Can’t Live With or Without Them

Every Saturday morning, referees of all ages, all over the country, wake up and head to their local park to do a pitch inspection for a morning  kick-off. Referees are an integral part of the game we love and add a human element to those calls that are almost impossible to make, but one thing I learned as a referee is that you can never please everyone. 

You are always likely to be the villain of the piece… 

Perhaps this is the reason why so many referees retire early because when players, managers, and spectators are angry and want to make their voices heard, then criticism often turns to abuse.

The Referee Experience

As a referee, abuse is something that was not strange to me. Every weekend, when I was 16, it was most likely that I would be refereeing a game somewhere. Most of these games were fine, I met so many great people, some highly polite managers, parents who would compliment my performance, and players who were so talented they possibly could have played for academies. But sadly not everyone was like that. I was only 16 years old, just a boy, being sworn at and abused by people sometimes three or even four times my age – I think my blind teenage arrogance probably carried me through at some points, but for the less confident, it’s not that easy.

This quote from Ethan Evans (BBC Sport) “A couple of months back, I, being 16 years of age at the time, was told by a PARENT to meet him in the car park after a game in which he had to be sent off for being aggressive towards players of BOTH teams. Still, big changes are needed at the grassroots level sadly.” 

That is just one example of maltreatment that is a universal experience for most referees and unfortunately, there are many more. It is then unsurprising why so many of my friends who were enrolled in the refereeing program, and I, had given up by the time we started our A-Levels. 

Facts and Figures

Research done by the University of Portsmouth ( has found that approximately three in five referees have experienced physical or verbal abuse ‘Every couple of games.’ This research also uncovered that 93.7% of interviewed match officials claimed that they have experienced verbal abuse. This is a genuinely alarming piece of research, yet unsurprising, I am sure for most fans.

How can we see change?

As has always been so, footballers are highly influential to the youth of the day. If being like your favourite center-half includes abusing the referee, then that pattern will be reflected in grassroots football too. For referees officiating to at a lower level, it must start in the professional game. 

It works expertly in rugby, where the referees are respected, so why is abuse accepted as part and parcel of football? Criticism is acceptable in any job and should not be confused with abuse, but there is a way to criticize, and this should receive more attention from the football governing bodies. As a player, and a fan, it is easy to forget the feelings of the referee, believe me, I am guilty too, but we can all do better, and if we are open to this, change is possible.

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