‘It is a matter of time before a British referee is killed if no action is taken’ | Football

“At half-time as I was standing in the centre circle, the player I had [sent off] during the first half approached me, started shouting in my face: ‘Why don’t you start fucking getting decisions right and you’re fucking useless.’ I replied: ‘Move away from me.’ He then pushed me three times in the chest and said: ‘What are you going to fucking do about it?’ I asked him to leave the pitch now. He then started throwing punches at me which he connected with me twice hitting me on the back of the head. I have evidence of contact.”

The above testimony formed part of a Football Association disciplinary hearing in August. It came from a referee in the Cumberland County League who had taken charge of a fixture between Whitehaven Miners Social First and Cleator Moor Celtic reserves and was assaulted. The hearing ended with Cleator Moor’s Adam Meagan being banned from all football activities for seven and a half years. It was a draconian sentence, but one that many within the grassroots game would consider not tough enough.

There is an epidemic of abuse against referees and linesmen in England. Last season 380 players were banned by the FA for attacking or threatening match officials. The Merseyside Youth League cancelled a round of fixtures last weekend in response to “multiple incidents of inappropriate and threatening behaviour” on the part not of players but those watching from the sidelines. In response, the FA announced a trial that would allow referees to wear body cameras to capture evidence against assailants.

The FA observes that incidents of assault on referees remain uncommon, that ‘serious cases’ – which take in not only assault but abuse and discrimination – have been reported at just over one in 1,000 matches this season, to the end of September. But the fact that anyone should be in fear of their safety for doing something that – at grassroots level – effectively amounts to community work remains a serious concern.

“We’re seeing a rise in reports asking us for direction,” says Paul Kirton of Team Grassroots, which provides support to community football clubs. “You’ve seen a rise not only in incidents but in the severity of incidents, and the biggest concern could be the incidents that go unreported.”

Like the FA, Team Grassroots has launched a campaign – No Ref, No Game – to raise awareness of abuse and tackle it. For Kirton, what must emerge is a new consensus on what is acceptable, be it from players, coaches or – especially relevant at youth games – spectators, most of whom are parents.

Jürgen Klopp screams at assistant referee Gary Beswick during Liverpool’s match against Manchester City.
Jürgen Klopp screams at assistant referee Gary Beswick during Liverpool’s match against Manchester City. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

“Perspective in grassroots football is everything,” Kirton says. “One person’s good tackle is another’s red card. We’re at a bit of a crossroads now, however, and need to have difficult conversations that reset the lines of what is appropriate. When those lines are breached we need the penalties to have teeth to bite harder, but personal responsibility has to be at the heart of whatever we choose to do.”

Dr Jamie Cleland is an academic who conducts research into socio-cultural issues in sport and was the co-author of a book that tried to grapple with the issue of referee abuse last year. He argues that the situation facing grassroots referees cannot be separated from the regular criticism officials receive in the professional game. With Jürgen Klopp’s fury at the assistant referee Gary Beswick only the latest example, an outburst that has left the Liverpool manager facing a disciplinary charge, Cleland’s reading of the situation is not a rosy one.

“It is clear that referees continue to face regular incidents of verbal abuse and, on some occasions, physical abuse,” he says. “Whilst the incidents of high-profile managers berating match officials make headlines, the reality is that they do no favours for those referees on pitches up and down the country. They are in such a vulnerable position with no protection from security and police. It is only a matter of time before we see a British referee killed if no action is taken to try and stamp this out. It has happened in other countries so why will it not happen here? We should not be naive about this.”

Referees have been killed after players took issue with their decisions in Canada and El Salvador this year, and Cleland argues that the tribal nature of football – amongst players, supporters and even parents – means officials are considered legitimate targets.

“It is hard to envisage few other scenarios across society where such abuse would be permitted, but in the world of football, where referees are outsiders but are people who have a major influence on the outcome of the match, it seems that directing one’s fury towards them is ‘fair game’.”

Cleland believes the media have a responsibility to moderate criticism of referees to help change the culture, but he argues that the consistent application of tougher sanctions will be key to lasting change. “There needs to be better support and mentoring mechanisms in place for referees at an amateur level because not enough of them have confidence in the County FAs that the reporting of incidents result in some form of sanction for the player, coach or club,” he says. “In essence, there should be zero tolerance to make football a game for all, including the role of the referee.”

The FA said last month that it was willing to consider tougher sanctions against those behaving unacceptably at grassroots matches. “We have been very clear that all forms of abuse, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable, and we will continue to do everything we can to stamp out this behaviour,” an FA spokesperson told the Guardian. “While it is a small minority of people that act in this way, this is still too many. This season the FA launched the new Enough is Enough campaign, making it clear that action will be taken against anyone whose behaviour is unacceptable.”

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