Trevor Booking* is a grassroots referee who in each issue will blow the whistle on what it’s really like to take control of grassroots games …
“Stuck in traffic. Not going to make it in time. Sorry.” read the text message. The coach’s eyes turned to the crowd, made up mostly of middle-aged dads sipping coffees. Amongst these men a replacement ref needed to be found. Yet, each and every one took a sudden interest in their welly-clad feet and fixed their gazes to the floor. They were here to shout at refs, not get shouted at. Then, one fifteen-year-old boy stepped forward. And so began my life as a referee.
The cliché goes that people only become refs because they are rubbish at football. And in my case, that’s partially true. My little brother was the talented one in my family so on a Sunday I would rock up and watch him bang in hat-tricks for his Under 9s team. That morning I turned up, a moody teenager in tight jeans and a full fringe, still feeling the effects of four illegal cans of Foster’s down the park the night before. Little did I know that my weekend plans for years to come were about to be made.
As someone seen as impartial(ish), with the fitness levels required to do a little jog, knowledge of what constitutes a foul throw and the ability to point and blow the whistle at the same time, I was seen as having the necessary skills and the game could go ahead.
Walking towards the centre circle, something clicked inside me. I’d always loved football and the idea of running around a pitch and being at the heart of the action was strangely enticing. My grandfather had been a Class 1 referee and the thought of following in his footsteps added to the appeal. Wearing a pair of Vans and continuously flicking my hair out of my eyes, I set about controlling a bunch of eight-year-olds. Something made easier by how they moved around in one single mass, magnetically drawn to the ball.
That first match has now faded from memory, but it must have gone well as within a month I was learning the Laws of the Game and getting my first FA badge. And I’ve never regretted it for a second. Refereeing has provided me with some fantastic experiences and led to me making some great friends.
For many, the idea of someone being a ref and actually enjoying it is baffling. As the shortage of refs across the country proves. But, if you love football and want to be regularly involved in some way, it’s a genuinely rewarding thing to do. Yes, there will be times you step off the pitch and think “I never want to do that again” and then you remember you’ve probably said that about your day job a thousand times, too.
Like goalkeepers, referees are probably built a bit differently. You have to revel a little bit in adversity and, like shot stoppers, need to get straight back to it if you make a mistake. Yes, we do make mistakes. But without us you don’t have a game.
The referee crisis (one we can’t even blame on Brexit) can only be solved if the abuse of officials, both on and off the pitch stops. Everyone needs to play their part, starting with players and managers at the top of the game. If they chase the ref about a decision, kids think they can do the same. In recent years I’ve seen Under 10s lying on the floor after every tackle because it’s what the pros do…
I for one, though, aren’t going anywhere. The floppy fringe is long gone and I no longer manage the game in a pair of Vans, but the spirit of helping to keep the grassroots game going remains. Not all heroes wear capes.