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Grassroots football has returned in 2021/22 for what will hopefully be the first full season in recent years. While there has been widespread positivity, unity and gratitude among much of the grassroots community, one topic has received more attention than ever this season: the high levels of referee abuse. Alex Waite takes a closer look at the extent of the abuse and its impact on the grassroots game.

By Alex Waite

After two tough seasons of disruption, hearing the phrase “null and void” countless times and utter uncertainty about whether grassroots football would ever return, the 2021/22 season has kicked off in recent weeks and there is a sense of optimism. Thousands of clubs, players, referees, fans and coaches have taken to social media and shared their passion for the grassroots game. 

Despite so much unity from the grassroots community, one ongoing issue continue to tarnish the game. Weekly reports of officials facing verbal, physical and threatening abuse, sometimes towards young referees under the age of eighteen, has highlighted the negativity of some corners of the football community. 

In response, clubs, leagues, County FAs (CFAs) and referees are speaking out more than ever about the impact of the abuse and how this deepening issue could threaten the future of grassroots football. 

 “Players say it’s all forgotten about on the final whistle, but it’s really not”

Abused Referees Leaving in Droves

The increasing mistreatment of referees is causing shortages across the country. Leagues are struggling to find enough officials and many in black and white have had enough of the consistent negativity each weekend. 

Statistics suggest that grassroots referee abuse has reached a crisis point. Dr Tom Webb and Martin Cassidy, co-authors of the 2020 book Referees, Match Officials & Abuse found that 93.7% of football match officials had been physically or verbally abused during a match. Their research also highlighted that nine in ten referees said they had been verbally abused, with 59.7% experiencing some form of abuse every two games.

The findings suggest that there is a problem with how referees are treated in amateur football, especially when compared with other sports. For example, around 55% of officials in cricket and rugby said they experienced abuse while in charge of a match.

Recent revelations from CFAs paint a similar picture, which shows the problem is nationwide. During the opening weeks of the 2021/22 season, some CFAs have gone public to emphasise the true scale of referee abuse and to highlight the knock-on for recruiting and retaining officials. 

Firstly, Ross Joyce, the North Riding FA Referee Development Manager, wrote a public letter on September 9 outlining how re-registration of referees was down 31% from last season. A week later, Nick Dunn, Referee Development Officer for the Kent FA, also penned an open letter and he highlighted a similar downturn this season, with a 24% loss of referees in 2021/22. 

Dunn added a further explanation on how a loss of referees impacts the entire football community, with the shortage leading to “approximately 8,000 matches being played without a referee” per season.

More CFAs continue to speak out about rising levels of abuse, with James Pearson and Colin Miles of the Hampshire FA being the latest officers to address participants in their county on September 28. They expressed concern at the “high levels of abuse not only towards referees but amongst players and officials, particularly at youth level”. 

These figures paint a stark and unprecedented picture of referees leaving grassroots football. Openness and sharing from the CFAs are not without context either. Joyce and Dunn, in particular, acknowledge how the Covid-19 pandemic played a role in referees leaving the game. But the overriding theme is clear; referees are facing so much abuse that they do not want to remain a part of grassroots football. 

One Attack from Disaster

The level and consistency of abuse is a concern for officials themselves. Many are speaking out about individual experiences that confirm how mistreatment remains one of the key factors in referees leaving football. 

Verbal and physical abuse seems to have increased since football returned after the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Ant Canavan, who began refereeing in Cheshire in 2003 and created the Referee Forum platform to support officials, explained how he witnessed a noticeable increase in abuse when people took to the pitch after lockdown.

Canavan said: “When we came back from the first lockdown, I remember there was a markedly increased vitriol from a lot of supporters and coaches. People had been locked up for ages and for whatever reason they found themselves frustrated in lockdowns and their release was to go down to the local park and shout at the referee, opposition players and it was some awful stuff. 

“I’ve seen mass brawls that included spectators in the Liverpool County Premier League. Players are definitely fighting each other more and being aggressively verbal with their own teammates as well as officials.”

The concern is that one punch, kick or push could take the life of an official”

But the abuse Canavan has seen does not end at the final whistle. He has also noticed how abuse that begins on the pitch continues on social media post-game, which has a psychological impact. “The mental health of referees that get absolutely slated and abused is severe. Refs take that away with them off the field of play. Players say it’s all forgotten about on the final whistle, but it’s really not.

“You can’t forget about the game because you’ll get home and there will be tweets waiting there for you or if they’re not directly at you, some of the clubs will be talking about you.”

Nathan Sherratt, a referee in Durham and Managing Director of the Third Team, has also seen instances of physical assault that have impacted him and the players whilst officiating. “I remember being pushed by a coach physically, I remember situations where players have assaulted each other where it’s become difficult for myself. I had an incident where one player assaulted another player and it became a criminal situation. I was working with the police to help them because I was the responsible person in charge at the time and I didn’t have the support to help me as a referee.”

