This article was first published by Steve Phythian on his blog A Fan With A Badge on the 15th of September 2001.
I wanted to raise for discussion the thorny issue of officials, Referees and their Assistants, in football and, especially in grassroots football, whether at youth or open age level.
It is a topic that has prompted my reflection and increasing concern over the last few years, especially and which has been exacerbated by reports and comments on social media about the treatment officials (whether formally ‘appointed’ or last-minute volunteers) receive from managers, coaches, spectators, parents’ and players.
It also seems, again from social media comments, that many teams are not now having officials appointed to club games this season (2021-22).
Following the resumption of football post Covid-19 lockdown, the Club with which I am involved received a communication from the local County FA informing us that when football resumed after the previous Covid lockdown there was a spike in Misconduct incidents and charges and especially with abuse towards referees.
They also pointed out that, of around 650 active officials in our county, almost 20% were under the age of 18 and therefore, in the eyes of the law, minors - children.
Please, when we attend football games, let us make a change in how we regard the referee and other officials.
I heard a great phrase once, from an American company for which I used to work that “Perception IS Reality”.
So, I wanted to implore readers to change their perception of how match officials are regarded.
Referees and assistants are not ‘the enemy.’
They are qualified, impartial and do their best to manage games to the best of their ability so that everyone can enjoy the game.
They are, or, in my opinion, should be regarded as guests of the club at which they are officiating. I strongly believe that if we can all change our perception of officials and strive to manage our reactions we will all be calmer and as a result enjoy the game more and be less stressed.
DECISIONS MADE ‘AGAINST US’
Officials do not give decisions “against us” – they just give decisions in accordance with the Laws of the Game.
Do they make mistakes? Of course…. Just like players, managers, coaches….as we all do.
As an active coach, previous referee, my local Club’s Welfare Officer and with some friends who are referees, I can absolutely ASSURE you that referees officiate because they love football too.
Especially at youth games the appointed officials will often be only a year or two older than the players in the games they are officiating and are also therefore children.
Young referees are learning to referee the game in the same way that clubs’ young people are learning to play the game.
So, please, help football by intentionally acting as a positive role model for good behaviour and demonstrating by example that this is how you do things at your Club.
Some County Football Associations have introduced Yellow Armbands for referees Under 18 and to draw attention to the fact they are children.
Parents / spectators at youth games should feel empowered to challenge inappropriate behaviour considering this information, though I recognise it is not always advisable to do so if it would cause a confrontation or puts you in a threatening situation.
If that is the situation, please draw such behaviour to the attention of your team’s coach and ask them to address it with the opposition coach. If it is your coach, can you involve the assistant coach to modify behaviour?
Or report it to your club’s appointed Welfare Officer.
WE WANT FAIRNESS / CONSISTENCY
Many, many people, coaches, managers, players, parents, spectators, TV pundits often say they want ‘fairness’ or consistency.
Referees are fair – they give decisions (or sometimes, not) based upon their interpretation of what they have just seen and having cross referenced the incident with their knowledge of the Laws Of The Game.
My personal view, which has developed over the years is that, actually “We” (our team’s players, fans, coaches) just want decisions to go OUR way – to be given ‘in our favour’. But if they do, is that not giving decisions ‘against’ the other team (see above)?
As followers of the game, we perceive an ‘injustice’ when a decision presents possession to the ‘other’ team.
THE REF COST US THE GAME
The referee cost us the game, or a version of that comment, is something I suspect most followers of football would recognise that is occasionally made about officials.
Conversely, though, I have never, EVER heard a team coach, manager, fan say “We only won because the ref cheated the other lot out of it” – Never, in over 50 years of following the game.
If you believe what I have stated above is true, why do you think that is the case?
Officials don’t ‘lose’ games, players do. I have often used this phrase in conversation and am always happy to discuss other people’s perspective
I have often heard the example offered “What about the last minute ‘dodgy’ penalty when it’s 0-0?”
DO PLAYERS CONTRIBUTE TO THE LOSS / DRAW?
In that circumstance I would look at the challenge that led to the award of the penalty, initially. E.g. The starting position of the defender – wrong side, too close, too far off, did they tackle with the ‘wrong’ leg, should they have tackled at all, could they have shown the player away from the goal instead of challenging….etc?
