Not truthfully having ever been a sincere critic of referees, and their respective assistants alike, throughout my footballing life, I find it difficult to bring myself to lambast those brave souls sent to unfavourable outposts of the beautiful game, while having to endure toxic atmospheres, every week. For the sake of the credibility of individuals in their position, and also of the sport as a larger entity, however, I felt at least one voice had to step forward and present the painful reality of rooting for your side at a number of levels – especially in non-league football – only for your fortune to be crushed by inexplicable officiating on a week-by-week basis. As you may have presumed, the case study of Ringmer FC, and my season to date reporting on their misfortune, will present flesh to the bones of these accusations of incredulous decision-making on the part of many a regional official, as while having been a personal struggle for fairness in the sport, I believe Ringmer’s experiences encapsulate many of the fears cynical, battle-weary semi-professional and amateur practitioners of the sport currently have. In a world of interconnected rants waging on about referees in the Premier League and Football League, where technology is increasingly reliant upon to spare the blushes of - in the kindest possible sense of the word - clueless officials, it is, once again, those further down the pyramid, silenced by a gargantuan pay gap, who suffer with the unfit officials produced from a half-hearted and backwards FA, only to be told things will improve.
Certainly, press on referees has not been short measured by any means recently – with Mark Clattenburg the first of a raft of modern officials to hit the headlines, a stark contrast to those in the profession a matter of decades ago, who kept their head down, did their job and only stepped in if absolutely necessary. Nowadays, any casual football fan could pick out the name of a Premier League official through the sheer subconscious impact of match commentary, a testament to their controversy, barring on hatred, amongst fans. Who these days doesn’t have an opinion on Mike Dean, Andre Marriner, Martin Atkinson, Lee Mason or Bobby Madley, simply because of a single disputable decision made by these most under-pressure of individuals in the centre of action? They rarely escape mention in the coverage of such games (possibly due to the constant search for information many media sources struggle through these days), and increasingly, though I doubt the truth in this link, this trend is continuing into non-league matches. Without actively pursuing such fame, today’s referees have almost become equivalent with the players in their importance on the pitch, and while their role in keeping order and commanding respect from hopefully each and every person in the stadium should not be understated, it is a reality few want to continue in when officials have the ability to grab headlines.
It is not these levels of comfortable financial security where refereeing issues are most prominent, despite what we as an audience might be bombarded with on a weekly, if not almost daily, basis – and this is why we turn our attention away from the petty complaints of those who are used to having their own way *cough*MOURINHO*cough*, and again to our favoured station, non-league football. Reliant upon regional, usually county, FA’s to provide sufficiently qualified officials for each game, such clubs go through the same process fortnightly – when at home – of welcoming this group of three soulless, alien figures into the boardroom, laying on refreshments, allowing them to enforce the law for 90 minutes, paying their fee and seeing them drive off for the foreseeable future. If anything, the rapport, over time, between club officials and referees is one that - on positive terms – can be stronger than that of counterparts in the Football League, as both sides recognise the value of the sport at that level, and feel passionately about it. On occasion, however, this relationship can develop beyond professionalism, and when on the touchline, or in the middle, officials, as I have seen this season, have begun chatting – casually, it must be said – with their mates in the crowd. How that can be acceptable I’m not sure, even at the informal platform of semi-professional football, as it surely undermines the credibility of those making key decisions into the threat of a buddy-buddy sudden ‘lapse of concentration’.
This is only the first of a plethora of crimes I have witnessed to date this season. Shocking inconsistencies, late abandonments, the failure to control players and an all-too mouthy relationship with their on-pitch clients have all come under fire from my beady eye over the course of the past eight months or so, and not without good reason I’d hope. It was not until mid-January that the tide began to seriously turn in terms of officiating for us Blues, but ever since, with a run – as the side 18th, or bottom, of our table – of two draws and four losses, dropping twelve points from winning positions, three of which were 2-0 leads, and the other a 3-0, we have witnessed some inexplicable decisions alongside the respective mental fragility of our youthful side, particularly in defence. In games against Langney Wanderers and Mile Oak, both away, we have had free kicks awarded for last man challenges from the home defence – or so we thought, the former overruled by the referee after the linesman flagged for the offence. In both occurrences, however, neither opposition defender was shown as much as a card, despite making no attempt to play the ball each time, hauling down our strikers who would’ve gone on, you’d imagine, to score. When, in the same game against Mile Oak, three of our players were booked for their involvement, as first offences I may add, in preventing the quick taking of a free kick that everybody in the crowd immediately assumed to be Ringmer’s, before the referee had blown his whistle for the kick, too, you can understand our frustration with the inconsistencies in officiating.
