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