Friday, 15 December 2017

The Gentleman is a Dope and other jazz records for referees

The winter break is here. It's time to count my earnings. Every week, rather than allow my chiselling compensation to be swallowed up by the daily cash flow of my wallet (pills, thrills, hearing aid batteries etc.), I drop the risible €22 in to my Manchester United 1977 FA Cup Winner's souvenir mug. Every few months I take Mrs RT out for a meal (because she never complains that I spend my Sundays being a human sponge for choleric inadequates), or I indulge myself in the sort of stuff that people of a certain age cannot resist: superfluous gadgets and old vinyl.

Receptacle for a mug's wages
There's a second hand record shop I often cycle past on my way to and from games, and inevitably I wonder why I'm not in there perusing forgotten Meisterwerke instead of pedalling off in to the wind and the rain to voluntarily face the wrath of athletically backward men operating on a collectively shortened fuse. Last week, though, in the comfort of knowing I won't be refereeing for at least another six weeks, I delayed a long overdue office clear-out in favour of finally stepping inside, the wages of abuse burning a hole in my jeans pocket.

I don't regret the amount I squandered because this turned out to be the finest record shop in the world (and I've seen a few). It's small, but friendly. Each one of the three clerks made sure to welcome me, and one gave me a quick orientation course before disappearing to make me a cup of coffee. Was there anything I wanted to hear? Sure, stick on this Kenny Burrell Japanese

Sunday, 3 December 2017

What to do if a player throws a snowball at a coach

Game 29, 2017-18

Last spring at one of our regular referees' meetings aimed at our ongoing edification, I presented a critique of our online test on the Laws of the Game, where the object seems to be not to test you and make you a better referee, but to catch you out and go, "Ha!" As an example of the multiple stupid questions we are obliged to research and correctly answer once a month, I cited the following puzzler: "During a game on a snow-covered pitch with the ball in play, one of the players throws a snowball at the opposing team's coach. What is the referee's decision?"

White lines - don't do
 it! Bravely, we did.
Why is this such a stupid question? I asked rhetorically. First, there's a long winter break in this country, so you rarely if ever officiate matches in the snow. Second, due to global warming it hardly snows during the winter months any more at all, let alone outside of the winter break. Third, a game on the hypothetically snow-covered pitch would probably be called off anyway. And finally, in the very unlikely event that you ref a game on a snow-covered pitch, what are the odds of a player throwing a snowball at the opposing team's coach?

The answer to the question is clearly 'red card' for the offending player (and even then it depends on context - the question doesn't allow for the fact they might be arsing around). But the monthly test wants to know more than that. What's the re-start? Drop-ball, direct or indirect free-kick? Get that part wrong and you lose both points - you don't even get a single point for getting the 'red card' part right.

The problem with our online test, I argued to my doubtless captive audience of colleagues, is that I will never remember the correct answer to such an obscure question. And should it somehow ever happen, not a single other person present will have a fucking clue if I've re-started the game in the

Monday, 27 November 2017

Spectators racially abusing a player - how should a ref react?

Game 28, 2017-18

When a player swears at someone in the crowd, it's supposed to be an automatic sending-off. Just before half-time in yesterday's game, the away team's left-winger is standing in front of a bunch of kids, aged around 5-12 years old, telling them furiously to "piss off" just before he takes a throw-in. I leniently show him the yellow card, but he barely seems to notice, he's still so steamed. Coming off the field at the break, I ask him what the problem was.

Lenient yellow proved to be a lucky call...
"One kid was spouting off anti-semitic insults," he says. "A ten-year-old kid!" That's problematic, as the home side is ethnically north African, while the visiting side is the city's principle Jewish club. I rescind the yellow card, and am very happy that I hadn't shown him the red. I also ask him to avoid slanging matches and come straight to me if there are any further incidents in the second half. Then together with a reluctant steward, I oversee the expulsion of the kids from the ground.

The game itself is fine, for once - the few moments of tension quickly de-escalate either through my intervention or the conciliatory behaviour of the players. Are they perhaps overtly aware of the potential uproar should there be any nasty incidents

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The curse of neutrality - referees as fans

Lincoln City v Coventry City, Nov 18, 2017

Almost 36 years to the day before this game I was watching the same home team, Lincoln City, in the same stadium, Sincil Bank. I was on my own, and standing on a long since demolished section of terrace close to the player’s tunnel. I’d never stood there before and I never stood there again, but when the final whistle went I moved close to the tunnel to take a closer look at my heroes as they left the field following a 2-1 victory.

