Being followed to your car, targeted from the first minute, then harassed and threatened with physical violence, that is the reality of the situations you face as a referee at grassroots football.
FA (Football Association) data has shown that allegations of serious offences against match officials are on the rise with a total of 1451 allegations made from the 2022/23 season.
There is more scrutiny than ever on officials of all levels and abilities with increased media spotlight on the quality of refereeing. Officials at the pinnacle of elite sport can be criticised for their mistakes given what is at stake and the money they are paid to perform their role but what isn’t fair is part-time refs looking to make some money alongside their job or education, being judged by the same yardstick.
From my own experience, I can speak of times where I’ve been abused as an official from parents, managers and players alike. These incidents have occurred from under-7s games up to under-14s, which is a damning indictment of the unfair treatment and expectations on referees at lower levels.
Adrian Ford, a referee with over 1200 games under his belt, very recently experienced the worst abuse of his officiating career: “It was the first time in nearly 20 years of doing six games a weekend where I thought this isn’t worth the £35, I was ready to give up after 70 minutes due to this unprecedented level of abuse.
“It involved four players – we are encouraged to use sin bins, but it just does not work at a local level, the abuse worsens, and it is more of a hindrance than anything else. The two players I initially sin binned were badgering me every couple of minutes asking when they could return to the field, and it just created a tense atmosphere.
“I have never experienced anything like the levels of aggression and disrespect of that game, it was at a high-level of Sunday league.
“The problem I have is the laws that are being put in place to help protect officials at all levels of the game do not work. If I had not used my common sense and experience over following the letter of the law, I would not have made it back to my car in one piece, and that is the bitterly disappointing reality of being an official now.”
As someone who still officiates on a weekly basis, I can attest to the idea that you feel very isolated and alone when in the middle of the pitch. I have had many incidents where I’ve come home and been definite that I would quit refereeing because ‘it isn’t worth the abuse’, only to be talked down by the more rational thinking of my parents.
There was one incident that sticks in my mind, and it also involved a parent. From the first decision, I noticed a parent from the away side wave his hands in the air in disapproval – he was the only one to feel such a way. The game was very uneventful, there were no big calls to make, and I remember virtually nothing worthwhile of the game and after checking my match report, the home side won comfortably.
Players, both coaches and all parents from each side told me ‘Well played’, apart from the parent in question. As I began to leave the field, he approached and started berating me.
The parent opened with: “You were terrible today, truly awful, I cannot believe you call yourself a ref.”
He carried on with more abuse along the same lines and this continued for around five minutes as he followed me to my car, so I said to him: “It is an under-13s game of football, leave me alone, there is nothing for you to complain about.”
He then began to get very aggressive and swear at me, and at this point, the manager of the side caught up and began to insinuate this was my fault and that I was antagonising the parent by answering back. I had barely spoken a word and for a coach, who had just complimented my performance, to be taking the side of an increasingly aggressive parent felt very isolating and I truly believed I could be in a position of danger.
I needed to leave now as I could see my dad’s car pulling around, so I said: “I am going now but I will be reporting you and the club for your behaviour as this is unacceptable and this needs highlighting.”
The parent then attempted to square up to me and said: “You won’t dare report me and if you don’t walk away now, I am going to seriously hurt you.”
I left and swiftly compiled a match report at home to the FA detailing the incident, despite feeling rather shaken and disorientated by the whole event. I sent the report to the welfare officer of the Nottinghamshire FA, and it was forwarded to the head of welfare and support for referees at the FA, who then emailed me to ask if I was okay.
I am sure you are wondering what happened next, and the short and honest answer is…nothing, nothing at all. I never heard anything from the club, the FA regarding any updates. No further comment or apology, which really told me a lot.
I did not feel like a legitimate concern, more of an afterthought, a number on a sheet of paper but I couldn’t help wondering what if that happens to a person younger than me? What happens if it leads to physical violence? What if parents like that go unpunished?
I am sure the FA are inundated with reports and incidents, but with more of a spotlight on officials across the media, I have noticed more abuse trickling down towards me on the humble, muddy fields and pitches across Nottinghamshire. What worries me is that parents, players and coaches feel like they have the right to berate me every week and you cannot help but feel somewhat abandoned by the institution that is meant to protect you when they offer you no support or consistent communication.