Monday, 12 June 2017

2016-17 Review - Football and the Human Condition

Game 55, 2016-17

Most of us are doing
what we can...
It’s the last weekend of the season, and it ends up being another game when my expectations are confounded. These are not only two clubs I’ve had trouble with in the past, but the game is at boys’ U17 level - that age when hormones seem most volatile, and the urge to shove, kick or insult an opponent can override the threat of punishment. Just like last week, I issue a pre-match appeal for calm, sportsmanship and decency, and point out that we’d all like to reach the end of the season unscathed.

There’s a size and talent gap between the home and the away team, but they both play decent football. Lacking any subs, the away team tires in the second half on a hot afternoon. Unlike many teams in their age group, though, they don’t start kicking out in frustration, or to yell at each other’s mistakes. They keep passing the ball along the ground right until the final whistle. The young coach utters not a word in my direction all game.

We get through with just a single yellow card on either side – one for a second clumsy foul (away team), the other for chucking an opponent to the ground (home team). The latter offence happens ten minutes before time, with the home team already 6-1 ahead. “Hey, we’ve had none of that all afternoon – don’t spoil a sporting contest,” I carp. The player raises his arms to acknowledge the crime, and someone else agrees with me. Maybe a player, maybe a coach.  That’s as controversial as it gets.

This morning I tallied up the season’s stats. I refereed 55 games and handed out 154 yellow cards at an average of 2.8 per game. There were 17 yellow-red cards (counting ‘time punishments’ in youth games as a second yellow), and seven straight reds – six for violent conduct and one for serious foul play. I was surprised to see that there were 11 games when I issued no cards at all. I’d probably have guessed four or five.

Those figures point to the obvious conclusion. During some games it can all kick off, while during others both teams behave impeccably. In between lies the average game of fouls, moans and squaring up face to face, but even then it’s still just a minority of players that do the offending. Occasionally, I’ve been too harsh, but on the whole fairly lenient – feigning deafness, turning a blind eye, or giving players a second chance via verbal warnings when the laws demand a card.

How referees feel after a 'perfect' game
I’ve passed the exam and the fitness test for another year, which will be my fourth season in this country to add to the seven I refereed in the US. It would be an exaggeration to say that I unconditionally love refereeing, but for the most part I do enjoy still being part of the game. It keeps me fit, and it keeps me in touch with parts of the city I’d never normally see. Refereeing offers the opportunity to continue learning about both football and the human condition, every single game. That never gets boring, though it probably causes me to experience equal amounts of inspiration and despair.

Refereeing does mirror my experience of playing organised football for 40 years. Some days, everything runs smoothly, you’re right on top of your game, and you cycle away from the ground feeling like a puppy chasing a rubber ball across a lush green field. Some days, you have a fucking nightmare and find your solace in deep vessels of beer. Most of the time you’re just about content with your performance, but know there’s plenty of room for improvement. For now, you’re just about an okay referee in a just about okay world. I have to remember to enjoy it while it lasts.

Game 55: 8-1 (2 x yellow)

Monday, 5 June 2017

'Spin on this!' - When the ref strikes back

Game 54, plus tournament, 2016-17

Should referees ever lose their calm and take the low road? Absolutely not. Not ever. Which doesn't mean to say that it won't happen. On Saturday I felt, for the first time in over eight years of refereeing, that I didn't need to take the shit being thrown at me any more. It didn't help. In fact it almost lead to me being physically assaulted.

A festival, a jamboree, a day-long celebration
of the game and decent sporting values!
It's the time of year for corporate six-a-side tournaments, and I was one of several refs at an all-day jamboree spread out over eight mini-fields. It's also a good chance to exchange views and experiences with colleagues in the referees' tent, and the pay's generally a lot better than at our officially sanctioned games. The downside is that the tournaments follow a pattern as predictable as an unregulated teenage party when the parents are out of town for the weekend.

Things start peacefully at 9am. The sun's out and everyone's in a good mood, apart from the team in green, already marked out in the first 13-minute game of the day as serial moaners. For the first two hours, though, the consensus in the refs' tent is that it's all "very relaxed". But the weather's turning

Monday, 29 May 2017

Wishing all of you at Wankers FC a lovely, peaceful summer

Game 53, 2016-17

"Once apparently the chief concern and masterpiece of the gods," HL Mencken wrote, "the human race now begins to bear the aspect of an accidental by-product  of their vast, inscrutable and probably nonsensical operations." And that was without him ever having watched an amateur football match.

HL Mencken writes to Fifa
about reforming the offside law.
A visitor from another planet might have wandered past yesterday's game at the butt-end of a league so low that there's no way out but upwards, and rightfully asked, "What on your increasingly dysfunctional planet Earth is all the fuss about?"

