Monday, 26 September 2016

Yellow leaves, yellow cards, mellow fruits and the smell of weed

Game 20, 2016-17

Yet again it's a gorgeously warm weekend, despite the first yellow notes of autumn. My game's south of the city, across the river and then five miles through the forest. The whole world's out doing normal Sunday afternoon things. Couples cross the foot bridge holding hands, on their way to an art gallery or a museum. Others lie by the water, reading books, unpacking picnics, drinking a beer. In the woods, people are dog-walking, bird-watching, horse-riding.

Where John Keats might suggest spending
 Sunday afternoons (with a fat joint).  
The strong smell of weed hits me before I see two young men finishing off a joint and flipping the tab end away. That's something else I wouldn't mind doing on a day like this. But hang on a minute, I'm already at the ground, and these young men are walking in there too, just ahead of me. One of them stretches out his arms and runs on to the field like an aeroplane. His friend laughs and then they make their way towards the away team's changing room. Well, maybe today's game will be all relaxed and mellow fruitfulness.

Yeah, right. It only takes 13 minutes before the first histrionics. Three away forwards are behind the home team's defence. One of them receives the balland he's the only one of the three to run

Friday, 23 September 2016

Is selective deafness the best approach?

Game 19, 2016-17

Uproar in the 70th. minute in the penalty area. We're waiting for the home team to take a corner kick when all of a sudden the defending lads - a boys U17 team who are seven goals down in a last-16 cup tie - erupt in outrage at "an insult" from one of their opponents. The only problem is - I didn't hear it, and even if I had heard it, I probably wouldn't have been sure which one of the players had actually said it. Play on.

"What's that you say? I'm the
best ref ever? Thanks!"
This leaves the away team with a sense of injustice for the rest of the night, enough to sway focus away from the fact they took a hammering. At the final whistle, a player makes a comment about my reffing, but I just ignore him. Can't be arsed with another red card and disciplinary report. Their coach comes over and says that though I had a good game, surely I'd heard The Insult. Everyone heard it, even over on the touchline.

I tell him that what I didn't see or hear, I can't whistle. I make my favourite point about having no linesmen. I also point out that I'm hard of hearing and wear hearing aids. He's understanding about all of this and, for once, I part on good terms with a losing coach. I mention the incident to the home coach and he says, "They always find something to moan about. Sometimes it's best not to have heard something."

There could be something in this. I've been thinking a lot about last weekend's game and how I could

Sunday, 18 September 2016

"Your refereeing's a pile of shit today!"

Games 16-18, 2016-17

"No, he's a shit ref!" the coach screams. He's not actually yelling at me this time, he's screaming at one of his own players, who's just offered me his hand after the game and said, "Well reffed." I'd already sent the coach off half an hour earlier for his seemingly addictive hysteria. Even once I'd sent him off, he kept on screaming, "You should go back to England! Go anywhere, as long as it's far away!" (Oh, my friend, you can't imagine where I'd like to be right now.) Now, after the game, he curses at me in a non-stop choleric tirade until I've disappeared into my changing room and shut the door.

The English countryside - where I'd rather
have been this afternoon.
Guess what? His team lost 1-5. It's my fault, obviously. He wasn't the only member of the home camp who was unhappy with my performance. One of his players had a predilection for using his hand to control the ball, which - as many of you will know - is contrary to the Laws of the Game. The first time was right outside his own penalty area, and when I whistled, he yelled, "Why don't you just give a penalty and be done with it?" A highly curious suggestion, but I stuck with the free-kick, which his opponents scored from anyway.

Ten minutes later and he did it again, this time to the left side of the penalty area. He loudly protested the decision once more, so I gave him a yellow card. "I don't give a shit!" he shouted. One minute later I was standing next to him, after having actually just

Friday, 16 September 2016

The best look for referees - just a little bit psycho

Game 15, 2016-17

I went for a haircut before last night's game. That might sound irrelevant, but the two events were connected on some level. I like my hair cut short, and it's been hard to find a barber's shop in this city willing to do that. They always try and talk me out of it, and when I insist, they just ignore me and finish up presenting my greying strands to me the way that they think is best. I smile, leave and look for another barber.

Unbalanced? Moi?
Yesterday I found my perfect salon - they listened, and cut my hair short. "We've had this business for 48 years, do you think we're not going to pay attention to the customer?" the barber asked me after I'd explained my dilemma. "I'll be back," I promised as I paid. And looking in the mirror, I felt ready to referee. It's not that my short haircut makes me look psycho, it's just that... well, maybe there's a Hint of Psycho. A suggestion that, under certain circumstances, I might be pushed over the edge. Beware The Unhinged Arbitrator - he's got a touch of the Collinas.

