He withholds his name because the FA would not look kindly on this kind of criticism. He is a mailbox regular and we are very happy to read more from him…
Youth football has a problem.
Not just the poor standard of pitches or the dearth of qualified coaches, it’s more fundamental than that. The escalating violence of parents and players is threatening to kill the game at youth level.
Sounds melodramatic? I can assure you it’s not. I’m a referee at both youth and adult level and referees officer for one of the largest youth leagues in the country and every weekend I play a small part in dealing with these incidents. Our league is probably not the worst – it covers one of the lowest crime areas in the country and does not include any large inner cities, yet on average we deal with 10-15 incidents every weekend, two-three which I would classify as ‘serious’.
Across youth football every weekend, parents fight on touchlines, officials are abused, threatened and assaulted and matches abandoned. These are no longer rare or isolated incidents. The usual response in some quarters is that football enflames passion and that a certain level of issues should be expected. That it’s not possible to play football in a ‘sterile’ environment or that the abuse is “no different to what happens at most matches”.
However, unless we address these problems, the game is at risk. Referee numbers are falling and most officials I know prefer refereeing in the adult game to youth football because there are comparatively fewer issues for match officials. Without some serious action, I fear that we could soon see the first fatality of a match official in the UK.
The national FA seems unwilling to address this seriously – you can’t enforce a ‘Respect’ code at youth level when professionals behave like thugs towards officials on TV every weekend. Similarly, until football administration wakes up to the severity of the situation and takes youth football discipline seriously these problems will continue to escalate.
Recognising that as volunteers running youth leagues, we have almost zero influence on the professional game, here are some suggestions on what could be done to try and improve the environment for everyone:
- All matches in youth leagues from u13 upwards should be officiated by qualified referees. Clubs and parents spend hundreds of pounds on pitch hire, boots, kit etc yet many complain that they cannot afford a referee. Clubs who fail to address Respect issues will not attract referees and should face sanctions.
- The FA Level 1 coaching badge should be expanded to include the basic referees course – too many ‘qualified’ managers simply do not understand the Laws of the Game (which are covered at only higher levels in the coaching badge).
- Managers should have to officiate at least one match per season (not involving their club). This might help them see things from a referee’s perspective.
- A consistent approach by referees in a league to discipline/cautions – I’m all for encouraging ‘time outs’ in mini-soccer, but once players are competing in 11-a-side they should abide by the same Respect standards of any age group. Just because a player is 14 years old, it doesn’t make it acceptable for him/her to abuse referees.
- Fines for the parents of players who are sanctioned.
- Use of player cards to be expanded – for those unfamiliar with these, a match official hands each player a card before kick-off, which they then present to their parent/supporter. It lists eight key messages to the supporter about how to behave. It sounds trite, but at the younger age groups it really does work.
- Leagues should consider establishing their own disciplinary committees – The FA cannot fine players at youth level and seem generally unwilling/unable to administer appropriate bans to deter future problems. Leagues can’t fine/suspend players but they do have a range of other options available.
- Silent matches – we have trialed playing some matches in a silent environment. Even the coaches have to be quiet. The surprising thing is that when we surveyed players, they enjoyed these matches more!
- Abuse of referees is not acceptable – too many people seem to think it is fair game – it’s not.
Ultimately, clubs need to take more responsibility for the behaviour of their players, managers and supporters. I suspect that many F365 readers have some connection to youth football through children, relatives or a club. If you feel strongly enough, consider becoming a referee. We are human and despite the challenges, it can be tremendously rewarding on occasions. The youth game needs more qualified match officials who are willing to help develop the next generation of players.If you’re at a match this weekend – we’ll be out there in the middle. Why not take some time to thank the referee at your game for giving up their time (whatever you thought about their performance on the day). It might just keep someone in the game and I can guarantee it will brighten their day.