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
unlimited compassion. She took that as a challenge and decided this would be a fun way to spend an afternoon.

So here we are. It’s raining steadily, for the third Sunday running. November has been allocated the colour grey and is refusing to relinquish it to any shade of cheer, because that’s just what November does. With the face of a flinty Scottish pallbearer, it ushers in the dark, frigid months to come. Want something to cheer you up? Here – go referee third-placed v second, with both teams near the foot of the fair-play table.  

The home team takes an early lead, misses several easy chances, then allows the visitors to equalise with a goal half-heartedly claimed as offside. Just before half-time, one of their players comes away from a challenge in midfield with the ball, but then stumbles and loses control. The away team counter-attack and score their second. The home team moans that their player was fouled. Now they decide that I’m 1. incompetent and 2. against them, and the temperature of the game rises.

“Did you get any pictures of compassionate behaviour?” I ask my daughter at the break. The home steward has kindly given her coffee to warm her up (teenagers never dress for winter – don’t ask me why. I was the same.).  “Oh yes, loads,” she replies, to my surprise. She proceeds to show me several snaps of players helping each other to their feet, almost all of them smiling. I’ve barely any recollection of this happening. “Maybe you just don’t notice because it happens so often,” she says.

Not sure what I was signalling here. Offside?
 Waving to the family? (pic: N Lotze)
Well, there’s also maybe an element of players doing their best to avoid a yellow card, so they apologise for the foul, and help the opponent up. Nothing wrong with that. It also makes me wonder if I’m programmed only to see the unsporting conduct, and never see much good in the players around me. Still, I caution, this game’s just warming up. The second half is always worse.

The home team equalises soon after half-time, but then two minutes later one of their players decides to go on a hare-brained sideways dribble and runs straight in to me. The ball runs loose to an opponent, he passes it out wide, and their captain heads the ball in from the cross. 2-3. Of course it was an accident, a collision, and they all know I’m part of the field of play. All I can do is hold up my arm and apologise. But it accentuates the feeling that I’m ‘against’ them, and they start to complain about every call, while making a number of loud and dramatic penalty claims.

The game gets progressively louder and muckier, and there’s a stream of yellow cards, mainly for the away side. Plus one for dissent for the home captain, the number 10, just one of several players on his team to loudly express their feelings about my calls. They lose, and obviously it’s my fault, not the fault of the players who missed all those first-half chances, or the fluffed indirect free-kick right in front of goal I gave for a high foot deep into stoppage time.

Compassion for the ref: "You were shit,
 but here's a handshake anyway (pic: N Lotze)
“Well, there’s another club that hates me,” I say to my daughter as we walk away from the ground. She says that I did miss one foul down at her corner – she has a picture of it. “And yes, that number 10 really did hate you,” she adds. “He was cursing you the entire time.” I wonder how much more I missed, and if I should have given him more protection, and if I should have booked more away players earlier on. Had that maybe been a foul after all in the lead-up to the second goal just before half-time? I don’t feel like I had a particularly good game.

“Oh, you had one huge fan,” my daughter says. “That little old guy we saw at half-time. He came up to me and said how professional you were, ‘the best man on the pitch’.” That’s nice, but I’m still not so sure. A November feeling hangs over me for the rest of the day - grey, unsettled, melancholy. It feels like the month of gloomy introspection, and strictly limited compassion.

Having someone from the family there while I’m refereeing, though, gives me a warm feeling of security. No matter how bad a game you have and how many strangers yell in your face, there’s at least one person there on your side. When you’re feeling the heat and the hate, you can steal a glance beyond the arena of conflict and fleetingly focus on something much more precious. 

Final score: 2-3 (6 x yellow).

Ian Plenderleith's next book, 'The Quiet Fan', will be published by Unbound in 2018. Click here to pre-order an e-book or paperback copy.

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