Obviously, with two of these Blues players being carded directly for dissent, I understand the importance of the respect programme employed by the FA and the rule changes earlier this season which were said to give referees more license to condemn the use of foul language, but surely, in terms of importance to the outcome of a match, a last-ditch tackle on the attacker, rather than the ball, should surely warrant superior punishment to dissent. Call me crazy, but that is how I thought the rules were structured to work. In fact, those three yellow card decisions were made only more potent by the subsequent decisions not to hand second yellows to two of those Ringmer players, as later committing fouls, one of which I recall to having been the hacking down of an Oak player 20 yards out which led to a goal from the set-piece, actually worthy of bookings, the decision not to then take action only demonstrated the unacceptable double-standards of referees at our level. That’s without mentioning the lack of action the same referee took for what I’d definitely refer to as the most blatant handball and stamp I’ve ever seen on a football pitch from Oak players in the second half…
The shameful fact here is that I could list the series of seemingly mindless calls made by referees at our level for paragraphs and paragraphs. Take the total lack of concern our referee at Langney showed for our goalkeeper Dan Hutchins as he was knocked to the ground in a clash of heads at a last-minute corner, allowing a Langney sub to score in an open goal. Coincidentally, that was only reminiscent of a duo of carbon copy cites for controversy at a Lewes vs Kingstonian match I remember finishing 2-1 to the away side in 2013, for which referee David Spain, now infamous around the Dripping Pan, chose not to allow similar examples of the K’s striker heading the ball out of Lewes’ ‘keeper’s hands from preventing the London side grabbing their goals. It is not just ignorance of the rules, as I’m sure they would tell you they are well-versed in each and every line of their FA bible, but it is the abundance of bad habits forged over decades of uninterrupted control of local games that convolutes their interpretation of such rules.
In my opinion, far too many referees become rigidly set in their ways, as many individuals would do in any profession as unvaried as refereeing, clouding their vision over time of what is the correct way to go about their business. We, as football fans, deserve better, I believe, and that does not have to come from technology, despite my great remonstrations of its requirement at the top tiers, as in non-league football, the war will forever be fought by referees, the front line guardians of the laws of the sport. If they can’t carry out their job correctly, then what hope does anyone else in and around that pitch have?
In that regard, it may have been a timely reminder that the powers that be have work to do when on Friday (3rd March), as the IFAB (International Football Association Board) met at Wembley for their annual conference – with Gianni Infantino present alongside FA Chairman Greg Clarke – discussing a range of rule modifications they branded as ‘what football wants’. Unlike the statements of many other governing and organisational bodies, however, the IFAB’s press bit came across, while trigger-word aplenty in its structure, as a diligent, honest portrayal of how they do realise the issues posed to the surveyors of the sport, at its most basic level, and how they intend to challenge the increasing power of crafty players against referees. Something, in my eyes, football has been crying out for a long time, and applicable at practically any level, the role of the captain will be evaluated, hopefully with the conclusion that increased responsibility on the part of less self-interested, more permanent captains could lead to a dramatic fall in the degree of foul tactics deployed, while also improving an official’s ability to make objective decisions. Especially prevalent in the regular occurrence, which I have always found worthless and morally devaluing, when entire mobs of players swarm the referee to create psychological pressure to increase punishment on an opposition player at the event of a foul, the accountability on the captain to not only prevent this manipulative act from occurring in the first place, but also to communicate any information received from the referee to their teammates, would be compellingly increased, allowing officials to make the most accurate decisions possible, you would hope.
Alongside the more profound and visible deployment of VAR’s (Video Assistant Referees) into ‘live’ testing this year, with an upcoming World Cup presenting the perfect opportunity for further use, the research and testing into the concepts of sin bins and the discussion of how to tackle time wasting best, I believe the IFAB does have the best interests of global fans at heart, exploring possibilities which could radically reshape our sport for the better. These ‘modifications’ they discuss though, have to come to fruition for all levels of the game before long, as players, coaches and fans can hardly be trusted currently to uphold the extents of the law – far too preoccupied in self-interest to care periodically or otherwise about the ability of officials to make clear decisions, unless of course, they are on the end of what they perceive to be a poor run of calls. Considering this unfavourable, but realistic, description of where such bands of individuals with split loyalties lie in the game today, perhaps you could ascribe the IFAB’s potential rule changes into a ‘naïve’ category, arguably impractical in the game today. Where most Premier League players will be forced to comply with such rulings in order to maintain their reputation from the beady eye of the gaggle of pundits and unscrupulously critical twitter fans, there are no such concerns for non-league players, and that is my concern as the IFAB’s commendable, obviously favourable suggestions come unstuck.