Well, you might patiently explain to the alien, this is what we call a game. Games are played for leisure, fitness and entertainment purposes as an escape from the daily toil. It's the final day of the season, and the team in orange, who are mid-table, are hosting the team in green that is third from bottom.

"So the game in itself has no importance," muses the alien. Correct - it has absolutely none, you reply. "Then why," the baffled visitor continues, "are the men in green surrounding some of the men in orange and shoving them, and why is everyone shouting, and why is that older

Monday, 22 May 2017

The strange recurring case of Robbie Ratchet

Games 51-52, 2016-17

After a couple of years refereeing in the same city, you start to see familiar faces – coaches, groundsmen, fellow referees, even spectators, and of course the players. A handful are unforgettable, either because they threaten to kill you, or simply because they boast an amusingly alliterated name. That’s one of the reasons why I always recognise a player we’re going to call Robbie Ratchet. The other reason is that he’s a little bit nuts.

"Sir, I wonder if perhaps you might
reconsider that decision, please."
The first time I reffed a game with Robbie two years ago, he got into a verbal fight with some spectators during the first half. It’s theoretically a straight red card, but I had a word and told him to calm down. At half-time he came up to me with a grin and said, “I’m actually a really nice bloke.” Then in the second half he lost his rag at me for making, from his point of view, the wrong decision, and then committed a serious foul – within half an hour of telling me what a nice bloke he was, Robbie was off with a yellow-red card and his team lost 2-0.

A year later, I reffed the same team. Robbie was in the starting line-up, but not on the pitch as we were about to kick off. I asked his team-mates where he was. “Oh, he showed up late so he got dropped to the bench. Do you know him?” I recounted how

Monday, 15 May 2017

When coaches barge in to the referee's changing room

Games 49-50, 2016-17

I coach a boys U14 team and the other week I bollocked them for not shaking the referee's hand at the end of a narrow defeat, and for not congratulating their opponents. "I was ashamed to be your coach today," I lectured. "It's easy to be a good sport when you've won. Not so easy when you've lost."

The next game they lost 1-0, and they were just as pissed off as they'd been the previous week, but most of them remembered to behave about it in a half-way sporting manner.

Lost the game? Bite your
lip and shake it anyway.
Generally, a youth team's attitude is a reflection of the way they're coached. On Sunday I was warned by my refereeing colleagues about the "particularly difficult" home team coach ahead of a boys' U17 game. Well, it couldn't be any worse than anything else I've seen this season.

Let's first rewind quickly to the night before: game 49, boys U19, featuring a visit to the same club whose U17 coach freaked out at me last weekend. This gentleman's team was just finishing their game as I arrived, and he decided to invite himself into my changing room to talk about last Saturday's red card against one of his players for fighting.

"What a nice surprise to see you," was his snarky opening line, and that wasn't a good start, especially as he didn't even have the courtesy to knock. "My player's been banned for three

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A foul, a shove, then a full-blooded fist-fight

Games 47-48, 2016-17

The coach of the away team is on the pitch and yelling at me, even though his side is 3-1 up. I've just shown one of his players a red card. He's so outraged that he wants to take them off the field and concede the game. Even his own players are telling him that's a bad idea. They would rather play another ten minutes and take the three points than forfeit for a 3-0 loss on a matter of principle.

What's going on? It's a boys' U17 game, and up until the 68th minute it has been relatively peaceful. Only half an hour in, when the home team subs in a burly latecomer, do things heat up a little. He slots into the back four and immediately starts a little something with the opposing number 7 after a clash of adolescent bodies and egos. "It was pretty peaceful until you turned up two minutes ago," I say. "Cut it out." And he does.

Bremner and Keegan in the
good old days. 
The away team are league leaders and on the edge of winning the title. The home side are in mid-table, playing out the season without too much enthusiasm. One of their players, the number 16, takes exception to being fouled near the halfway line. He pushes the player who fouled him, the away team's number 15, who pushes him back. So then the number 16 thumps the number 15, and the number 15 thumps him back, and in the course of two seconds it has escalated to a full-blooded fistfight. Think Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan at the 1974 Charity Shield.

I run over, blowing away on my whistle, but by the time I arrive at the scene of the scrap the coaches on the touchline have intervened to break it up. I show both players the red card. The home team's miscreant is already running off to the changing

Monday, 1 May 2017

Playing dead on a Sunday afternoon

Game 46, 2016-17

Ten minutes to go, the home team is 1-2 down but pressing for the equaliser. They have a corner, and there's lots of movement and bustling about in the penalty area. I watch the away team's number 14 holding one of the home team's players, who is fighting back a little. I'm about to blow my whistle to stop the corner and tell them to quit when the home player lightly shoves the number 14 away from him. Number 14 falls to the ground, clearly dying.