So, another men's third round Cup tie. I talk to the coaches before the game, because the away team plays higher up the pyramid in a league where they actually have assistant referees. "Remember, I have no linesmen," I say. "Please tell your players not to bother shouting about my offside decisions. Last night I showed three cards, all to players moaning about offside. I'm not going to change my mind just because they moan or yell at me, but I promise you that I will show them cards."

They nod - coaches are always very understanding people before the match. It's a pacey, hectic

Thursday, 15 September 2016

"Are you blind?" A referee responds

Game 14, 2016-17

There was a player in last night's third round City Cup tie who had a question for me. "Are you blind?" he wanted to know. A goal had just been scored by the opposition, and from his position 50 yards away in the waning daylight, the home forward maintained that it had been offside. And yet, I was allowing the goal to stand. Was there perhaps a problem with my vision?

Glasses for the referee:
available here
It's a reasonable question, right? If you're playing football and you've got a referee there, one of their core competencies (this is a concept I learned while working at John Birt's BBC in the 1990s) should be the ability to use their eyes as a decision-making aid. I considered my answer, and then summoned my personal secretary from the touchline. I dictated the following letter, which was soon enough delivered by my butler on a silver tray to the home number 10:

"Dear Home Team Forward,

Thank you so much for your query concerning my eyesight. Your compassion does you great credit as a human being. Without such touching fraternal concern, the football community would doubtless fall apart at the seams.

Fortunately, I am able to allay your fears that I am optically damaged. Let us recall that incident in the first half, for example, when you received the ball in your opponent's half. I clearly remember seeing you at least five yards offside. And I can, with total clarity, recall the image of you running over towards me in a state of uncontrolled rage at my decision to blow for an indirect free-kick. Using both

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Maybe I'm not a shit ref after all

Game 13, 2016-17

A game where nothing remotely controversial happened, and that was exactly the game I needed just over 24 hours after being threatened with a broken neck.

I'm refereeing a boys U15 cup tie, first round.  These lads are fit and fast, but they're also playing a compressed game, trying to spring the offside trap. This means lots of running for me as I not only have to keep up with a game that flows in both directions, but I'm trying to straddle the final line of defence to get the offside calls right.

So I run my ass off, and although the game's only 70 minutes long, it's another humid evening where the hard running makes it feel like I'm in a gratifying race to get back in to the whistling groove. The longer the match goes on without protests from either on or off the field, the more I can feel my brain and body becoming re-infused with self-assurance. "Maybe I'm not a shit ref after all," goes through my head.

There's just one squeak of dissent, from a pubescent home defender after the away striker has yet again slipped past their broken offside trap and finished. "Clearly offside," he mutters. "Clearly a good goal," I mutter back as I note down the scorer's number and the time of the goal, resisting the temptation to add, "And clearly crap defending." That's the end of the discussion.

Alternative pleasures to football
The away team plays in a higher division and tears the home side apart with some nice passing football, even using an out-and-out left winger who teases and terrifies the opposing right-back. The night ends with smiles and handshakes, and not a single question about a single decision. The waxing moon is a beautiful pallid pink, and on the other side of the park the kinetic, poly-hued lights of the fairground's revolving rides showcase a field of alternative pleasures. It only took me a day to become besotted with football again.

Final score: 2-6.

Monday, 12 September 2016

"I'm going to break your neck"

Game 12, 2016-17

Before this game I'd only once been threatened with violence in eight years of refereeing. I sent off the coach of a boys U11 team who went nuclear over an apparent handball and didn't want to let it go. He also didn't want to leave the field. When he finally went he asked me if he should wait by my car. I should have called off the game right there and called the police, but two teams of ten-year-old boys were staring at me and I didn't want to create any further drama or ruin their Saturday morning.

Professionals setting a model 
example (Pic: Reuters)
Yesterday's threat was less nuanced. The usual Sunday afternoon scenario: two men's teams with little ability, a very bouncy plastic pitch, temperatures in the low 30s, lots of fouls, lots of moaning (mostly at each other, some aimed at me), the odd piece of football. A bullet-headed player on the away team becomes conspicuous by his general anger. After one foul against his team he screams and whacks the ball against one of the subs' benches out of frustration (fortunately there's no one sitting on it). I show him a yellow card and he looks at me and asks with genuine bewilderment, "What's that for?"

A few minutes later, the same thing - a free kick against

Sunday, 11 September 2016

'Well reffed!' from the winning team is no compliment

Game 11, 2016-17

The two teenage players are in buoyant mood, sitting on a moped, ready to leave the ground. They're honking at some fellow players about to set off in a car. They're young, they've won, and Saturday night's about to start. They see me come out of the changing room and heading for my bike. "Referee! Referee!" they start chanting in sync with the moped's horn. I give them a wave and they scoot off to whatever awaits them - most likely girls, weed and alcohol.