A game I was at just
36 years ago.
You’d think the fans would have been happy at the result, and I believe that most of them were. One man was genuinely furious, though. As the three referees approached the tunnel, I could see him jumping up and down in anticipation. As they walked down the tunnel he yelled, “Bloody disgraceful, referee, you’re an absolute bloody disgrace.”

The referee’s performance had been entirely unremarkable.

Fast forward three dozen years and I’m standing at almost exactly the same spot, except on the other side of the tunnel - it’s the first time I’ve been this close since that game in 1981. This time Lincoln have deservedly lost 2-1, but myself and several fans are applauding them off the field for their effort, and because they played their part in a fast and entertaining game of football.

Then the three referees approach the exit. In my view they have done well to keep a furious party under control, even as they followed the modern trend for ignoring several clear cases of pushing, shoving and holding. One man among us, however, is livid. As soon as the officials are within earshot,

Monday, 13 November 2017

When your family comes to watch you ref

Game 27, 2017-18

There’s a short history of family members coming to watch me referee over the past decade. The pioneer was my father-in-law, who watched me in action all day at a youth tournament in the US a few years ago. On the ride home, he was resolutely silent. He remained so until two days later when we were watching a game on television. Then he remarked: “This referee’s a lot like you. Very frugal with the whistle.”

Bright shirt on a grey day (pic: N Lotze)
Last year, Mrs RT came along to a men’s game, bringing a book in the expectation that she would be bored. She never even opened the book, being in equal parts horrified, fascinated and entertained by all that unfolded before her, with her husband the centre of attention for 90 minutes. For the following two weeks she followed me around the flat shouting, “Hey ref, what the fuck is that dirty fork doing on the draining board? And where the fuck’s my dinner? Come on, referee!”

This weekend it was my youngest daughter’s turn. She was telling us about an exercise for her design course where she had to take a photograph to illustrate an article for which the students only knew the headline: “Compassion is an unlimited resource.” Oh yes, come along to my game tomorrow, I said, you’re sure to see plenty of examples of

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Stop screaming at kids. And at referees. In fact, just stop screaming

Game 26, 2017-18

I coach a boys U7 team, and on Saturday morning we had a home game in the Fair-Play League. I am very hands-off and let them scurry around after the ball, backed by lots of encouragement and very little guidance. I stick closely to the League's instructions to keep my team's parents well away from the field of play.

Sticking it to The Man
The away team, however, allows a father to stand behind one goal coaching his son. The kid has the ball in his hands and kicks it straight to one of my players. The father screams at his son for the mistake. My player shoots, the goalie saves (very well), then another one of my players nets the rebound. Making the score... it doesn't matter. We're not supposed to count the score. The father is now gesturing emphatically and screaming at a whole bunch of wee lads: "Where was the defence?"

His two coaches are doing nothing, so I walk up and ask him what on earth he's doing yelling at five- and six-year-old kids. He suddenly looks ashamed, apologises, and then moves away from the goal. Afterwards, he comes to shake my hand and makes an excuse about it having been "in the heat of the game". I'm so irritated by this remark that I just ignore him. Though in hindsight I wish I'd said,

Sunday, 29 October 2017

"Someone's playing, Lord, kum-ba-yah"

Game 25, 2017-18

I last saw today's home club in March when I red-carded three of their players in a particularly ugly game. I concluded the disciplinary report with a lengthy musing on why teams like this bother to play sport at all, some of which read:

Message not received last time around.
"The way [the away team] played football today is an absolute mystery to me. Why bother playing if you're going to moan at your own players, your opponents and the referee all game long? What's the point of playing sport when, instead of reaping any joy from the game, you only seem to suffer pain? The disgraceful behaviour of the away team ensured that today there was not even the slightest trace of fair play, sportsmanship, enjoyment or respect on display."

I never heard anything back from the local FA (you never do - unless it's something bad), so when I received today's fixture I was interested to see if anything had changed in the club's playing culture. At the same time, I'd be lying if I said I was looking forward to the game. In fact, I mope around all morning wishing that I could go back to bed. The weather's rough, wet and windy. I'm suffering from

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Referee - "Judge, Jury and Executioner"

Game 24, 2017-18

On Friday I took my niece to see the German women’s team play Iceland in a World Cup qualifier in Wiesbaden. Just as half-time arrived, the sun began to go down directly opposite us, shining directly into our eyes. So we moved to the two-thirds empty West Stand opposite so that we could watch the second half in more comfort.