As opposed to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, Sherratt points to another reason for the rise of abusive instances, particularly, homophobia, racism and sexism. Sherratt, a mixed-race official from an Asian-British background, explains how he has seen more racist and homophobic incidents in recent years after the Brexit referendum in 2016. 

“Brexit made a massive difference in the way society has been and society is always reflected on the football pitch,” said Sherratt. “A lot of racist views are emboldened and people are emboldened to make those views known. The season before last, I was four or five years into my refereeing career and I’d never dealt with a racist incident before and I’ve probably dealt with five or six since then. It’s not just racism, there’s also sexism and homophobia massively on the rise. I sent two players off last season for homophobic language and, in a season that was condensed by the pandemic, we only refereed for two or three months so to have two red cards for those situations reflects the climate.”

All of these incidents, especially those directed at referees, are so commonplace within the game that CFAs and local leagues simply cannot deal with the sheer quantity of abusive cases on an individual basis. 

Will Sanderson, Discipline and Referee Officer of the Kent County League, faced severe physical abuse when officiating as a sixteen-year-old assistant at a men’s game. However, he has noticed a difference between the support he received after he was attacked, compared to when a referee experiences a similar situation today.

“I was assaulted as a sixteen-year-old assistant in 2008. I was asked to sort out an incident and was punched in the back of the head and kicked in the head. After the incident, I received support and care from the FA but there are just too many cases going on out there now to deal with. I had the support that was good enough to make me continue as a referee.”

Sanderson acknowledges how the lack of support for referees facing abuse is leading to younger referees leaving quicker at the grassroots level. He said: “You get left to it unless you seek out support. We have eighteen-year-olds going straight into men’s football and if they haven’t got the tools to deal with some of the abuse, they won’t go back out.”

Having the tools to deal with verbal and physical abuse is almost seen as part of the parcel of being a referee at all levels. There is a near normalisation that links being a referee with being abused in the current climate, which can lead to life-threatening scenarios in the most extreme cases.

In December 2012, Richard Nieuwenhuizen was a volunteer linesman at his son’s match in Amsterdam, Holland. After the final whistle, Nieuwenhuizen was set upon by a group of players, aged fifteen and sixteen, who disagreed with a number of decisions made during the match. 

Nieuwenhuizen was punched, knocked to the ground and kicked in the head, and after refusing medical attention following the attack, the forty-one-year-old’s health deteriorated quickly. He eventually collapsed and died in hospital. 

In the UK, there have been similar situations in recent years where referees have found themselves in dangerous situations. Satyam Toki, a twenty-eight-year-old referee, sent off a player for foul language during a game in Ealing, West London in August 2020. After the incident, the player confronted Toki and he was struck and kicked repeatedly, which led to facial swelling, cuts and bruises. 

There is fear among some in the grassroots community that a similar incident that led to Nieuwenhuizen’s death is going to happen in the UK soon. The concern is that one punch, kick or push could take the life of an official. 

Reflecting on the situation, Canavan said: “If you swear at the ref, they have the tools to deal with that with the yellow and red card, but what we don’t have to deal with is when it becomes physically confrontational and that’s where it crosses the line. Even if it’s one person coming towards you in the wrong way it can turn into a pack mentality and the punches can start flying. All it takes is the wrong group of people and the referee and we’re in a dangerous scenario.

“There should be zero risk for a referee going out there and officiating a game of football… It’s a matter of time before a ref gets caught wrong with a punch and it kills that referee.”

No Referees, No Game

The severity of referee abuse is clear, but there are also unseen personal situations taking a toll on referees. 

Often, the demands of officiating at the weekend and finding a work-life balance can cause officials to step away from the game they once enjoyed. One referee from the South East, who worked his way up to become a level four official and had a potential path to referee in the Football League, decided to take a sabbatical from the game. The demands of refereeing, along with the pressures of everyday life eventually became too overwhelming.

“I started feeling anxious about Saturdays. I would work all week and I noticed that I would start thinking about matches and didn’t want to go. Part of it was that I took on more of a stressful job and was less willing to give up my weekends, but I would wake up on Saturday mornings and have that dreary feeling that I did not want to go and as crowds got bigger it felt more stressful. 

“You know you were walking into something that could potentially be tricky, you could be abused by a spectator, a player, a coach or a manager, I felt there was a high chance of that happening and it made me not want to go.

Referees are regularly dealing with too many confrontational and sometimes extremely dangerous situations, which is causing officials to take a stand and leave the game”

“I came to a crossroads where I needed to make a decision and, weighing it up, I questioned what would be better: would it be spending my weekends going to watch my team play, or spending time with my friends? Or is it running around being shouted at by twenty-two blokes and 400 people in the crowd? At the moment, I don’t think it’s something I’d go back to.”

Thousands of referees across the UK are now facing similar, personal decisions. The choice is between stepping onto the football pitch and dealing with something potentially threatening or having more time for a personal life. 

Until conditions for grassroots referees become safer and their contributions to football at all levels are respected and valued, more officials will continue to step away from football and leave more games unable to go ahead. 

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