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Simply the worst job in football?

Michael Ballack and Tom Henning OvreboThere’s rarely a weekend that goes by without some controversy over a referee. And that’s just the Premiership, 10 individual games, as they are the high-profile games that attract the most attention and the most comment. If you support a football team, you all have a list of referees you don’t like. Many would struggle to name a list of those they do like, the best you could hope for is a referee you are not openly hostile to.

Mark Clattenburg is my personal pet hate. A wide array of  controversial/blatantly wrong decisions trail behind him, and his palliness with big name players infuriates me and makes my skin creep in equal measure. But of course each referee has a different style, what with them being humans and not robots, so it’s inevitable we will warm to some more than others. Or more to the point, cool to some more than others. And we’ve all been at matches directing swear words pitch-wards, at another appalling decision by the referee, who’s blinkered beyond belief, and has clearly been paid off by the opposition, and doesn’t know what he is doing and wears dark colours and has suspect parentage. But then that’s football fans all over. He probably got most of the decisions right.

Everything is scrutinised now to the nth degree, and beyond. Every free kick, foul, penalty claim, handball, throw-in, every single decision. An assessor sits in the stands marking them. TV, radio and print pundits lay into them for not applying common sense or not turning a blind eye as it’s the 90th minute and 4-0, slagged off because they missed a foul, or a corner, or for the heinous crime of applying the laws of the game. In 90 minutes of frenetic action (to be honest it’s 60 minutes play on average), they are expected to call everything perfectly, to analyse player histories in a split-second (“should get the benefit of the doubt there, he’s not that sort of player”), and generally keep 22 spoilt brats in check (plus managers). All this is part of the nastiness and anger that pervades the modern game. Everyone is upset, about everything (see previous blogs), we hate, we shout abuse, we snarl. Referees are the easiest of targets.

The Premiership referees are the lucky ones, the ones that made it to the top of their profession. Scrutinised they may well be, but they are also well remunerated, involved in high-profile games, and protected to an extent from the high level of abuse that those lower down the ladder are subjected to.

Which makes me wonder. Who would want to be a referee?

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I would guess the main reason someone would take on such a role would be for the involvement in the game that they love. The vast majority of us cannot play football at a sufficient level to earn from the sport. Some accept watching, playing Sunday league, 5-a-side, or just writing blogs whilst sat at work. But refereeing allows us to be involved, possibly at all levels – it allows a person who cannot play football to a high standard to be involved in a World Cup final. For some it is a job – for a teenager it is often easier money than other available work, as a friend explained to me as to why his son chooses to do it.

But that’s just my theories on why. An actual referee would give a better answer. So I asked ex-referee Jeff Winter, and this is what he said:

“In view of the present attitude to match officials it is surprising that people still want to officiate, its just as well though, as local Sunday teams will testify, no referee no game. The love of the game and the desire to be involved at a level that their footballing abilities would not allow fortunately encourages officials to continue. You become immune to criticism as it is evident that no matter what decisions you make you will never appease everyone. Such is the attitude of players and supporter’s bias will always overrule sportsmanship and acceptance of decisions that go
against you.

Personally I started refereeing because I was not good enough to play at a decent level, as an avid football fan I felt that by attempting to ensure fair play it would improve the enjoyment of the players and contribute to the spectacle. Despite all of the criticism I would not have changed anything, my career saw far more highs than lows and I miss being involved. That being said I think today’s referees are in an unenviable position, they cant win and the enjoyment must be curtailed by the constant criticism and media bashing they have to tolerate.”

The Respect campaign was launched to try and make things better, to end the cycle of abuse, to stop the swathe of referees that were giving up, having had enough of the constant abuse and threats, from footballers to angry parents alike. In Saturday and Sunday leagues (where referees often have no linesmen to support them), assaults on match officials always run into the hundreds each year. The Manchester County FA alone recorded 42 attacks on referees in the 2008/9 season. That is just the physical assaults, and the ones that get reported. The verbal abuse is too commonplace to document. The Respect campaign was devised with the hope that a reduction of abuse of top officials would lead to a trickle-effect down the football pyramid. It is a long-term project, and it is why managers like Alex Ferguson questioning the ability and integrity of referees will be met with harsh punishments. Seventeen thousand FA coaches are trained in Respect measures and 752 leagues have signed up to the Respect programme (according to the FA website).

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In a Telegraph article on this same topic in October 2009 by Jim White, Iain Blanchard, the Football Association’s national head of referee development, explained how something had to be done.

We needed to raise awareness of the issue,’ he says. ‘Eighteen months ago the referee dropout rate was as high as 80 per cent in places. The level of abuse is appalling. What some people don’t seem to acknowledge is that the referee is vital to the working of a match. Without a referee you simply will not have a game of football.’

According to Andre Marriner, 38, who joined the elite list of Premier League referees in 2004, the rewards are manifest. ‘For me there’s nothing better than being a referee,’ he says. ‘I was at Everton the other day, one of my favourite grounds, and the atmosphere was amazing. Running out of the tunnel, the sound of the crowd, the compactness of it all, it makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck just thinking about it. There is nowhere else I feel more alive.’

As for whether it is working, the figures differ, but it does appear to be. The Radio 5 Breakfast Show said recently they had seen figures that the FA use internally that the number of assaults on referees had gone up by a quarter in the last year, though the number of the most serious type of attacks had gone down.

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The FA website say the campaign is definitely working. It cites the following evidence:

  • The Football Association estimates that in some areas of the country, 20 per cent of games are played without a qualified match official. The FA National Game Strategy goal is to recruit 8,000 new referees by 2012 as well as retain the existing 26,000 officials to ensure that in future, every game has a qualified official who is receiving regular training and support from an FA mentor programme and helpline.
  • Dissent cautions across top four divisions of the professional game were down by nine per cent last season (2009-10).
  • Referee numbers are up 7.4 per cent year-on-year.
  • Assaults on referees are down 13 per cent year-on-year.
  • Forty per cent of the grassroots football community has seen their experience of the game improve as a result of measures introduced through the Respect programme.
  • This season there are more than 27,000 referees in England, up 5% on last year.


There are additional mountains to climb too if you happen to be a woman. Richard Keys and Andy Gray epitomised the problems faced, it is still often a man’s world, but the likes of Sian Massey have apparently helped create an upturn in female referees in the game. And the National Referee Manager, the person in charge of all the referees in England, is a woman, Janie Frampton. FA “stats” show female registration figures in coaching, playing and refereeing are up 12 per cent on 2010, and 344 per cent up on 6 years ago.

Whatever your thoughts on referees, it is clear they do a very tough job, and run the gauntlet every time they step on the field. Without them, we wouldn’t have a game to watch. Maybe it’s about time we gave them a break.

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Article title: Simply the worst job in football?

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