The sun sets on a German
 defeat. Note empty seats
 in the background.
At least, we tried. But the steward wouldn’t let us into the West Stand because we didn’t have the right tickets (though there was no price difference). Our story of the setting sun did not move him. Neither, I suspect, would a crazed gunman on the loose in the East Stand or an incoming North Korean missile have stopped him telling us several times, “I have my instructions.”

We returned to our original seats and watched the rest of the game with our right hands covering our eyes (and I blamed Germany’s first loss in a qualifier since 1998 on the bad karma generated by one of their overly conscientious stewards). Later, Mrs RT and all my in-laws were in agreement about one thing – I was in the wrong. The steward was only doing his job. I argued that the situation called for flexibility – that particular section of the stand was around 90% empty (see picture left), and clearly neither I nor my ten-year-old niece were intending to go in here and start a riot.

What does this have to do with refereeing? The next day I arrive at my game – a boys U15 friendly – to be told that the away team’s coach has been called suddenly to work, that he has all the team’s

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The culture of anger and violence has become the norm

Sometimes after a bad game you can't help but thinking, "Maybe it's just me. Maybe I have no control over these games. Every other amateur game in the country went fine today except mine. I just have a way of winding players up. I really am getting all the decisions wrong. The players are right - I need new specs."

No ball, no whistle, no game
This is when sharing experiences with other referees becomes of paramount importance. I won't lie - in general, refs are a weird bunch. They don't necessarily have a great sense of humour, they are very rules-oriented (and thus rarely of a radical bent), and they are not particularly ready to open up or criticise authority. Which is a shame, because dialogue is essential to help us communicate what's going on out there, and how we can act to improve the levels of sportsmanship in the amateur game.

So whenever I encounter a fellow ref, it's usually me who does the running. "Where are you from?" and, "How long have you been reffing?" are the two standard opening questions of any polite conversation between two officials. Then I follow up with the question that takes us to a higher level

Monday, 9 October 2017

A straight red card rarely calms a game

Games 22-23, 2017-18

Fifteen minutes to go, and I'm surrounded by four people, all of them screaming at me. One of them is the home number 9 I've just sent off for stamping on an opponent, a crime he vigorously denies. The other three belong to his team's touchline entourage - they may be coaches, spectators or even the stewards. I'm not looking at them, I'm staying calm and ordering them to move away.

Traffic wardens - card-issuing
enforcers about as popular as referees.
There's nothing like a straight red card to ignite the tinders of outrage at the referee's very existence. Only when there's been a fist thrown does the miscreant usually accept his fate and walk away. For filthy fouls and acts of minor, stupid and unnecessary violence like this one, the punishment administered is apparently beyond the realms of human belief. How, how, how could I possibly send this player off? "I was only going for the ball!"

Here's another club where I'm making few friends for applying the Laws of the Game. This must be how traffic wardens feel every day. The red card has been hanging over an intensive, angry, foul-plagued game all afternoon. I've been appeasing conflicts throughout the second half, exhorting disputatious

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A relegation fight on 80s astro-turf - as bad as it gets

Game 21, 2017-18

Just how bad is it possible for a game of football to be? Today, the ideal conditions are all in place. The home team is bottom of the table with zero points after nine games. The likewise winless away team is one place above them with two points, and we're playing on one of those bald, hard, 1980s astro-turf surfaces you occasionally get out in one of the city's satellite towns, where time does indeed feel locked inside that plastic, Day-Glo decade.

Man of the match
The visitors bag a fortuitous early goal when a scuffed shot finds its way into the corner of the net, more thanks to the intrinsically malevolent bounce of the pitch than any skill on the part of the shooter. It turns out to be the most accurate attempt on goal all afternoon. The remaining 83 minutes are for connoisseurs of random pinball - though Tommy Daltrey's deaf, dumb and blind kid would have played more accurate passes than all these lads put together.

