Clubs have to take responsibility over ending the rise of abuse
I'M on a Combination touchline virtually every Saturday, and some of the stuff I've heard directed at referees this season has turned my stomach.
At one high level derby, a club stalwart – old enough and wise enough to know much, much better – was so incensed at a perceived oversight by the official in the middle that he launched a verbal assault that would have made a sailor blush.
I was also at another game lower down the league ladder where the losing coach lambasted the ref for making mistakes and not being fit enough to keep up with play.
I very much doubt he had a similar go at one of his props for dropping two passes that my three-year-old nephew could have clung on to, or his side in general for a woeful lack of basic skill.
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These aren't isolated incidents. A referee friend of mine now refuses to accept appointments at one particular club because of the verbals aimed in his direction.
Most of it passed him by as he was out of range and concentrating on the game. But his wife, standing nearby, heard every last sorry syllable and was reduced to tears before leaving the ground long before the final whistle.
The players, coaches and supporters who dish out verbal and even, unbelievably, physical abuse seem to have forgotten that this is also a Saturday afternoon leisure activity for refs who, like everyone else out there, are doing their best.
So why would anyone give up a good chunk of a weekend off if all they're going to get is a mouthful or worse every time they blow their whistle? Don't forget, at local level they don't get paid or even claim expenses!
Refs are acting with their feet with the number of officials at local level falling. Right now it's third and fourth-team games being affected, but if things don't change then how long will it be before second and then even first-team matches go without qualified officials?
Clearly, dozens of games go ahead every weekend without any problems at all, but the issue of referee abuse is growing and refusing to go away.
I wish I had a magic answer. I don't. But it does seem obvious that clubs have to take a good chunk of responsibility for changing this 'have-a-go' culture and also stop seeing this as an 'us and them' situation.
Refs are 'us' ... the great majority are former players who want to give something back to the game they love and who remain deeply involved with their original clubs.
They don't come from another planet and they don't drop fully qualified from trees . . . it takes time and dedication to learn this trade, but if their first – and continuing – experiences in the middle are overwhelmingly negative then why would anyone carry on? As a first step, I wonder if there's a case for more referee workshops at clubs to help players improve their knowledge of the laws and give away less penalties to cut out some of the clear on-field frustrations?
And, arm-in-arm with this, could clubs encourage, cajole, arm-twist members into taking the entry level award so more players have a better understanding of just how difficult a job the appointed official has?
With referee numbers in such decline, could this somehow have an incentivising edge?
Provide your local society with a member who qualifies and, in return, be guaranteed to receive the appointment of a fully fledged official?
Next, players, coaches and supporters – for the umpteenth and last time – must realise that they simply have to 'zip it' . . . keep the banter, but cut out the personal and offensive stuff. If not, the deduction of league points and club-wide bans must swiftly follow. If it's the thirds or fourths mucking up then everyone, right from the firsts through to the under-6s, should feel the force.
No more threats, just direct action because, depressingly, this seems to be the only way to get the message across. Clubs have also got to help themselves by running a tight ship and by fearlessly punishing those who cross the line. If that means banning a misbehaving star player and or his watching father, mother, wife, girlfriend, mistress, civil partner, best mate then so be it.
In the north of the county, Coney Hill are set to trial a 'Touchline Patrol' initiative, appointing special officers for home games whose role will be to step in and cut out any problems at source. Persistent offenders face being removed from the ground, with the threat of the police being called if necessary. Sounds like they're on to something, but why stop at just home matches? If anyone else has other ideas then please pass them on because refs are sick of hearing someone say 'I wouldn't do your job for anything'.
And the old adage of 'without a ref you don't have a game' has absolutely never rung more true than it does right now.