The FAI and leagues need to take responsibility for the toxic environment they have created
When stories of abuse or violent threats towards referees roll around once again and manage to make the headlines, the response is always the same: “If there is no referee, there is no game.”
This soundbite is usually followed by lots of commentary and then the all-too-familiar inaction. However, as referees withdraw their services across Dublin this weekend, eyebrows will be raised.
When referees are refusing to officiate over underage and amateur-level football matches because of abuse and safety concerns, there is no doubt that grassroots soccer is in a very sorry state in Ireland.
As an avid football fan and very average player growing up, refereeing seemed like an exciting way for me personally to stay involved in the game.
There is nothing further removed from the glamour of the Premiership than taking on a bottom-of-the-league clash between two underage sides on a freezing cold January morning in a field that just about passes for a pitch. Yet there are so many brave souls who do it week in, week out.
For what? Could it be the money that just about covers your expenses? Or maybe it’s just the glory. Nonetheless, each week your referee will put on their fresh kit, polish their boots, and take on the challenge of applying the rules of soccer to the best of their ability.
Embarking on my own short career as a referee, I was prepared for the odd comment or remark from the sideline.
The FAI’s beginners course prepares you for the “ah here, ref” from a manager, or the “ref, are you blind?” from the odd parent. However, what it could never prepare you for are the abusive, degrading comments and threats of violence, which I quickly learned are all too common.
In no other area of life would anyone consider it remotely acceptable to verbally abuse another person in this way.
The loudest voices from the sidelines are typically the most uneducated on the laws of the game.
Most would never even have glanced at the rulebook. Some believe that they belong on Monday Night Football alongside Gary Neville, and that their sons and daughters are the next Ronaldo.
These wannabe pundits take their wealth of knowledge onto the park on a Saturday morning with a totally unrealistic expectation that the single referee overseeing their underage football match should be “SuperRef”, capable of substituting VAR, Hawkeye, four officials and slow-motion replays, without batting an eyelid.
While every referee strives to do their best, most never get every decision right.
After a manager attempted to strike me with a flag, I made the decision to throw my whistle in, fearing that someone else might take their threats further. Like many people, I was forced out of the game by individuals who went relatively unpunished.
Many of the individuals and clubs responsible for this behaviour are repeat offenders. Referees know the clubs and teams where they will be abused and individual leagues know the same.
Many clubs across the country set a high standard and demand that everyone representing them shows officials and opposition teams the utmost respect, and typically these were the successful clubs.
The FAI and its individual leagues need to take responsibility for the toxic environment which they have created.
It has been clear for a long time that a zero-tolerance policy is the only solution to this problem. Otherwise, referees will leave the game, others will not take their place, and the underage game will go into decline.
No other sport would accept this. If this is to change, strong action needs to be taken and it’s not even complicated – one strike and you are out.
If a manager or a parent decides to abuse a referee, they get a single warning, on a repeat offence the referee needs to abandon the match and go home. All three points are awarded to the other team and fines along with bans are issued.
How long would it take for clubs to fall in line?
When the referee walks off the pitch on a Saturday, we need them to want to walk back on the pitch the following week. Without them, there is no football match.
Maybe next Saturday if we all took the time to say “Thanks ref, good game”, we could start a movement.