In their favour, they're a sporting bunch. Decisions are once or twice politely questioned rather than loudly scorned, other than by a female follower of the away team, who sees my throw-in calls as reason to squawk so vehemently about my crass incompetence that I'm tempted to turn around and parrot her complaints right back at her. That would be satisfying, but unprofessional, and as she's the only irritant during

Monday, 25 September 2017

"What I notice now in the game is a complete lack of respect"

Game 20, 2017-18

I'm sitting reading the walls in the referee's changing room before a men's first team game that has taken me some way out of town. There are four framed certificates on display that honour one man's devotion to the game - a referee who's a member of the home club, and who has put in 50 years of service to the amateur game. I mentally salute his devotion. I'm only in my tenth season, but I feel like I've been reffing much, much longer.

What Scots are good at.
A few minutes later, having inspected the pitch, I'm warming up close to the touchline when an elderly gentleman ambles by and begins to chat about refereeing. I soon work out that he's the ref whose certificates are on my changing room wall. He tells me how he skipped the country when he was young to avoid doing military service and travelled the world. He ended up playing for a Scottish ex-pat club in Adelaide. "Boy, could they drink," he says. "Every last one of them."

He also has a view on the problems referees face now compared with when he started out. "What I notice now throughout the game is a lack of respect," he says thoughtfully, and with some sadness. "A complete lack of respect." I agree, although I don't mention that I've a blog full of stories to back us up.

Played the advantage,
goal was scored. Yay!
The game starts well in the fourth minute when I play advantage after a dirty tackle, and the home team races up field to take the lead. I've written before about this being the closest a ref can come to feeling like they've scored a goal, and I have to really focus on not smiling as I note down the goal-scorer and the time of the goal. There's a crowd of 40-50 people and they all shout out, "Well played, ref!" (I just made that last bit up - in fact they spend the entire game incredulously contesting every last call against the home side.)

A quiet first half ends 1-1, but there are a number of notable incidents after the break:

Monday, 18 September 2017

Danny, the new darling of discipline!

Games 18-19, 2017-18

In Saturday's U15 game, I swear I didn't make a single mistake, although the conditions were perfect - bright sunlight on an artificial field in a league of above average quality. Even the coaches on the team that lost 8-0 said, "Well reffed," although when games are this one-sided the intensity takes a dive. You're relieved at the hassle-free game, but you also think, "Well, I'm not going to remember this one in a week's time."

The fat, the thin and the knackered - back in
the reserves (Pic: Westfälische Nachrichten)
On Sunday it's back to the familiar proving grounds of the city's reserves leagues. The men who only play for fun, but never seem to be having any. The average, the bad and the hopeless. The unsightly, the unfit and the sporadically unhinged. Speaking of whom, there on the bench as substitute and assistant coach of the home team is my old friend Danny, whose antics on the touchline at a youth team game early last year earned him an ordering off from me, and a fine of €150 from a disciplinary hearing. Along with a stern verdict from the jury that they didn't want to see his sorry, scrawny ass ever again.

"New club, Danny?" I ask as he hands me the player passes. "What happened - did your old team finally kick you out?"

"Ha ha, no," he replies. "I'm still coach of the U19s there." As we're so chummy these days, I don't ask him if he's had any trouble with referees lately.

Danny's team captain remembers me too from previous games, and it seems to be a fond memory, for once. "You're from England, right? Or is it Holland?" In fact we're all smiles at the kick-off after I give my 'imaginary linesmen' speech and one player even shakes hands with my non-existent

Monday, 11 September 2017

One wonderfully peaceful half of football. And then...

Games 16-17, 2017-18

The away team, like many in this city, has a reputation. The stats tell me that they've already picked up three red cards in their opening four games. The home team, meanwhile, is top of the table with maximum points (no reds). There are rarely any surprises in amateur football, so I'm expecting an easy home win, but with the potential for their opponents to turn defeat into drama.

Minute's silence. Another 90 would be nice. 
The guests are wearing black armbands and ask for a minute's silence because the father of one of their players had died during the previous week. Everyone's fine with that, and we duly observe a solemn 60 seconds. Although the mourning side take an undisputed yellow card three minutes in for a tactical foul, the rest of the half is as peaceful as they come - very few infringements, and not a murmur of complaint.

In my mind, I'm already thinking, "If they continue like this, I'll note in the match report what a pleasure it was to referee two such sporting sides." I've only ever done this twice. You'd think I'd know better. Because it turns out that the cut-off point for honouring the dead is exactly 45 minutes.

