I am lucky enough to be able speak to match officials of all levels, ages and genders from across the world. One of the officials I recently sat down to speak to was Connor Rose, a 15 year old youth level referee in the Berks & Bucks County FA area, I was able to listen and learn from his perspective about qualifying as a match official at a young age and the challenges he’s faced on his journey so far.
Connor began by explaining that he had taken his first steps with a whistle in hand on the pitches of mini-soccer games. It was by doing this that he got a taste for officiating and decided he wanted to take the full basic referees course to earn his badge and be able to graduate to taking charge of nine and then eleven-a-side games.
One of the key messages that Connor impressed upon me was how important to him it is that “abuse of referees needs to be stopped in grassroots football”. He went on to tell me about the horrific cases of verbal abuse from players, spectators and club officials he’s heard about from colleagues and even, the more infrequent cases of, the more serious, physical abuse.
After a 5 month layoff, referees, players & club officials in England got back out onto the football fields in August. On just the second weekend after the resumption there were two offences of serious physical assault on a match official and one of spitting, the most disgusting offence at the best of times but something which could prove lethal in the midst of a global pandemic.
The Referees’ Association Chairman, Paul Field, spoke to the Daily Mail about the current climate of abuse that officials are facing:
“One day, we will be speaking about a referee being killed. All the warning signs are here for it to happen and we have to do something about it. This is all about prevention.” – Paul Field, Chairman – The RA
In a recent study by the University of Portsmouth, 18.9% of the 2,056 referees surveyed in England said they had experienced physical abuse on the pitch.
“We really do believe that, unfortunately, someone will be murdered as a match official” – Martin Cassidy, Chief Executive – Ref Support UK
Connor has been a fully qualified match official for less than a year, however he told me about two particularly unpleasant incidents in games he’s taken charge of which brought him to the brink of hanging up his whistle permanently. The first was a game which was under control but very close with the scorelines level going into the final five minutes. Connor then identified foul play in the penalty area and awarded a penalty kick. The players of the team who’d conceded the penalty then surrounded him which he found to be incredibly intimidating. Additionally, the club assistant then came onto the field to remonstrate with him. To Connor’s credit he demonstrated excellent resilience and focus to block this out and then restore order before completing the match. Understandably, given his experience, Connor was shaken and confused by this but afterwards spoke to his league appointments officer and was given step-by-step guidance on how to submit a disciplinary report and he told me how delighted he was that the matter had been dealt with by Berks & Bucks FA.
In another incident which left Connor contemplating his future as a match official, he came up against further discrimination due to his use of spectacles when officiating. At the conclusion of the match he was approached by a club official who commented “well done four eyes”. Connor was deeply offended and hurt by this and felt that being singled out for his need to use aids to see clearly would have ramifications going forward. Once again, he received suitable support when reporting the incident and was encouraged by this which gave him confidence as he looked to put this behind him and move forward with his refereeing career.
As I alluded to earlier in the interview, Connor is well connected in his network of officials and regularly speaks to colleagues in his own and neighbouring counties. One of these referees is a Level 5 and he said:
“When I started three and a half years ago the abuse wasn’t too bad but over the last couple of years it’s definitely gotten way worse. When you’re on the pitch as a referee and you hear everything that’s said to you, and when it turns personal, which I’ve experienced, it really takes a toll on your mental health. I know a lot of officials who have quit refereeing because of the abuse they received and the deterioration of their mental health as a consequence of that.” – An FA Level 5 Referee
Connor cited the research he had conducted to me during our meeting. He reminded me that in 2017 thousands of grassroots referees across England did not think that the FA were doing enough to help them when they were abused. And that this lead to a strike of more than 2000 referees across England. The action was designed by referees in the hope that the FA would take notice and act accordingly. He went on to tell me that he was pleased to see the introduction of the coloured armbands, shirts & socks which various county FAs across England had implemented for under 18’s referees and new match officials.
I asked Connor what he felt players, club officials and spectators should consider when they interact with a match official during the heat of a game, he told me:
“If you are playing and you see someone abusing the referees tell them to stop. If you are the one abusing the officials, take a step back and think about how it affects them and the job they are trying to do. If you RESPECT the officials, I guarantee that your experience of football will be ten times better because the referee is happier which means they can focus more on the action of the game. Remember, without referees there is no football matches”.
Nathan Sherratt is a Referee Educator and the Managing Director of The Third Team. He works individually and in collaboration with different professionals to develop workshops associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. You can learn more by visiting The Third Team website or by contacting Nathan here.