Trevor Booking* is an up-and-coming grassroots referee who blows the whistle each month on what it’s really like to take control of grassroots games…
I’ve been a grassroots referee for more than ten years now. I continue to enjoy it (you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t) and I learn more every time I go up a step in the pyramid. Every stage presents new factors to take into account as it’s the little things which make refereeing at a non-professional level challenging. I’ve dealt with parents fighting, I’ve had to send off a riled up thirteen-year-old, and I’ve been told that my mum doesn’t love me (not true), but you quickly learn to deal with all that. Each level presents its own hurdles that you have to overcome and learn from.
When you reach open-age level, you’re on your own. Literally. There are no assistant refs with you and it can be a lonely stroll to the pitch. You need to find a couple of assistants pretty quickly, ideally one from each side. Easier said than done on a damp Sunday morning. After a bit of cajoling you can end up working with an over-enthusiastic fan on one flank and a sub on the other. The sub can go either way – usually they’re not keen on flagging against their own team, although if they’re a striker who’s been dropped, they’re not shy of raising the flag. I try and let them know what I want from them and spell out that they may be overruled if my gut tells me.
I learnt that the more experienced players were often the loudest. They usually identify themselves pretty quickly and if you build a rapport with them, everyone is in for a better game.
And gut feeling definitely plays a bigger role than ego. You may not believe it, but remember that next time you accuse a ref of ‘ruining the game’, they are well aware that being a grassroots referee is not cool. I certainly thought I was cool in my first game as a teenager, overseeing an U10s mini soccer match, but that quickly came to an end with the realisation that whatever level you’re at, there are twenty-two players who want to win and they’ll let you know about it. It’s not about you. Ever.
Rather than shoo appeals away, I prefer to be human and speak to the players to explain my decisions, especially to the more ‘vocal’. When I reached County League level, I learnt that the more experienced players were often the loudest. They usually identify themselves pretty quickly and if you build a rapport with them, everyone is in for a better game.
I’ve even been known to admit that I’ve got the odd decision wrong and will very happily apologise for awarding a throw-in the wrong way. Of course, there is a time and a place for that kind of admission, and a last minute penalty is probably not it.
*not his real name