“How is that not a fucking foul?”
I’d only been on the pitch for two minutes and was shown a straight red card which, naturally, I thought was rather harsh. Ironically this happened on 5 March 2017, the same weekend that there was a well-publicised referee strike organised by teenaged Mancunian, Ryan Hampson. Our referee on the day had crossed the picket line but to be honest I wish he hadn’t bothered. The day also marked my 34th birthday and a red card, two-match ban, and £35 fine wasn’t exactly the present I was hoping for.
In over 16 years of Sunday League I’ve never received a red card, and only a handful of bookings, despite playing in some feisty games and competitive leagues. I gave up playing about two years ago and this season is my first as a manager. The weekend in question probably saw the worst weather of the season, and in hindsight the games should’ve been called off. However, both managers (me included) and the referee were happy to press ahead. We only had eleven men so I had to include myself as an emergency substitute even though I wasn’t particularly keen to come on. I knew I wasn’t fit enough, having not kicked a ball competitively for over nine months, but wanted to support the lads that had actually bothered to turn up in such conditions.
The referee was on the wrong side of most of the players before the game had even kicked off. He was over 15 minutes late and then wouldn’t start the game until the match card was filled out, no easy task with frozen fingers and the rain tipping down. My counterpart and I filled the card out using one of the linesman flags as shelter but it didn’t make much difference and by the time we’d filled it out the ink on the page was running and the paper turning to mush. The referee then said, after all that, “give it me after the game”.
The first half passed without much incident, but during the break the referee disappeared for 20 minutes – ten minutes longer than the allotted break – to get into a fresh set of clothes. Players from both sides stood in the freezing cold, waiting, and seizing up, but as long as he was warm and toasty!
On the hour one of my players had to come off injured, and the referees performance started to unravel. A player was booked for a mistimed, genuine tackle, and then sent off for arguing the point. The ref then told the player he “couldn’t even kick a ball” which is an outrageous thing to say to a good player who is trying his best in terrible conditions, where it was impossible to run or keep your footing due to inches of treacle-like mud.
Moments later I took the ball past a player only to be body checked. It was a blatant foul, and warranted a free kick, nothing more yet he ignored it and played on. I shouted “how is that not a fucking foul?” in protest. Now I know swearing at the referee is wrong, and in fairness he said before the game that his tolerance of foul language is zero. However, he should have taken a view and in my opinion, had a word or at worse dished out a yellow card.
The most bizarre decision came a few moments later when a player was booked because the ref didn’t like his “facial expression” following the awarding of a free-kick. By the end of the game we’d racked up almost £80 worth of fines and three games worth of suspensions for a game that didn’t contain a bad tackle and was played in the right spirit, a point the opposition manager and I agreed on after the game. It was obvious that by the end of the game he was against us and a referee, although subject to human emotions like the rest of us, should remain impartial to the very end.
However, you can’t let one bad experience ruin something for you. I got food poisoning from my favourite Indian takeaway the other week but it won’t stop me from eating curry again in the future. Ninety-nine per cent of refereeing experiences are positive and as a manager I always score them highly on the match card, win, lose or draw. When it comes to football my attitude has always been that more often than not you get out of the game what you deserve. You can’t control what the referee does, how bad the pitch or weather is. I’ve repeatedly told my players that we win based on our own merits, that we don’t use a referee performance as an excuse after a defeat, and that we are lucky to have a referee and a game on a Sunday.
Funnily enough, I bumped into one of my favourite referees, who happened to be officiating a veteran’s game on the next pitch. Eric Mann, who used to officiate me at the Soccerdome in Greater Manchester, is famous on the local circuit for giving out sweets and dummies to players when shouted at. It immediately dissolved any tension in the air and the majority of players loved him and he’s the perfect example of a referee with a human side. It was very sad to read that he was assaulted in a cowardly act in 2013 but great to see that it didn’t dampen his appetite for refereeing.
Referees make mistakes, even more so the lower down the pyramid you go, but it’s in line with the ability of the players. As a new manager I’m making mistakes every game, as are the players, and if we’re honest that is why we’re operating at the level we are. It doesn’t help referees that at the very highest level there seems to be so little respect for officials, and it clearly trickles down the pyramid. You only have to turn on Match of the Day to see numerous managers blaming their sides failure on the referees inability to award a throw-in half-an-hour before conceding a goal. I’m sure the journalists are asking leading questions aimed at drawing out controversial comments, but the managers and players hardly need encouraging to pass the book.
It’s hard to say how successful Ryan Hampson’s referee strike was on the weekend of 5 March. He claims that over 2,000 referees took part, but those figures haven’t been verified and the pitches we were playing on were jam-packed with players, each game having a strike-defying referee. If anything, several of the games that weekend were called off due to the horrendous weather, not the strike. Perhaps it has highlighted just how important referees are to the grassroots game. We mustn’t also forget that so are the players, managers and volunteers and that respect works both ways. We all need each other, and without one there is no point in the other.