They rely, almost entirely, on the goodwill of captains and playing officials in the game today, something, at times, I am both sceptical and cynical of, having witnessed so little of it recently. For these regulations to be brought into action, then, I believe the culture of youth football, most prominently, has to be drastically altered. Of course, over time coaches will become more conscious of the restrictions of the laws of the game, but in the short-term, unless a hard-line approach is taken by officials to those who dare disobey, I cannot see the role of the captain being sufficiently developed to cope with the modern approach set to come into force. There will forever be the section of the footballing clique who target loopholes in the rules of the sport, and while unfavourable, their techniques, far too often, have been proven to work. Perhaps not as high-profile as the recent stand-off by Italian forwards to the ruck in their Six Nations match against England, or the underarm bowling of Trevor Chappell, under the orders of older brother and captain Greg, in the infamous Australia vs New Zealand ODI clash of 1981; the relentless demonstrations of holding the ball up in the corner when protecting a narrow lead, the clear timewasting on the part of goalkeepers especially and the pinching of yards at free kicks and throw-ins are unwanted, yet undeniably effective, blemishes on the credibility of the sport. To exploit the rules so, not just undermining the credibility of the officials present and of the rule makers sat in an office overlooking Wembley’s hallowed turf, but also the intelligence of opposition players and fans present, creates a dark shadow that few wish to discuss within the sport. For the sake of such integrity, then, it seems there are few options available other than to impose the dreamscape culture we desire at a youth level, before hopefully witnessing the results.
In the short-term, irrelevant currently of any potential law changes at the non-league stage, blame has to be portioned on a number of shores; officials, many for failing to retain any passion to improve after settling into a self-serving pattern of mediocrity; players, for forcing their plainly biased, often uninformed opinions upon officials, often under the instruction of managers; club officials, for, on the majority, failing to establish a regiment set of behavioural guidelines; fans, for their apathy towards the wider issue and tendency to immediately target referees, and governmental organisations for blindly ignoring such issues. Whether such self-pity is likely to persist, in a system that honestly suits nobody in terms of even-handedness currently, is for each of these groups to decide, but I’m certain where I stand, as with many admirers of the beautiful game; all I want to see are correct decisions being made, and for the referees not to be the main concern come the start or the end of the game. They are often selfless, outspoken, unfairly tainted individuals, but the unemotional facts clearly portray, in my minds, that officials currently aren’t equipped well enough to uphold the laws of the game in the way which, I’m sure, they would like.
There are many referees who escape the hubris that a vast deal, certainly that I have seen recently, are otherwise dogged by, and there are many referees that I admire greatly, Michael Oliver, Bobby Madley, Jonas Eriksson and Mehmet Yildiraz in particular – but they are an exclusive breed at the very top of the game. For the majority of supporters and club officials further down the pyramid, we are left with the David Spain’s, Nicholas Baker’s and Barry Cox’s of the presumably short list of regional officials to oversee what, in many occurrences, is difficult to describe in terms of performance without turning to expletives. It is no wonder we have a blame culture centred on officials, but to see beyond this, and actually progress as a sport, frustrated cynics have to put aside their differences and communicate the distinguishable issues they have faced with these same officials over a diplomatic table, including the other parties involved in the credibility and upholding of the laws, if they want tangible changes.
As a regular attendee at Ringmer recently pointed out in the immediate wake of an exasperating home draw, the club, as a microcosm for football as a wider entity, ‘needs smarter support’. This resonated particularly with me, ever the methodical, pompous young fan, as I have never, in my view at least, connected, by any means, with the brand of support which, I have decided, target individuals on the pitch, whether players of their cause, opposition or officials, with lazy hollers of light-hearted abuse possibly more interconnected with their personal vexations. In fact, I have, for the extent of the six or seven years I have been a true advocate of Ringmer FC and Lewes FC, I have always pictured myself as a stereotypically English supporter, in the sense of the national psyche of unemotional calm in the event of crisis and quiet disapproval of any opposing forces of brash negligence, perhaps arrogant in my rising above the extroverted chants and taunts involved in the game, even a soul unsuited to what has become the ‘typical’ form of supporter identified in England in the past 50 years; violent drunks searching a release to their week of pent-up rants. It is such an image that English football has to shed, because I wholeheartedly agree that in football, alongside most every subject in life, a little more application of the old grey matter would go a long way.
Referees, in my eyes, should not be the ones we turn to first to blame. They represent, arguably, all that is wrong with the game – a maelstrom of the respective issues that a number of vital groups are blighted with - and for football fans, that is enough for them to become the immediately persecuted. If more respect is afforded their way, we might be able to uncover a more enlightened footballing horizon. For me, that would be a beautiful thing, but as distant as it seems currently, is it likely to occur? Is the standard of refereeing set to improve with the mutual advancement of the role of the captain in modern football? One can but hope. For everyone involved in football to feel valued is a massive thing, and for officials, I believe that this issue is most immediate of any group, so we can wish, for their sake and football’s alike, that such amendments, de jure and de facto alike, press on, allowing the grass rectangle to be a much more tolerable place to inhabit on a Saturday afternoon, for them and us alike.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!