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…
Even though he’s now Italy manager, clad in a collarless grey marl jacket with trusted lieutenant Gianluca Vialli by his side, Roberto Mancini still referred to a potentially uncomfortable fixture as being like a “cold, rainy, windy Wednesday in Stoke”. Years later, the scars remain, and for referees at any level there are certain types of fixture and locations which come with a heavy dose of trepidation. Occasionally, sight of the appointments list will be met with a groan or a sigh, although not always for the reasons you might think.
Officiating local leagues which cover a large area can simply be a logistical challenge. You wouldn’t want a ref who lives down the road and drinks in the same pub as the home side, which means often you’ve had to get up early to travel down and then struggle to find the ground along country lanes, all while knowing that your Sunday lunch is more likely to be a Sunday supper. And if you’ve had to get there by public transport, let’s just say that there’s an increased chance of an early yellow card or two.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to get the ref in a good mood. A hello, a cup of tea and a warm dressing room on arrival always go down well and those on the touchline can play a positive part, too. Most referees like a bit of friendly banter with those who have also given up their time for grassroots football. Unfortunately, banter can tread a fine line.
There are many “Stokes” which over the years have gained a reputation for creating a hostile atmosphere. This can be because of the behaviour of players, coaches or spectators and, yes, officials do share incidents that they’ve had to deal with at certain clubs. I can’t speak for all refs (as they don’t know I’m writing this), but these venues give me a bit of an extra buzz before the game. You know you’ve got a challenge ahead and you want to do your best, including not letting a club’s reputation or the atmosphere affect the balance of your decision-making.
In recent years, I’ve enjoyed seeing the rise of women’s football and taking charge of more female matches. Not long ago, being allocated a women’s game was seen as easy money thanks to the lack of backchat from players and coaches, but as the standard has increased, so has the competitiveness. Today, women’s football can often present the biggest challenge in terms of game management and you’re quickly on first-name terms with the captains!
Most refs can deal with the Stoke scenarios and many are even more up for that kind of match. Cold and wet are par for the course in English football, yet there is an element of the Potters cliché that rings true. I hate knowing that I’m heading to a ground where the wind plays as big a role as the players. A swirling wind usually ruins the match and tests the patience of all concerned. In the rare moments the ball is on the ground, all sense of timing a tackle can go out of the window, and I can be in for a busy ninety minutes. Give me a cold, wet, wind-free Wednesday in Stoke any time.
*not his real name