Saturday night, game's over...
It beats the hell out of being stared at or abused on my way off the premises. One time I was actually escorted to my bicycle by a burly minder after showing four red cards in a single game. For weeks, when out running, I replayed those four red cards in my head time and again, and every time I came to the same conclusion - all four were justified, even though showing four red cards in a single game was more than I'd shown in my first four years of refereeing. But that was in another country with a completely different football culture.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The referee's fear of the penalty

Game 10, 2016-17

Four minutes to go, the score's 2-3 in a furious and foul-ridden boys' under-17 game, and I blow for a penalty to the home team. It's an unnecessary foul from the defender, who stands his ground and then backs into a forward as he's jumping for the ball. The forward goes arse over tit and lands in a heap. I'm five yards away - a clear foul, a clear penalty.

Yet again, the ref uses his special powers to force
 a defender to commit a foul in the penalty area.
The away team sees it differently. Five players surround me and yell. Their bench is up on its feet, expressing solidarity through raised arms and rubicund outrage. It's been like this the whole second half, from both teams. Amazingly, I don't change my mind. I show a yellow to the loudest dissenter and they back off. The home team converts the penalty.

I'm not fond of penalties. So often the foul doesn't fit the punishment. Once I was reffing a men's game and a defender committed a soft foul at the top corner of the penalty area, seven minutes after kick-off. I blew for the spot kick, and the captain pleaded, "You can't give that, we've only just kicked off!" In a way, I sympathised. I'm sure he and his defender would have liked to go back ten seconds to make it not happen. His team didn't deserve to go 1-0 down for such a pointless infringement.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Don't let your mind wander during one-sided games

Game 9, 2016-17

Boys under-17, it's the first round of the Cup on a close late summer's night. I can already tell by watching the away team as I warm up that this game's not going into extra time. The goalkeeper's not a goalkeeper, they only have eleven players, and there's a certain lack of intensity to their pre-match drills compared with the well synchronised home team. Okay, make that a complete lack of intensity.

Don't think of beauty sleep 
while you're reffing
The away team play with one forward, a striker with the mobility of a cruise ship in a swamp. The passes played up to him seem clouded in a heavy pessimism as they leave the defender's foot. They come straight back and the pressure is unforgiving. The home team's goalkeeper doesn't get a touch of the ball until the 30th. minute, by which time his side is already 4-0 up.

The temptation for the referee is to switch off and discount the game. To start planning in my head what I'm going to be doing tomorrow. To make a mental list of the 92 English league clubs, and to tally how many of their grounds I've been to. To name all the Tanya Donelly solo albums.

You have to remember to keep concentrating, though, because this game is still important to all the 22 players. The lads on the home team - fit, slick, and focused - are all playing for their starting spots. Against an opponent like this, they sense the chance to get on the score sheet. Every pass, run and tackle is a stage in their development and a snapshot of their youth. Maybe by tomorrow I won't remember the central midfielder's cracking shot from 30 yards out, but he might re-live it for years.

Their opponents too never give up for one second, despite being outclassed in every conceivable way. One midfielder has no football talent whatsoever, but doesn't stop running for the whole 80 minutes. When he finally makes a successful clearance late in the game, I almost cheer out loud. At one point, his side string together five successive passes, and their coach and some of the parents yell out praise and encouragement.

There are no yellow cards, and only one murmur of dissent. Honestly, the away team seems to enjoy the game as much as their victorious opponents. Final score: 14-0.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Showing the yellow to a fellow ref

Game 8, 2016-17

I used to run a football team for mature men. Like every team, it had its share of hotheads. If they didn't fall out with referees and opponents, then they fell out with each other. I'd have to reconcile an economist, who had screamed for the ball out on the right wing, with a management consultant who had refused to pass to him because he didn't like being screamed at. Rather than giving the economist the ball, the management consultant had kicked it into touch and squared up to him instead.

The easy way to end an argument
At half-time or after the match I'd find myself in the awkward position of taking these professional men - in their 40s and older - to one side and telling them off. The day after one such incident the management consultant wrote me an email saying he would no longer be playing on the team because he didn't appreciate being treated like a child. I didn't respond to the email because the retort was too obvious - if you don't want to be treated like a child, then don't act like one to start with. (The other obvious retort was: good riddance, you stroppy twat.)

I was reminded of this during yesterday's game - the familiar
scenario of two men's reserve teams on a crappy old plastic pitch out on the edge of town.