The away side are deservedly 4-1 down at half-time, but as soon as the second half is under way they lift their embargo on behaving like twats and start to complain. I immediately tell them that the first half was just fine, thanks, so we don't need to start dissenting now. The number 8 with the suspect 'populist' hair-cut, who is standing right next to me, cups his ear and says sarcastically,

Monday, 4 September 2017

Big news: there's no Law-endorsed right to organise a wall

Game 15, 2017-18

The home team is leading 1-0, and there are two minutes to go in this boys’ U15 game. After a six-player stramash in the arc outside the penalty area, I award a free-kick against the home team directly in front of their goal. They’ve been in the mood to moan all through the second half, encouraged by their collectively vociferous coaches and parents, but then they quickly realise that they’d better set about organising their wall.

Wall organised - but be quick about it
One of their players has already placed himself right in front of the ball, effectively neutralising the chance of a quick free-kick. There’s no punishment for this (if the kick is taken and he moves to block the ball, then I can I give a yellow card and award a re-take), and the only thing I can do is ask the away team if they would like me to mark out a wall. They duly say, “Yes”, and so I tell them to wait for the whistle.

Before we go any further, let me just say this is one of the least known rules of the game, even among men’s teams, but especially among youth teams. Every week I’m confronted with players whose side has just conceded a free-kick telling me that they would like the time and leisure to form a wall. And I tell them it’s not their decision, it’s up to the team which has the free-kick. And if the other team is smart

Thursday, 31 August 2017

"Let them know you're pissed off!" A Ref's Guide to Anger Management

Game 14, 2017-18

I'm faced with anger almost every game, and the general idea is that I, as the referee, must remain a steady rock of calm amid a thunderous sea of foaming fury. Yet there are times when it pays to show that you are, at the very least, mildly irritated. Here's my guide to anger management while refereeing:

The bloody huddle: for
 Christ's sake, get on with it.
1. Before the game. Both teams should have signed off on their final line-ups half an hour before kick-off, and the home side must produce a print-out of the teams for me to check against their player passes. This happens maybe once or twice a season. Upon arrival I always introduce myself to both coaches with a smile and a handshake, but I become less genial the closer we are to kick off and the coaches are still faffing around with passes and mobile phones. Less than 15 minutes before kick-off, I become exasperated. And if it turns out I can't check the passes until half-time then I pass into 'stern lecture' mode to let the wayward coach know I've already marked his card as incompetent.

2. Just before kick-off. You know the scene. Hands shaken, coins tossed, we're ready to start, but one of the teams has hunched into a huddle for a doubtless inspiring last-minute speech from the captain. That's okay, if they keep it short, but often they don't. I give a double-blast of the whistle to let them know that I don't like waiting around. Then sometimes there's one of those stupid, ritualistic

Monday, 28 August 2017

"Meet my imaginary linesmen"

Games 12-13, 2017-18

"We were very impressed with your pre-match speech," says the steward. "We've never heard anything like that before." Look, I don't want to show off here, but it's extremely rare as a referee in this country to have 'impressed' someone. At all. So forgive me for cherishing the moment and going into some more detail.

Fictional linesmen - marginally
better than none at all.
I've tried lots of different pre-match speeches down the years. In the US there was a particularly difficult boys' "elite" league where all the players had supposedly signed a Code of Conduct. During the games, though, there was little sign that they'd taken it on board - among refs it was known as the Whiney Suburban Brats' League. I ended up taking a printout of the Code to games, holding it up to the players, and telling them I was sure that over the coming 90 minutes they would all be taking very seriously the document that they'd read, signed and promised to honour. It was surprisingly effective.

In my current country, I've tried being nice and I've tried to be stern. Any nods or even short applause following these speeches were frequently rendered laughable by the ensuing game (see previous blog entries). I've also tried keeping it very short: "So, let's play. Good luck and enjoy the game." That particular speech will appear in the satirical version of My Life as a Referee.

So here is my latest attempt to set the tone (the one that apparently impressed yesterday's home officials), which I've used twice this week as I stood in front of both teams at the half-way line ready to take the field: "I'd like to introduce my Assistant Referees today, Mr X [I point to my left] and Ms Y

Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Referee's Informal Guide to Handball

Game 11, 2017-18

This boys U19 first round cup tie is not untypical. I reckon there are about a dozen appeals for handball throughout the evening. Most of them I ignore. The only good thing you can say about the handball rule is this: it's so open to interpretation that even the players appealing for it rarely do so with complete conviction. It's often more of a hopeful question, as opposed to the raging demand you get with fouls and offside calls.

