Monday, 8 August 2022

Games go well when coaches know discipline

Games 5-6, 2022-23

It's still hot, so we're having a drinks break, 23 minutes in. The score's 0-0 in the first Level 9 league game of the season. I walk over to a bucket of water by the touchline to cool myself off. Three elderly gentlemen are sitting on a bench behind the barrier.

"Just thought you should know," one of them says. "But our number 7 wasn't offside."

"Thanks for the tip."

"You're welcome."

(Holding up the whistle) "Do you fancy a go with this? Then I can come and sit in the shade for the rest of the afternoon?"

They know the rules (photo: imb)
We will never know for sure whether the number 7 was offside or not, but the player's opinion of my decision will be always marked in the record books by a yellow card for dissent. It's an early one (15 minutes on the clock), and no one on his team yells at me after that. The guests have their own moaner, the number 14 midfielder, and he gets an entry in my note-book just before half-time. If all the first half energy from players sounding off at their team-mates was converted into football skill, we'd be witnessing a classic. As it is, we go into the break goalless, having heard and seen nothing but vented fury and wayward balls.

Drinks break, second half. The home team is by now 2-0 up. I walk over to the same bucket and ask the three wise men if they've seen any more refereeing errors. 

Monday, 1 August 2022

A night of serial errors - all from me

Game 4, 2022-23

Right after the final whistle I walk straight to my changing room and lock the door. Almost immediately, there's a knock. "Referee?" I tell them to wait, and that I need ten minutes. I need to think something over. I need to think about the mistake I made five minutes before the end of the game, and what I'm going to do about it.

It's the last of the pre-season warm-ups, between good teams from levels 9 and 8. It's getting a bit chippy towards the end, but nothing out of the ordinary. I don't show a yellow card until the 78th. minute, when the away team's number 2 goes in too hard on an opponent and then throws him over. It's not his first foul of the evening. Apart from that, just some standard moaning about decisions as the sun goes down and visibility worsens - we're playing on the grass field, and there are no floodlights.

Another mistake...
Then, with five minutes to go, the same number 2 gets into a tangle with the home team's number 13 and they have a minor set-to. I break them up and tell them to stay sane as we've only five minutes to play. I make them shake hands, which they only manage with a demonstrative reluctance. I should show them both yellow, but that would mean a dismissal (second yellow) for number 2. It's not been that kind of game, though, so I trust to their common sense.

That's my first mistake. Just 30 seconds later they go for a ball with the same result - an unpleasant wrestling match that I run over to break up again with my whistle. Next mistake - I react emotionally (the very thing I'm always criticising players for), and am so pissed off that they've ignored my previous lecture that I show them both the red card. This prompts instant outrage from both everyone on the field and on the touchline (though, funnily enough, not from the players themselves).

Sunday, 24 July 2022

Attempting the art of early de-escalation

Games 1-3, 2022-23

Cycling towards my first friendly of the season, heavy black clouds pollute the north-east horizon somewhere close to where I'll soon be refereeing. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the river, a woman is screaming at me, but I can't understand what she's saying. Maybe she's some sort of soothsayer calling out, "Don't embark on another season of madness! Turn your bike around and quit now! Heed the storm ahead and lay down your whistle!" Or maybe she's just calling out, "You're shit, ref! I already know that wasn't offside and we haven't even kicked off yet!"

I keep pedalling, because it won't go down too well if I tell my assignor that I didn't show up because a mad woman on the banks of the Nidda was hollering portents of grief. Maybe I should have paid her more attention, though, because just 12 minutes into the game, I'm showing the first caution of the season when the home team's number 10 flies in and takes out an opponent with the kind of challenge which, if you cut it open down the middle, would reveal the words PRETTY FUCKING UGLY engrained from top to bottom. The player betrays a flicker of exasperation when he sees the yellow in my hand, but thankfully refrains from claiming immunity on the grounds that it was "my first foul, ref!"

