Referees could strike over abuse…and we should back them

“You’re the worst I’ve seen, ref, the worst!”

“That is a disgrace, ref! You don’t even know the rules, ya tw*t!”

“Could you be any more sh*te, referee?!”

“You useless c*nt!”

“Face it, ref, you’re sh*t! I could do better than you with my eyes closed!”

“Hey! Pri*k! You’ve got another one wrong haven’t you?!”

“You’re an absolute f*cking tube referee!!!”

This is just a small smorgasboard of the abuse hurled at the referee during my local amateur club games. Played out most weeks to a few dozen people on a windswept field with the rain lashing in off the North Sea, the abuse directed at the referee – there aren’t any other officials at this level – is almost ceaseless for 90 minutes from players, coaches and many of the observers.

This Saturday, a player who was involved in a fracas with one of the opposition, was called over by the referee to be booked. He went ballistic. “What’s it f*cking well got do with you what I’m saying to him?!” he screamed into the ref’s face, clearly not understanding his role.

And this is all entirely normal and all as predictable as that guy on a Youtube video who always says “how come 14 people gave this a thumbs down?” or some variant thereof.

It happens every week, at pretty much every single game, at every single level, from the top flight down to amateur league kickabouts. At all age groups, at all levels, it’s all abuse. But extreme behaviour has been so normalised in football that if you pointed out just how unreasonable it all is, you would receive blank looks from many.

We all get inculcated into this culture, few of us are innocent, it’s not something that’s even questioned much of the time. Every phone-in will feature people saying the ref was a disgrace at their game, as though they – the fans – are always objectively right. It’s childish, not least because it’s really, really hard being an official. I can’t believe they get so much right, frankly.

The fella reffing my latest game was middle-aged. He had to administer the game without help from anyone else. This makes offside calls especially tricky. Does he get sympathy for not being able to be close to the play, as well as level with the play, at one and the same time? Oh no. Rather, he gets ceaseless abuse from people who are no more able to accurately judge an offside from where they’re standing, feet turning to slabs of cold dead meat in the freezing rain, than the referee.

As if to add insult to injury, if this fella wasn’t prepared to referee the game for a few quid, the game couldn’t actually happen. It’s like getting insulted by a thirsty drinker for letting them into a pub.

I don’t think he made a bad call all game. He was a good ref. Not a hapless amateur. Not a “useless c*nt”.

I felt really sorry for him. It was like being 14 again and witnessing a gang of lads bullying a boy who couldn’t fight back, watching him gulping down his fears and tears as his tormentors grinned amongst themselves at the upset they were inflicting.

As he walked off the pitch on the final whistle, I intercepted him, patted him on the back, said “well played ref” and smiled. Sadly, after an hour and half of abuse, he obviously thought this was an ironic comment and as such, just more crap, so he blanked me, emotionally numbed to positivity.

I have a feeling that those who perform the relentless abuse would tell me “it’s just banter”. But I don’t believe that. I think the abuse culture has escalated into a whole psychosis where the referee is always sh*te, always against your team, always no good. The banter defence only gets applied when the blood isn’t high, but during the game, it is a deliberate attempt to intimidate. It is intentional. It’s not phoney or fake. It’s not a joke. And those doing it derive some kind of pleasure.

There are many stories of officials being assaulted at amateur levels. You can see a few here and it makes shocking reading.

But what do we do? As individuals we can’t walk up to the abusers and suggest they don’t do it. That’s not going to work, it’s too widespread and it would put people in danger. Abuse needs to be eradicated from the culture of football at all levels. Top-level players need to shut up, stop protesting every decision, stop throwing a strop, stop swearing at refs, stop trying to cheat, stop lying; basically change their behaviour entirely because it is perpetuating and normalising bad behaviour everywhere else, via their example.

The officials need well-funded support from the relevant football associations. They should be offered counselling, because no-one can emerge from such games after an hour and a half of verbal or even physical assaults and just brush it off week after week. It must be upsetting. The FA surely have a duty of care towards those without whom we’d have no game at all.

But this isn’t an argument for a lavender-scented, sanitised game devoid of expletives or passion. It is possible to be noisy without being abusive. You can express frustration impersonally. You can bitch about a player or official to your pals or to yourself. You don’t have to do it publicly. You can bellow out the rage that life’s injustices build in you during the week without it being a verbal baseball bat to the head of one person.

It can be fun to take a different approach. For example in one amateur game I saw, after a decision to award a penalty, a fan shouted “which pub have you been drinking in, ref?” Now that’s funny. It’s not nasty or aggressive.

The game is awash with money, it’s time both we and the authorities became radically proactive in breaking this culture. Whether that means equipping officials with body cameras to record the abuse and the abusers, or instant red cards for abusing or intimidating a ref, or obliging clubs to enforce and police a non-abuse policy the way they would if this was racist abuse, it has to be done. With referees at amateur levels reporting it’s getting worse and having no faith in the system to protect them, it’s not hard to say we stand in the middle of some sort of crisis.

Referees from grassroots football met with FA chief executive Martin Glenn on Thursday to highlight the abuse suffered from amateur players. The charity Ref Support UK claims a strike could happen, saying that calls to its hotline are showing a rise in physical and verbal assaults.

The FA seem to see things differently, saying: “The vast majority of grassroots referees find officiating matches a wholly positive experience.” ‘Vast’? ‘Wholly’? I simply doubt that is the case.

As ever, in order to effect serious change, the solution lies in collective action. If officials do decide to strike, we should stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with them and do whatever it takes to break this normalised insanity and to make those who perpetuate it realise that it is they who are at fault and that it is they who must modify their behaviour. Even if it means not going to – or playing football – for a long time. There must be a profound change. We can’t let this just be the normality in perpetuity.

Without people to referee a game, we will have no football at all, so we should grow up and appreciate the officials’ efforts, not use them as a some sort of pinata upon which to unleash our own inner demons.

John Nicholson