An honest player makes an honest appeal
Like snowflakes, no two cases of handball are ever the same. It's one of the most difficult calls to make, but one of the easiest to turn down. After most appeals, the game moves quickly on, and even if a player follows up at the next stop in play, all you have to say is, "Ball to hand" or "There was no handball." Or touch your shoulder or upper chest to indicate that the ball was not, as one side is claiming, controlled by the upper arm.

I don't really blame the players for all the appeals. Shouting "Handball!" is instinctive, and if it prompts the referee to blow for a free-kick, then why not try? It's not particularly sporting behaviour, but then what kind of idiot expects that any more?

The appeal is particularly impassioned when a shot is fired towards goal and hits a defender in the penalty area. It can hit the defender's head, thigh, stomach, back or arse, and there will still almost

Monday, 21 August 2017

Why refs should not be bullied into changing decisions

Game 10, 2017-18

Two more excitable teams who are poor at football but extremely talented at fouling and shouting. You get the picture by now. Things start out calm at 3pm with the score at 0-0, defenders peacefully passing the ball among themselves to the sound of bird-song. We end the afternoon with bruised shins, tempers AWOL, faces as hot and purple as a deranged radish, and so many unhappy players that a better man than I would have summoned them all to the centre circle for group therapy.

The captains at kick-off.
And today I wonder if the problem really does, in a way, lie with the referees. The sporting culture in this city is so messed up that many now seem too scared to hand out the necessary punishments. Players increasingly think they can get away with anything. Here's what I witness before my game:

When I arrive at the sports ground, there are two games still going on. While warming up behind one of the goals, I watch as a defender trips an opponent just inside the penalty area. The referee correctly awards the spot-kick, but a huge number 13 on the defending side begins to remonstrate. He is a foot taller than the ref, and towers over him, pointing at the spot where the foul

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Reffing like a UN envoy - ignored, deplored, reviled

Game 9, 2017-18

Three days after being assaulted for the first time as a referee, you'd hope for a gentle game. Maybe a friendly in a U9 league where both teams have kittens for mascots. As it is, I realise that weeks ago I was assigned to a City Cup first round game between two teams of distinct ethnic origins. They hail from a part of the world far from my city, and have been in conflict for well over a century. It's the luck of the draw.

Please can I ref
a game in the Cute
 Kittens League?
It's due to get dark around half-time, so the home team asks if we can play the first half on their smooth and kempt grass field (no floodlights), then move to the neglected cinder pitch, weeds and all (but with floodlights), at half-time. The answer: no. So they haul the wheelie out of the shed, paint the lines, and clear away the debris from a storm the night before. What follows on this decrepit surface is the most intense and challenging game I've ever refereed.

There are so many fouls that it's hard to recall more than a handful of clean challenges throughout the entire match. I play advantage multiple times just to keep the game flowing. This irritates the away team in particular when they don't make good on the advantage. Yet in between the dirty play there are some cracking goals - these are good teams. We go in at half-time with the score at 3-2 and a count of three yellow cards.

"You're as much use as a UN resolution, ref!"
I fear, though, that they are just getting started, and I'm right. In the second half the game remains closely fought, and highly fractious. I run around putting out fires with a water bucket like a lone United Nations envoy in the middle of a city under siege. My appeals for calm and a steady stream of yellow cards for foul play and dissent are about as effective as a UN resolution drafted and passed in faraway New York. There is something going on here far beyond my remit, on the brink of an explosion - five times I have to separate players or groups of players yelling and squaring up to each other. A chat with both captains makes no difference at all.

I don't help matters by making a significant mistake. I let play continue after an aerial challenge between the home team's robust centre back and the away side's already fuming centre forward. The striker goes down with a dramatic yell (not for the first time - every foul in this game is a short and

Monday, 14 August 2017

"Your refereeing's shit!" Then a flying shirt in my face

Games 7-8, 2017-18

Anyone who's ever had a job has fantasised about just walking out and sticking a finger up to their boss or manager as they leave. It's how I feel at half-time of the fractious men's game I'm reffing on a warm Sunday afternoon. Of course, just abandoning a game at half-time would mean giving up refereeing for good, but still I'm tempted. Just to see their faces when you say, "You can referee your own fucking game, you wankers. And you're all shit at football too."

That day may come, though I'm not quite ready for it yet. Still, If I'd known how the second half  was going to play out, it might well have happened.