Also, I would then look at the preceding pass – should it have been intercepted by someone screening / cutting off the passing lane, did the immediate defender make the pass difficult for the passer, was the passer under pressure at all, or should they have been?
Earlier on in the game, I would be looking at the ability of the team in attack to create shooting opportunities; movement to create space, unpredictability in the final third, combination play to get into shooting positions. Having been in those shooting positions did players take the opportunity to shoot, or delay too long, play an extra pass that meant the opportunity was lost…. Or did they shoot but off target – over the bar, which gives no other chance to score although past the far post, for example, at least gives another opportunity for follow ups or rebounds.
Did other players actually follow in for a far post finish or to deal with rebounds…or not?
TEAM STRATEGY & TACTICS
How about the process to achieve a result? What is the coach/managers approach to the game? Have they changed approach because of the opposition? Is it something they have practised with the team before implementing it on match day? Have they made an in game change that has effectively reduced their chances of creating opportunities?
SHOW ME A VIDEO
Show me a video of any game, and I am pretty convinced I will be able show half a dozen reasons why a team lost or drew a game that is nothing to do with the referee
A throw in on the half-way line is not, or should not be, more of a challenge than the opponent having possession in open play, for example. What does a team out of possession do in open play? Close down, press, cover, balance, try to force play, position for interceptions etc. It should be no different for a throw in or free kick.
I would suggest that most deep free kicks delivered into the opposing penalty box are largely unsuccessful, in any case. (I do need to do some analysis.)
As soon as the ball is in the air, it’s a bit of a 50/50 anyway. Next game you are watching, consciously watch for deep free kicks and see how successful they are in creating scoring or secondary opportunities and what really happens. (Nought From One – if you know, you know!)
CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLES
I have recently worked with an U18 group. One of the key messages throughout has been around Emotional Intelligence - controlling their emotions and responses to stressful or frustrating circumstances.
Some players naturally have things under control, others less so and so we have provided guidance, instruction, scenarios to imagine and prepare for before they encounter them so they have an intelligent response – we have used the phrase “Be Response-able” (not my phrase; as a coach, I nicked it from someone else but if you wish to accredit it to me, I will gladly claim it as my own !)
As coaches/managers we can help players and our colleagues re-frame things in our minds, deal with the situation in front of us and not succumb to imagined injustices when, in fact, decisions are just part and parcel of the game, which, in the cold light of day, we all know, really.
IT’S JUST ‘PASSION’
Another phrase I have often heard – football is a passionate game – is almost a justification for losing self-control and shouting insults or questioning a (sometimes seemingly every) decision that are ‘awarded’ to the other team.
For me, passion is about following your team, being a student of the game, as a coach, helping individuals as well as the team to become better players and people, staying up late (especially if you are a grassroots coach) designing practices to help develop players’ understanding of the game – generally, or what is required in the match this weekend.
I would expect to be challenged on this, but my view cannot be that ‘passion’ allows people to shout insults or constantly challenge decisions of officials and especially, but not exclusively, when that official is a child.
OFFICIALS HAVE TO EARN RESPECT
When I was growing up (quite a few years ago now, I grant you) Respect was afforded to EVERYONE in every circumstance as a matter of course and was only EVER withdrawn once the individual demonstrated they were no longer worthy of respect. But that didn’t mean withdrawing Respect because someone made a decision with which we didn’t agree …or wish had been different.
The FA’s Respect Programme was introduced primarily because of the deterioration of respect across the game; Respect for officials, but also for coaches, our own and opponents’, our teammates, opposing players, for ourselves and for the game itself.
LEARNED BEHAVIOUR THROUGH ‘CULTURE’
But is this not just learned behaviour brought about by the (toxic? Tribal?) culture that has been allowed to evolve in football.
The people who live in Britain, generally I think, are still regarded as having a very high regard for integrity and ‘fair play’. Let us all try to maintain that global perception and to respect all who participate and run the wonderful game we call football…..or soccer, if you prefer.
Thank you for reading and I hope I may have influenced your perspective, just a little, or at least helped you think about how we can make football more enjoyable for officials and perhaps reduce the stress apparently suffered by players, coaches, managers, parents, spectators and fans because a decision was made ‘against’ us.
Please, help make a change……Thanks for reading.