I knew it was time to retire from being an amateur league football referee when I squared up to Crown Inn’s number four outside a disciplinary hearing and challenged him to repeat the choice phrase he’d directed at me on the pitch a few weeks earlier.
He cowered into his ill-fitting suit and couldn’t look me in the eye.
“Don’t you remember?” I prompted him. “You called me a fucking prick. Then you spat at me. Go on, why don’t you say it to me here, now that it’s just you and me?”
It was at that point the door to the committee room opened and a roomful of stuffed blazers could see me leaning over Number Four in a less than conciliatory manner. I didn’t bother waiting to hear the result of the hearing…
Imagine being in the pub and a load of blokes you’ve never met before start moaning about the way you drink your beer or eat your crisps. Then it escalates and one or two of them start giving you some serious verbal abuse. One might even square up to you. In these circumstances, I think you’d be entitled to chin the fucker, don’t you?
Well, that’s more or less what happens to hundreds of amateur refs every weekend on public parks up and down the country. Some stocky short arse with bad breath thinks that because he’s wearing a football strip and has 10 of his mates on the same side, he’s entitled to be in your face and question your decisions incessantly for 90 minutes. My rather naïve belief – and my ultimate undoing outside that disciplinary hearing – was that I don’t have to accept it in a bar or other public place, so why should I have to put up with it on a football pitch? After all, if I didn’t bother turning up, there wouldn’t be a football match in the first place. But that kind of logic defeats some of the greatest minds of a generation first thing on a Sunday morning.
"Imagine being in the pub and a load of blokes you’ve never met before start moaning about the way you drink your beer or eat your crisps."
Not all amateur league players are twats. It’s probably only about 10 per cent of them, but they give the rest a bad name. And as they’re spitting and snarling in your face because you’ve just adjudged them offside, you can’t help thinking: “Actually, you’re quite a pathetic little human who probably drinks alcopops and thinks BBC Three is intellectually challenging and yet here you are picking a fight with someone you wouldn’t dare answer back if you weren’t in the company of 10 of your mates.”
As Robbie Fowler told me when I announced my plans to take up the whistle: “I really feel sorry for refs. When I’m on the pitch, I’m only playing against one team. You’re playing against two.”
It’s not just the players, it’s the subs, the manager and the spectators, they all believe they have a God-given right to heap abuse upon someone who is merely doing their job and being paid £24 for the pleasure. In one game, a spectator questioned my parentage after I’d allowed a corner to be taken when the ball was, apparently, outside the quadrant. At the next break in play, I invited him to offer me a full and unreserved apology. He responded with another choice expletive. So I told him if he and his mangy dog didn’t fuck off back at least 50 yards from the touchline, I’d abandon the game. When he realised I wasn’t joking – his team were winning at the time – he reluctantly retreated, but I could still hear him muttering obscenities from behind a hedge he could barely see over for the rest of the game.
During a top-of-the-table clash in the Forfar and District Sunday League a spectator shouted at me: “You are a fucking disgrace referee”. The ball was out of play so I took the opportunity to debate this assertion: “Who the fucking hell are you to talk to me like that?” Far from shutting him up, it provoked him – all five feet nothing of him – even more: “You can’t swear at me, you’re the referee!” You can’t swear at me! It’s OK for him to call me every name under the sun, but I wasn’t allowed to respond using similar vocabulary. That’s the Sunday league mentality in a nutshell. But here’s the punchline. I found out after the game my vocal assailant was the secretary of the League! And of course when I wrote him up in my match report, my Referees Association – who met every month in front of a podium of senior Stuffed Blazers wearing their chains of office as if they were auditioning for the Wizard of Oz – told me in no uncertain terms that it was me who was at fault.
But there is one species of weekend football participant who is worse than all the rest, who spends Monday to Friday trying to evolve a couple of extra brain cells beneath a rock in a damp, dark corner. He is the parent of little Johnny who will be turning out for his school under-12s on Saturday morning. While little Johnny will – like all the other schoolboy players - invariably be good as gold without even a hint of dissent, his dad – it’s nearly always, though not exclusively, the male half of the parents – will resemble a suppurating boil brimming with venom on the sidelines.
"Call me old-fashioned, I just didn’t like being insulted and abused by a load of strangers week after week."
I was once stalked from the pitch to the car park after an under-15s game by a bespectacled, middle-aged man who was under the impression that it had been my “pathetic display” rather than his son’s team’s woeful defending which had resulted in their 0-1 defeat. He droned on to this effect for nearly 10 minutes. It really pissed me off. To qualify as a ref, I’d had to go through ten weeks of training and a criminal record check. I’d then had to sit two exams, followed by a couple of weeks being observed by an expert. I’d had to pass regular fitness tests and had been successfully carrying out my job for the past couple of years. I’d even reached the heady heights of Assistant Referee for the Forfar Roof Truss Cup Final at Gayfield, home of the mighty Arbroath (that’s me on the left of the photo above, smiling through gritted teeth). Above all, I’d only ever striven to do an honest, competent job, even when circumstances (or lack of corner flags) conspired against me.
So it was a shock to the system to suddenly find myself on the receiving end of this sustained and ill-thought out volley of abuse, especially as I’d changed out of my work clothes and was looking forward to getting home for a beer and the live footy on Sky. It was a bit like a bus passenger following the driver home and delivering an abusive critique of his cornering skills. Or a customer giving his newsagent a mouthful because he had opened up a couple of minutes late one morning.
So that’s it, after four years with the whistle on the killing fields of Merseyside, Manchester and Scotland, I realised I didn’t have the mentality. Call me old-fashioned, I just didn’t like being insulted and abused by a load of strangers week after week. There were times when a Sunday league football match resembled a classroom of special needs kids being let loose with several pairs of scissors. When I reflexively started clenching my fists instead of reaching for my cards, I knew I had a problem.
That’s why I have the utmost admiration for Howard Webb and his ilk. How they can remain immune to all that abuse and petulance is beyond me. How Martin Atkinson kept his cool after Arsene Wenger blatantly shoved him in the back last week is a mystery to a more sensitive soul such as me. How referees can remain aloof and in control when some skinny, half-pint Argentine midfielder is yapping in their ear from start to finish is truly impressive.
If it was me, I’d deck the bastard.
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