After 25 minutes, a
gentle appeal for quiet.
Some times you referee a team that commits lots of niggly, deliberate fouls, then complains every time you blow the whistle. It's not a loud enough complaint to draw a yellow card, rather it's a deliberate campaign to intimidate you and make you feel insecure. In this game, it's the policy of both teams. After 25 minutes, as the ball's being fetched for a corner kick, I announce loudly:

"Hey ref! Hey ref! Hey ref! It's all I'm hearing. Shut up and play the game."

They duly ignore me, so in the next ten minutes I yellow card the next two complaints (away team) and the next two fouls (both home team). I also twice warn the home coach for yelling at me from the touchline. This works much better than my appeal for sanity. Half-time: 0-3. The only major decision is a penalty

Monday, 7 August 2017

No room for manoeuvre - a push is a foul

Game 6, 2017-18

There’s a very straightforward clause of Law 12 stating that it’s an offence to push an opponent. This means, quite simply, that if referees see you pushing an opponent, then they should blow for a direct free kick. It’s astonishing how few players understand this, though it could be a consequence of too many referees failing to penalise it.

Unrequited shove - too often
players get away with pushing.
It’s easy to identify a push when two players are, say, jumping for a high ball, or when a shove or even a subtle nudge to the back sends an opponent sprawling on the floor. The problems arise when two players are running side by side and the upper limbs start coming out left and right. Often it’s best to let them have a go at each other until one or the other emerges with the ball. But when it’s only one player pushing the other (rather than fairly using their shoulder), I always blow for a foul. And the reaction is almost always the same – ruddy-faced outrage.

During yesterday's season-opener in a men’s reserve league, I pulled up the home team’s number 4 for exactly such an infringement. He complained loudly, so I explained the call. “But this is football!” he protested. Meaning, I presume, that referees let him get away with it every week, and he sees

Monday, 31 July 2017

Debating DOGSO

Games 3-5, 2017-18

The spectator seems genuinely angry, as they often generally are on their way out of the ground after a home defeat. "That should have been a red card," he huffs at me with hot conviction. I'm standing at the tournament official's table, getting my cash, and don't bother responding. Right after the final whistle is generally not a good time for rational discussion.

DOGSO - much dissected and
discussed among reffing nerds
"Bet he's never refereed a game in his life," mutters the official. I laugh and give one of my standard replies: "Everyone's an expert. Everyone." The tournament's sponsored by a local bank, and there's decent cash involved for the winners. This is a welcome contribution to the sporting community, but not much help when it comes to sporting perspectives.

At the time of the non-red card, the host team had been 0-2 down in the final, their third (shortened) game of the day. It was just after half-time, and one of their forwards had successively shrugged off a couple of challenges on his way toward the penalty area. Just inside the arc, while shaping up to shoot, he was deliberately brought down from behind

Friday, 28 July 2017

A reminder that football is a human right

Game 2, 2017-18

Some of the grounds I referee at are located near accommodation for refugees. A couple of seasons back I walked into a dressing room looking for the home team's captain, and found a man from the container houses next door on his knees praying to Mecca. It must be both strange and challenging when you've been forced to swap your normal house of worship for the grubby tiles of a seventh level football team. Five times a day.

Last night I was refereeing a thankfully peaceful, and mainly uneventful friendly game. My brief pre-match lecture stating that I've a zero tolerance policy when it comes to dissent seemed to work. It's not often I say this, so it may be worth reiterating before every game, though the key will be to follow through. Over the 90 minutes, a few short, sharp words were enough to keep things calm when trouble twice vaguely threatened. No cards, no controversy.

So, nothing much to say about this match. Except that at one point, when standing on the end-line for a corner kick, I noticed three men from the nearby refugees' home watching the game from behind the railing. They were all holding plastic bags with a small amount of groceries. They watched the action intently.

Heavy and heavily
influential book.
Sport, I've long contended, attracts us not just because we want to see which team or individual wins, but also because it represents a benchmark of normality. Where games are being played, wars are not usually being fought. At a recent literary event in London, I was standing before a room of people where I had five minutes to explain why they should crowd-fund my next (possible) book, The Quiet Fan. I held up my battered copy of Purnell's 1972 Encyclopaedia of Association Football (my first ever football book, which I received at the age of seven), and nervously babbled something like this:

"When I first got this book I ravenously scanned its pages of stats and began to memorise the results of historic cup finals. I couldn't understand, though, why there were no results for the years 1916-19, or for the period 1940-45. What terrible things could possibly have been happening during those times that stopped football being played?"