Friday, 17 June 2022

Reffing Hell! This blog is about to become a book

Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong

"Insightful, hilarious and hair-raising, Reffing Hell will make you wonder why anyone becomes a match official, and very glad that Ian Plenderleith did." Harry Pearson

This blog's now been running for six years. Thanks to the excellent gentlemen at Halcyon Publishing, it's about to become a book. Published on August 8, 2022, you can pre-order it here direct from the publisher. FREE postage for UK pre-orders. 

If you've enjoyed this blog, thank you so much for reading. If you want to support my writing and a bold and independent upcoming publisher, then please consider buying a copy. Each chapter is blessed by sketches from When Saturday Comes and The New European illustrator Tim Bradford, @Urban_Country.  

The entries in the book are no longer available on the blog except as teasers. However, all of the entries that didn't make the cut are still here to read for free, including the most recent games. I will continue to write the blog throughout the coming 2022-23 season - injuries and the state of my soul permitting.

Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong by Ian Plenderleith, illustrated by Tim Bradford (Halcyon Publishing, £12.99). Pre-order here.

Monday, 9 May 2022

In the mood to chat with the crowd

Game 53, 2021-22

Yellow fields, not cards (pic: RT)
I decide to take my bike on the train to game 53, and then cycle the rest of the way at the other end, probably about 12 miles. I'm on the platform ready to go at half past noon (for a 3.15 kick-off) when all the trains disappear from the departures board, and all of a sudden there's nothing running in either direction. There's no public information, but on my phone app the trains have also been struck off. With no idea how long this will last, I decide to cycle to the match instead. It's a 40-kilometre ride.

Around half way there, pedalling into a relentless head wind, another app's telling me that I'll only arrive at the club two minutes before kick-off. I stop and call them and ask to delay the start for 15 minutes. They're jovial and co-operative and tell me not to worry. Still, focusing on just actually making it there takes my mind off the game. Plus, there have been a host of non-football matters this week that have put any thoughts about refereeing completely out of my head. By the time we finally kick off on a patchy, uneven pitch where the grass is too long, I'm completely relaxed about what may or may not happen around me today. I'm just happy to have made it here at all.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Refs are not above the game. Any game

Games 51-52, 2021-22

Everybody's game (Pic: RT)

I spend enough time on here complaining about the behaviour of players, coaches and spectators alike. Many referees, though, don't help much either when it comes to showing our profession in a good light. From my perspective as a coach, here's what I often see from the touchline:

* poor dress code, giving off a 'couldn't care less' impression. Tracksuit bottoms when it's neither really wet nor cold. Short socks, socks rolled down or wrong socks altogether. Shabby, polyester jersey from the 90s - no excuse for that as new kit's not expensive, and most clubs here pay for their refs' gear. Refs shouldn't be wearing caps, scarves or gloves unless the weather's really extreme. 

* absent communication. I coach a U11 team. They're not hard to talk to - they're still in the pre-adolescent phase of being curious, cheeky and cheerful. They love jokes, for example. They don't mind clear instructions or explanations on, say, foul throws or where to stand on free-kicks, or even why you gave a particular decision. Really, any kind of human interaction to show that we're all in this game together.

Monday, 25 April 2022

Back to reffing (and wanting to pack it all in)

Games 48-50, 2021-22

I've been out for over a month due to travel, illness and injury (Game 48, which I hobbled through following a hamstring strain on 20 minutes - "You weren't any slower than most of the refs we get," according to the home team), and in this time Fifa has instituted a new rule that the side in arrears is allowed to 1. constantly moan at the referee and 2. blame the referee should the game end in defeat. This has always been an unspoken law of football, so I'm pleased that it has now apparently been set in Zürich's cold, black ink. Both losing teams this weekend are right on top of it.

One man and his dog, later
heard to bark, "The ref's shit!"
Game 49 is a level 10 men's game in the city on a cool Friday evening. The home team has a reputation for having mastered the gifts of ref-targeting rhetoric, but I've never had a problem with them for one simple reason - up until tonight, they've always been the winning team. They're a lovely bunch of lads when things are going their way. But the psychologists among you will be staggered to hear that their behaviour takes a dive when the scoreboard's down. The tactics then play out as follows:

* Lost out in a fair but competitive fight for the ball? It can only be because your opponent fouled you. But the shyster masquerading as a neutral match official has failed to give it! Let him know what you think about that, and make sure you use plenty of hectic gestures and a raised voice just in case he's too dim to get the message.

Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Anger. Everywhere. Especially about throw-ins

Games 46-47, 2021-22

Everyone's mad about something these days. The more trivial the better. Every Saturday there are people marching through the streets of my city loudly protesting about having to wear a mask in some public places to help stop vulnerable people becoming infected with a somewhat deadly virus. In times of a brutal, senseless war and rampant, earth-destroying climate change, this is the issue these citizens are apparently mad about. All in the name of 'freedom', that vague, abused and facile justification for all kinds of entitled, small-minded, attention-seeking twattery.

On Saturday morning - on the pitch next to where I'm coaching - I see a 10-year-old goalkeeper get mad at the player who's just scored past him. He runs out of his penalty area and pushes the forward over from behind. The ref makes him apologise, which he does with very bad grace. His coach doesn't even pull him out of the game. The kid still looks mad, even after he's supposedly said sorry. Where are his Mum or Dad to give him a proper bollocking, seeing as how his coach is not concerned? Why did the ref not send him off the field to think about what he just did? Which, just to recap, was to assault an opponent in a U11 game. What will he take away from this experience other than that it's okay to get mad and physically assault your opponent when he scores against you?

Monday, 7 March 2022

When a Dad comes marching towards you after the final whistle...

Games 43-45, 2021-22

Yep, we know.

Here comes Dad. As I walk towards my changing room at the end of a very competitive boys' U13 game, I go for the direct route - avoiding the open gate where the bellicose, over-motivated parents are still gathered, and opting to duck under the fence instead. But Dad is in the midst of a determined and purposeful stride, and unless I break into an undignified trot, he's going to cut me off before I reach the changing room door. I've certainly nothing to run away from, so let's have it, Dad, what's on your tiny little mind?

"Can you give me an explanation why you gave our number 3 a five-minute time penalty?" That sounds like a reasonable request on paper, but the hectoring tone, I already know, means that Dad won't be happy with the explanation, he just wants to Have His Say.

"Sure," I say. I wait a couple of seconds to gather my thoughts, and in this short time Dad demands, "Well then, what is it?" Bear in mind, that Dad's kid's team has already won the game, 2-0. Though maybe he's still peeved that I read the riot act to the whole line of parents by exhorting them to calm down, and pointing out that the game wasn't being staged especially to mirror their genetic genius.

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

When a player’s sailing close to a red card

Game 42, 2021-22

“You wanted to kick me out of the game, didn’t you?” That’s not a quote from my latest match, but it’s one I’ve heard before. In fact, it’s from El Arbitro, a slightly dated but nonetheless absorbing documentary you can watch on YouTube that follows the now retired Spanish referee Miguel Pérez Lasa as he officiates a pair of La Liga games at the tail-end of the 2007-08 season. The words are yelled at him by Villareal’s defender Joan Capdevila when Pérez shows him a second yellow card in the final minutes of a 2-0 defeat at Sevilla. 

Capdevila could not be further off the mark. Pérez Lasa explains in the documentary how “I like to use the captains to warn players when they have a yellow card and are close to getting another one.” As the players are preparing to come out for the second half, the referee can be heard telling Sevilla’s captain Dani Alves to “calm [Federico] Fazio down”. The Argentine midfielder had already seen yellow and was looking like a candidate for dismissal. 

“A ref must know how to use the cards,” says Pérez Lasa. “You see the game heating up, so you have to calm the players down and let them know they have the wrong attitude.” Villarreal’s Capdevila first sees yellow in the 80th minute for a vehement, in-your-face protest about a penalty non-call. A few minutes later he’s lucky to avoid a second caution for sarcastic laughter and a dismissive gesture when Pérez Lasa awards Sevilla a penalty. And then he’s finally off for a blatant and deliberate handball in stoppage time that prevents a promising attack (Capdevila tries to claim it hit him on the knee). All unnecessary offences the player himself could easily have avoided, and nothing whatsoever to do with the referee wanting to ‘kick him out of the game’.