When you arrive on a Sunday morning to referee a grassroots football match there is a stench of stale lager in the air as soon as you leave your car, if you can find somewhere to park that is.
The next task is to find the referees’ changing room, ideally conversing with as few people as possible. This highlights the divide between footballers and match officials which definitely exists. It would be unfair to say that either side is to blame for this, and of course there are lots of exceptions, but refs and players generally sing from different hymn sheets.
When arriving at your destination – the safe house for the morning – what greets you more often than not is something that looks like a scene from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. These fellow referees are the stalwarts, the hardy individuals who have given up Sunday after Sunday, year after year for very little money. On top of this, the reality is they’ve been given very little support over the years, relying on their thick skin to get them through the inevitable stumbling blocks that have been placed in front of them.
Conversation in the changing room is already negative. It’s more focused on what could go wrong than what could go right. Discussing rivalries between the two teams is the norm, as well as who they’ve cautioned before and how they will probably have to do it again.
Then the time comes, 10 minutes to kick-off and off you trudge to find your teams to collect hastily scribbled team sheets.
Another issue with Sunday league football is the lack of officials means that there is no chance of neutral assistant referees. It is up to the clubs to provide a lino, usually a substitute (too hungover to play) and totally unwilling.
You instruct them to do offsides and also to raise their flag if the ball goes out of play. Sometimes they forget and this is of course the referee’s fault. Sometimes they get accused of cheating which can cause friction and is often the referee’s fault as well. “You can overrule him you know, ref,” we’re told.
I sympathise with these club linos as for the majority it is a case of not understanding the offside rule, rather than trying to sabotage the game.
You blow the whistle and it begins. Inevitably, the players complain that the ball is flat so the game is paused while someone chucks it to the referee so he can give it that squeeze and chuck it back, declaring it fit for use.
This delay is also apparently the referee’s fault. I mean, who else could be responsible for pumping the footballs?
Tackles fly in, goals are scored. The token Sunday league phrases spill out for 90 minutes, “Box ’em in!” being a personal favourite. Things can be heated at times, dissent and a lack of respect for refs on a human level is still very much around, but reasoning with players is the best way to diffuse their exaggerated emotions.
Try and understand and empathise in a calm, collected manner. Realistically, when that full-time whistle is blown they aren’t going to care anymore. They will shake your hand, thank you for the game and all that has gone before will be forgotten. It leaves you wondering if it was all necessary in the first place.
There is a pre-conception that referees are out to exert fantasies of power, therefore having no empathy for situations during a football match. This – for the majority of us – is difficult to understand and wholly unfair.
Referees have been given a job to do, but can quickly be accused of ‘having it in’ for a player despite them playing with clear misconduct. Or ‘making it all about them’ when they just want to diffuse a situation by speaking to players in order to keep control of the match.
The problem nowadays – especially in the age of social media – is that refs are so easily vilified and it’s often forgotten that they are humans who will make mistakes. Of course, officials can be praised for strong performances in the media but a mistake is punished much more severely.
As for Sunday morning referees, the negatives unfortunately outweigh the positives. The lack of a system at real grassroots level (Sunday football) means it is difficult to see enough young referees taking up the whistle to be able to cover the vast number of games that take place in local parks.
Sunday football leagues are only going to grow in the future but with no referee there is no game, that’s official.
By Nick Fruin