionary overhaul that the game or its laws really require.

The young British novelist Ashley Hickson-Lovence (himself a former referee) has taken a different approach to writing about the life of Uriah 'Uri' Rennie, the first and so far only black referee in the Premier League. With Rennie's co-operation (see Q&A below), he's narrated the referee's life from the 'you' perspective. He picks up on all the pressures and tension of top-flight officiating, and nails the contradictions that come with being a lone neutral in between two sets of motivated professional athletes poised to exploit the slightest perception of weakness. The book's title comes from a stadium announcer at Preston North End who, at the start of the second half of a game Rennie was refereeing, told the crowd with more than a hint of sarcasm, "Welcome back to the Uriah Rennie show!"

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Have I had a bad game? Or was I just made to feel that way?

Game 40, 2022-23

It's one of those days for the home team. With five minutes to go, they're six goals in arrears. Following a scramble from a corner kick, they have a looping shot headed off the line by an away team defender. They appeal loudly for the goal, but without technology or an assistant on the touchline, there is absolutely no way to tell if the ball was fully over the line or not. I wave play on. The away team launch a smart counter-attack and, 20 seconds later, it's 0-7 instead of 1-6.

It's safe to say that the home team is no fan of me as a referee. In the first half, they complain bitterly that the visitors' second goal should be cancelled out due to an offside in the build-up. "Two meters!" they claim, like this exact measurement backs up their case. It's always that massive two meters, to emphasis my total wrongness. They would never say it was offside "by at least a centimetre". Absolute conviction must batter all doubt when addressing the clueless ref.

The home team's coach is also having trouble with my calls. When his defender lunges into a straight-legged tackle right in front of the home bench, I whistle for a free-kick, despite the defender having won the ball while nailing the man. The coach is predictably incensed and raves away until I appeal for him to calm down. "CALM? WHAT'S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?" he barks. That means you get to see this plastic yellow rectangle held up before your eyes. It's clinically proven to induce calm.

Monday, 6 March 2023

When referees don't help their own cause

Game 39, 2022-23

Before we get to Game 39, let's wind back a day to the girls' U14 team that I coach, playing in a 7-a-side league. It's almost always very sporting and low stress, which is what I love about it. The referee is about my age, very chatty and friendly. The girls take an instant liking to his approach. He notes their first names down on his game card, so that he can address any issues with them on an informal basis. They've taken off all their jewelry - ear-rings, necklaces and bracelets - and placed them in the valuables bag with their smartphones. One of the girls on the other team has her ear-rings taped over, which is specifically mentioned in the rules as not being permitted, but no one here needs an arsehole to point this out, and frankly I don't give a shit.

Dangerous jewelry...
At the end of the half-time interval we are all chatting cosily with the ref (despite us being 5-0 down) when he notices that one of my players hasn't removed a wafer-thin string bracelet that had been concealed by her long-sleeved under-armour - she'd simply overlooked it. No problem, she removes it straightaway, even though it's impossible that such an item would have caused an injury. And then, our super-friendly ref does something that we take a second to register. He takes out his yellow card and brandishes it with a stiffened arm right in front of the 14-year-old sinner. Ha ha, very funny! This ref's a hoot! Except he's one hundred per cent serious, and - exhibiting a strange transformation in his hitherto genial personality - tells us in no uncertain terms why he "has to" give this card, because it says so in the rules, and then he gets all shirty when I try to gently disagree. Eventually, I turn my back on him to stop myself from raising my voice into pompous 'I'm a referee too!' territory.

Monday, 27 February 2023

"We shoulda had a penalty!" Or, maybe not

Game 38, 2022-23

The home side is 2-0 up and dominating this level 8 men's relegation fight when, a few minutes before half-time, the away team launches a long ball forward. Their striker is running on to the ball as it bounces into the home team's penalty area, but a defender is running beside him. The two go shoulder-to-shoulder as they challenge for the ball. The forward goes down, and the defender clears his lines.

"Penalty!" chorus the away team, and their bench, and their supporters too. I wave play on and shut out the noise around me. Both of these teams are big on the drama, throwing themselves to ground with cries for attention like lachrymose weans aching for motherly love. There's already been a Major Incident when a (possibly) accidental hand to an opponent's face was treated like an attempted murder by the away team, even as the perpetrator apologised at length. The victim kept his face covered for the longest time until it was clear that there was going to be no red card, just a caution. When he took his hands away from his face to expose the brutality of the apparent attack, he was unscarred, unscathed, and very much alive and able to continue the game.