Because as long as there are games going on, life feels stable enough. Organised sport is only

Monday, 24 July 2017

Bad behaviour in a pre-season friendly - here we go again

Game 1, 2017-18

In the country where I live the football press is pregnant with pre-season flam. It can't wait to give birth to the new season, but for now is hampered by interviews in which every coach, player and manager is obliged to say that this year they have a really strong squad, and that all the lads worked very hard during training camp. The clubs are all in such good shape that clearly no one will be getting relegated next spring.

Cycling towards my first game of the season, I wish that referees could be afforded a platform for such inane optimism. "This year," I would tell the reporter from The Referee's Recorder, "I think that all players will be so focused on improving their game that they will allow the referees free rein to call the game as they see fit. We will see unprecedented levels of sportsmanship, and I doubt that I will have to whistle a single foul all season, let alone show a yellow card."

In fact what dulls my mood on a warm, breezy day is the prospect of all the inevitable cards and complaints over the coming months. This opener is a friendly game, but we've all learnt by now that classifying a football match as 'friendly' is like calling the civil war in Yemen a temperate discussion ground for some minor differences in interpreting the word of the Koran. Players don't tend to end the afternoon by swapping phone numbers and arranging to go out for a beer next week sometime.

Indeed, with 20 minutes to go I have to take both captains to one side and offer them a choice. Either I

Friday, 7 July 2017

Analysing IFAB's June report - the general verdict: Yes!

The report last month by the International Football Association Board on forthcoming trials and discussions with regard to the Laws of the game was met with customary scepticism by an instinctively conservative football press. Change? We can't be doing with that! And yet IFAB has been slated down the years for being exactly that - too stuck in its ways to make anything besides fussy, pernickety adjustments to the Laws that have served to confuse rather than clarify.

Elleray - progressive report (pic: Fifa.com)
All that has changed under the tutelage of former referee David Elleray, who has been prepared to listen and discuss. He sees the need for change, while accepting that this involves a long process of trial and debate. The report contains some excellent suggestions. First, let's take a look at some of the laws that will be tried out in FIFA tournaments and offer simple verdicts - Yes, No or Maybe:

1. Showing the red card (RC) and yellow card (YC) to team officials for irresponsible behaviour.
Verdict: Yes. There is no good reason not to do this. Coaches don't always understand the three-stage system of verbal warnings leading to dismissal. Most have never even heard of it.

"Me? I would
 
never waste time?"
2. A substituted player being required to leave the field at the nearest point on the touchline or goal line (to reduce the time lost/’wasted’ by the player walking slowly to the halfway line).
Verdict: Yes. Again, why not? Every weekend we see foot-dragging as players leave the field, shaking hands with the ref, applauding the crowd and arguing with opponents telling them to get a move on and leave the field.

3. At a goal kick and defending team free kick in their penalty area, the ball is in play when it is kicked and moves, i.e. no requirement for the ball to leave the penalty area before the defenders can play it – this is to encourage a faster and potentially more constructive restart of play.
Verdict: Yes. This will be one of those occasions when people ask, "Why did the old law exist in the first place?" Especially good for very young players who are always hampered and confused by this

Monday, 12 June 2017

2016-17 Review - Football and the Human Condition

Game 55, 2016-17

Most of us are doing
what we can...
It’s the last weekend of the season, and it ends up being another game when my expectations are confounded. These are not only two clubs I’ve had trouble with in the past, but the game is at boys’ U17 level - that age when hormones seem most volatile, and the urge to shove, kick or insult an opponent can override the threat of punishment. Just like last week, I issue a pre-match appeal for calm, sportsmanship and decency, and point out that we’d all like to reach the end of the season unscathed.

There’s a size and talent gap between the home and the away team, but they both play decent football. Lacking any subs, the away team tires in the second half on a hot afternoon. Unlike many teams in their age group, though, they don’t start kicking out in frustration, or to yell at each other’s mistakes. They keep passing the ball along the ground right until the final whistle. The young coach utters not a word in my direction all game.

We get through with just a single yellow card on either side – one for a second clumsy foul (away team), the other for chucking an opponent to the ground (home team). The latter offence happens ten minutes before time, with the home team already 6-1 ahead. “Hey, we’ve had none of that all