Well, not dying, obviously. But it seems really serious. The emphasis here is on seems. In fact the home player hardly touched him, but it's sparked off a huge kerfuffle. I blow loudly and go over to intervene in what is becoming a massed swinging of murses and airing of playground-like whines. "Referee, red card! Violent conduct!"

Red for "violent conduct". Right.
I lose sight of the home team's player, who's merged into the melee. Very crafty. But I hadn't planned to send him off, or even book him. I just wanted a chat with him and the number 14 to tell them to stop acting like twats and get on with the game. We're nearly done, and there haven't been any cards so far. But I no longer have any idea who he is, so it's a non-issue. Especially as number 14 is still down receiving treatment for the cracked ribs, punctured lung and fractured knee-caps that must surely have resulted from the push, judging by the heroic cry of agony we all heard as he fell.

"What are you going to do?" demands the away team's captain. "Nothing," I say. "I didn't see which player it was, and as I've no linesmen to help me, that's it. Get your number 14 off and we'll play on." Number 14 limps

Monday, 24 April 2017

Worse than raging dissent - Mr. Calm and Rational

Game 45, 2016-17

Last season I refereed a game where the home team’s captain was a hypnotist. The first few times I gave decisions against his team he walked up to me and commanded, “Look into my eyes, referee. Look into my eyes.” I resisted this invitation on the grounds that if he really was a hypnotist, I might spend the rest of the game ceding to his will every time he said, “Mister Referee, you will now award my team another penalty kick. And the score is already 67-0.”

How to control a referee
who will not see reason
Of course the captain didn’t want to hypnotise me. He wanted to talk. There’s a certain type of player who just loves to talk. Not about the weather, or what you had for dinner last night, or the worrying rise of right-wing populism across the European Union. No, they want to talk about your decisions. These players are not necessarily the moaners and dissenters. Rather they think that, through a calm and rational discussion, they can persuade you that the foul you just awarded against their team was, in fact, not a foul at all.

It’s nice to imagine calling a halt in play while league officials rush on to the field with a table, two chairs, two glasses and a jug of water. The player and I sit down to review my decision at length. First, I give my point of view. The home team’s number 6, due to a combination of slowness, ineptitude and stupidity, had hacked down the opposition’s speedy, nimble winger. My garrulous friend sees it differently. His heavy, hulking, dead-eyed number 6 would never do such a thing. The winger clearly dived.

Unable to agree, and in the absence of video cameras at amateur grounds, we invite other players to

Monday, 3 April 2017

Sad confessions of a needy amateur ref

Game 44, 2016-17

How important is refereeing to me? I found out this weekend, when it looked like I wouldn't have a game. I had no idea what to do with myself.

It's alright when I travel out of town for the weekend. I don't even think about it. But if I'm at home and available on both Saturday and Sunday, then I am almost always assigned at least two games. This weekend I was only assigned on Sunday morning as a mentor to a newly qualified referee on a boys U13 game. Standing on the touchline taking notes - I don't mind doing it, but it's not the real thing.

Yellow fruit instead of yellow cards. 
On Friday I sent an email to the game assignors. Just to let them know I was around, like, and available if anyone called off at short notice. I got a sniffy email back saying there were plenty of refs this weekend, thanks, and that I shouldn't bother them by lobbying for games. Blimey, I was just trying to help. Or do they get a dozen emails like that from needy refs every Friday afternoon?

On Saturday I got up late, had a leisurely breakfast with the family, and then Mrs RT wanted to know what we should do with our afternoon. I admit that I was half waiting for a call to tell me to pack my things, get on my bike, and heroically step in to whistle a game abandoned by some unreliable and impetuous colleague who'd decided to fly to Vegas for the 

Monday, 27 March 2017

The benefits of an Early Yellow

Games 42-43, 2016-17

You should never set out with pre-conceived notions of what kind of a game you're going to be refereeing. I've written that several times before. Yet late on Saturday afternoon, as I cycle through the park and past the re-opened outdoor café with its patrons determined to enjoy the bright but still chilly spring weather, I'm thinking, "This game could probably do with an early yellow card."

Hold it high, show it early,
you pompous twat
How do I know that, an hour prior to kick-off and before even arriving at the ground? It's a boys' U19 game between two teams close to the top of the table. I've checked the statistics from when they met earlier in the season - seven yellow cards, two red cards, and two time-penalties (a 5-minute 'sin bin' sit-out for any player getting a second yellow. In the state where I ref there are no yellow-reds in youth football).

The two clubs are geographically very close, and there's a healthy crowd of around 60. I ask the away team to take their bench to the other side of the field, away from the home bench and spectators, and they seem quite happy to do so. I also locate two stewards, and tell them that they're responsible for crowd control. As we prepare to take to the pitch, I summon