Back to that non-penalty. At half-time I have to pass the small gaggle of away supporters. "Shoulda been a penalty!" says someone in very loud and pointed tones as I make my way to the dressing-room, acting the deaf man (not hard for me, given my hearing impairment).

Monday, 20 February 2023

We are all doomed to Level 11. Get used to it

Games 35-37, 2022-23

A busy weekend with three games in three days, and plenty going on. Two good, enjoyable matches (both men's league games), and one absolute shit-show (boys' U19 friendly). Some new situations, and lots of the same old crap, mainly moaning about offside decisions. 

Friday night lights (pic: Helmut Güsten)
Players not knowing the rules, Part 1

During the first half of this Level 10 game, a home team defender comes up with the standard passive-aggressive, "Referee, I have a question." I ignore him, but he complains anyway. When the guests just re-started the game from the centre spot after conceding a goal, they played the ball forwards! At half-time I seek him out and mention his complaint. "You have to watch out for that," he tells me. Why, I said? Since when has it been against the rules to play the ball forward from a kick-off? Oh, he replies, his indignant and confrontational attitude now replaced with mild surprise. Is it allowed?

Offside, Part 1
As we're coming out for the second half the home team players mention in refreshingly friendly tones that the goal they conceded in the first half should have been annulled for offside because an opponent was directly in front of the keeper, blocking his view. In retrospect, I tell them that I think they have a point, although the keeper would never have saved the ball even if he'd had a full view of it. "That one's on me," I say, and they laugh. It helps that they're 3-1 up, but the courtesy and the absence of any malice is a big plus.

Monday, 6 February 2023

"You should quit refereeing"

Games 33-34, 2022-23

"You should quit refereeing." The advice comes from a 17-year-old central defender at the end of a game where his team has lost by eight goals. He'd also been dismissed for his third bookable offence, having picked up a yellow card for dissent, a five-minute time penalty for a serious foul, and then a yellow-red card for upending an opponent in the penalty area just three minutes after returning to the field. So you can see why he'd want me to hang up my whistle. His football career would surely be advancing much quicker if referees would only wave play on every time he yells at them or kicks an opponent.

"Ref, if I could just give you some advice..."
That was the U19 game on a Saturday evening. The next morning, under a cold and depressing rain, I'm back out refereeing an U17 match. There are three yellow cards in the first six minutes:

1' The home team's number 8 takes out an opponent with the game's very first tackle. Me (loudly): "Are you off your head? That's not how we're playing the game here today."

4' The away team's number 17 in central defence fouls the same forward twice in two minutes after he's been out-dribbled. "Two fouls already," I call out as I brandish the card. He doesn't foul again.

6' The away team's number 9 is tripped, but when the home player apologises and offers him a hand up, the number 9 squares up to him instead. Time for another short lecture, and a yellow for unsportsmanlike conduct. He can't believe it, of course. He was the one who was fouled.

Monday, 30 January 2023

Two good games trigger the same old optimism...

Games 31-32, 2022-23

Taking a long break from work is usually a good thing, and that applies to refereeing as well. The Dread from six weeks ago is gone, and I can't explain really where it came from and how it's disappeared again. It's still as cold as it was back in December, and the skies are just as discouraging, but now there's a feeling that soon it will be February, and then we can say, "Next month, it's spring..." It helped that I had two almost perfect games to start off the second half of the season.

"Everything I learnt about the
morality and obligations of man..."
Here's how an amateur football game should play out. It should be hard, fast and intense, and the players should be serious enough about winning. There are fouls and a couple of flash-points, but the referee is on top of things to keep everyone calm, even those whose tempers flicker or flare. Offside decisions, and their inherent fallibility, are broadly accepted. At the end of the game, everyone shakes hands, and the coaches and players from both teams thank you for coming out on such a cold afternoon.

That's how these two matches played out. True, they were friendlies, but the archive of this blog alone proves that the 'friendly' label is like a sticker saying 'refreshing and child-safe' on a bottle of absinthe. But both encounters were immensely enjoyable to ref. Which means that there's not much to write about here besides standard stuff like the odd moan or two, a minor scrap, and a couple of nasty fouls. And for that I'm really grateful.

There is nothing I'd love more than to mothball this blog and sign off on it as a historical document reflecting a past age when sportsmanship was in the bin. A time when barely a week passed without me either doubting myself as a competent match official, or questioning the purpose of football as a mass recreational weekend pastime aimed at promoting health and generating pleasure.

It will take more than two successive quiet afternoons to confine my keyboard to the attic, I fear. Again, previous blog entries testify to my occasional bouts of naive optimism following a few games that were mainly incident-free. And they often come at the start of a season or just after the winter break, when teams possibly re-set and resolve to take a new approach to the game. A more sporting, more focused approach. Just like many of us start the New Year swearing off alcohol and rummaging in the drawer for our gym membership card.

And yet, without that optimism, there would be no point in showing up at all. "Why does man, sensing the absurdity of existence, simply not commit suicide?" was the existentialist question that drove the writings of Albert Camus. You could say that this blog asks the question, "Why do players (and referees), sensing the absurdity of sporting endeavour, simply not quit the game and spend their weekends reading Albert Camus instead?"

Because then I wouldn't have experienced a coach whose team had just lost 4-0 coming up to thank me and saying that I had an excellent game. Just seconds after I was needlessly thinking, "Oh, fuck, the coach whose team has just lost 4-0 is walking right towards me." Try not to forget that traumatic days will be balanced out by rewarding games. Cling on to the faith, or stay at home.

Game 31: 1-4 (1 x yellow)
Game 32: 4-0 (4 x yellow)

My new book 'Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong' documents six years of whistling torment, tears and occasional ecstasy. Please buy a copy direct from Halcyon if you would like to support this blog and independent publishing.

Monday, 9 January 2023

The dread in my head

Game 30, 2022-23

Dread. It’s not a positive emotion. It’s what you feel on the way to a job interview or before a major exam. When the phone rings in the middle of the night. When you turn on the news to hear that the war in Ukraine has escalated, and that the glaciers are melting way too fast. When your partner says, ‘We need to talk.’ It’s what you feel when Scotland play the Faroe Islands.

It shouldn’t be what you feel when you’re on your way to referee a game of amateur football.

There’s nothing special about this game. It does not involve difficult clubs that I’ve had a bad experience with in the past. There’s nothing in the Fair Play table to suggest that this game will be any more or less fraught than any other game I’ve ever taken at Level 8. There’s been no warning from a colleague about an especially explosive coach or a gobby captain. There is no rational foundation to my dread. Nonetheless, it’s there. All morning.

It's the last game of 2022. It’s a very cold Sunday in mid-December, and it’s snowed overnight, maybe an inch or so. I check my schedule and see that the game is set to be played on artificial turf, considerably reducing the chances of it getting called off. It’s an overwhelmingly grey day, and I have to get the train to take me half an hour out of town. But that isn’t the reason for the dread, this tugging, gut-based fear that something very bad’s going to happen. That I’m going to fuck up a major decision. A decision that will make a lot of people go red in the face and loud in the mouth.

Monday, 5 December 2022

Loud Arsehole Dad - meet Loud Arsehole Mum!

Games 27-29, 2022-23

Remember last weekend's sportsmanlike spectator of the day, Loud Arsehole Dad (LAD)? This past Saturday's U15 game yielded another example of this hopefully dying species. Throughout an otherwise entirely peaceful first half, LAD screams about call after call. I ignore him, because there's nothing wrong with my calls, and nothing to discuss. At half-time, I even text a fellow ref: "Very quiet except for one really loud dad everyone's ignoring. Twat."

As we're taking the field for the second half, the home team's number 9 cheerfully tells me, "Sorry about my dad on the touchline there. Don't worry about him, he's nuts." I reply that I'd been wondering which player he was attached to, though I don't mention that just a couple of minutes ago I'd referred to him in a text message as a twat. The number 9's a nice lad, though, and scores two goals in the second half. In a happy parallel to last week's game, the next generation seems to be learning from the LADs - here's the model bad parent showing you how not to behave. Good job, dad!

I'd reffed the away team just four days earlier in a testy cup tie. Two of their players ended up with cautions in that game - one for his part in a hormone-driven face-off, and one for a nasty foul. They remember me fine, and as we're going through the player's ID passes, I mention to both players that I'd hate to have to take their names for the second time in a week. Their team-mates laugh, and they all behave perfectly for the entire 70 minutes, despite getting hammered 5-0 in a game to decide who goes top of the division.