Why are there So Few Football Referees in the UK?

Why are there So Few Football Referees in the UK?

It is
a six-figure job, with plenty of travel, free
tickets for the family and a world-class support network. Frankly, it is almost as good as
being a footballer, but English football’s attitude to those who oversee 850,000 games
a year is damaging the refereeing profession. At the depths of the pyramid, well away from
the Premier League and where most of the 31,735 Football Association-affiliated officials
do their whistling, it is a very different experience. According to the FA’s own figures, the game
lost nearly 6,700 referees last year. That was an improvement on the year before, when
nearly one in four referees quit. The good news is that English football is
replacing referees as quickly as it is loses them. The bad news is that four out of five
of these replacements are under 18, have done the training course as part of a PE qualification
or for their Duke of Edinburgh award, and will quit within two years. The explanation for why can be found on the
touchlines of far too many amateur and youth games every weekend, can be heard on radio
phone-ins, and can be seen on TV and social media. The former head of the Professional Game Match
Officials Limited, Keith Hackett, presided over hundreds of games in a career that started
when he was 16 in Sheffield’s local leagues and finished just short of his 50th birthday
in the Premier League. “There is a different intensity in amateur
and youth football to when I took up the whistle,” the 75-year-old Yorkshireman told The Athletic.
“The games are more competitive, more aggressive and more difficult to control. A lot of the
problems come from parents. It’s incredible how much abuse referees receive from the sidelines. “I don’t think the Match of the Day pundits
realise the influence they have. I did some big matches and made mistakes. But I don’t
remember living with the amount of scrutiny that today’s referees face. “And these inexperienced refs are held to
the same standards as the guys at the top of the pyramid — that can’t be fair. “I never felt frightened when I was a young
ref. I wasn’t intimated, I was welcomed. But the young refs now need a degree of resilience
that wasn’t necessary 40 or 50 years ago.” Martin Cassidy refereed in the Football League
until an injury ended his hopes of reaching the top-flight in 2006. He then spent seven
years as a referee coach for the FA before setting up Ref Support in 2016. Now a charity, Ref Support is an independent
voice for officials in the United Kingdom and Cassidy, as its chief executive, thinks
he knows why so many quit. “Some go because they’re too old, some
will go because they’re fed up of the abuse and some will go because they can earn more
money for less effort by officiating in unaffiliated five- and six-a-side leagues,” he says. But Cassidy also believes the authorities
are failing to protect officials by being too soft on violent players, a situation compounded
by local police forces’ reluctance to get involved. “If Martin Atkinson makes a mistake in a
game in London, is unlikely to get any grief the following day at home in Yorkshire,”
says Cassidy. “But if you make a mistake on Hackney Marshes,
you might see those players in the supermarket. Your kids might get a mouthful of abuse or
worse because their dad got somebody a three-game ban. “I know of a referee whose son plays in
the Premier League. He was assaulted during a game — a player tried to bite his nose
— and he wanted to report it but his son persuaded him not to because that team drank
in the local pubs. “Everyone who has played amateur football
knows there is a bad team in every league, the one that causes all the trouble. But there
is still no robust system for dealing with these things.” Having introduced its Respect campaign to
improve behaviour in 2008, the FA is keen to point out that only 0.01 per cent of those
850,000 games include an incident of assault. But Cassidy says that is still two a week
— “two-a-week too many” — and wonders how many incidents are unproven or unreported.
Even Field, whose organisation tends to be less critical of the FA and county FAs, thinks
the real figure is much higher. For Cassidy, Field and Hackett, the answer
is much tougher sanctions. The recommended sanction for making physical
contact with an official is a six-month ban. This could be pushing the referee or snatching
their cards away. For actually striking an official, the ban can be five years or even
life. While the FA has tried to make sanctions more
consistent across the 50 county FAs with centrally appointed disciplinary panels, they all wonder
why more indefinite bans, known as ‘sine die’ suspensions, are not being dished out. Ref Support has also lobbied hard to allow
officials to wear body cameras but the idea has been ruled out by the game’s law-making
body the International Football Association Board, of which the four British home nations
are permanent members. The FA believe there would be child protection
and data privacy issues if referees use body cams. Cassidy dismisses this and said he is
consulting lawyers over a possible challenge to the IFAB ruling at the Court of Arbitration
for Sport. “Refereeing can be brilliant but it can
also be better,” he adds. On this point, Field agrees but his answers
to the problems are slightly different. First, as the FA’s numbers would suggest,
recruitment is not the issue. In fact, there are waiting lists for training courses as
there are only 500 tutors in the country. Field would use some of the £35 million county
FAs have sitting in their bank accounts as “rainy day money” to double the tutor
pool. “There are people queuing up to give us
money — let’s make that easier,” he joked. But he also wants to give new referees
a lot more for their tuition fees, which range from free to £180 depending on which county
you try and how badly they need referees at that particular moment. He believes fewer referees would quit if the
training was better and there were more opportunities for continuous personal development. At present,
only referees who want to progress beyond level five on the pyramid — senior county
referees — have to refresh their knowledge or prove their fitness. More money for training would also make it
more likely that good, young, active referees, who tend to be trying to climb up the ladder,
would be willing to act as mentors, observers and tutors. Field wants the FA to do more for its officials.
He points out that the FA’s refereeing budget is about £1.8 million a year, less than it
pays England manager Gareth Southgate. “If you want a headline”, said Field,
“you could say the chairman of the RA thinks the FA should double the budget,” This year, he has also been working hard with
the Home Office and Sports Minister Nigel Adams to persuade the courts to “realise
an assault on a referee is not just a football matter”. Field wants the sentencing guidelines
changed so attacking a referee is treated in the same way as an assault on a police
community support officer or traffic warden. But he is less convinced by the latest iteration
of the FA’s Respect initiative: putting officials under the age of 18 in purple shirts
or yellow socks to highlight the fact they are children. “Isn’t it sad that it’s come to this?”
he asks. For him, any adult who abuses a young official
should be sent on a safeguarding course and if they come from a club with FA charter status,
the club should be in trouble, too. Field believes clubs with poor disciplinary records
should not receive grants from the football authorities. Cassidy is another who sees the purple-shirt
idea as well-intentioned but fundamentally depressing. “What does the purple shirt idea say about
how we treat referees? “he asks. “Can you imagine having to point out to people
that this person is a child in any other walk of life?” He is also fed up with those who abuse officials
on social media. “We’ve seen guys with senior roles at
clubs saying such and such ref ‘needs shooting’ or is an ‘effing cheat,’” he says. “I
am a big believer that the abuse of referees evolves in the same way that crime does and
if you don’t nip it in the bud you are asking for trouble later on.” But despite the annual churn, the scorn from
the sidelines, blockages in the pyramid, Twitter trolls and VAR controversies, Cassidy, Hackett,
and Field agree on one thing. “It is a fantastic career,” said Field. “I often say to young referees that somebody
has to take charge of the 2039 FA Cup Final — it could be you.”

39 thoughts on “Why are there So Few Football Referees in the UK?

  1. … because being a football hooligan is more fun. Referees don't make lifelong friends. And unless he's working for the bookmakers, nobody at the bar says "I'll like to buy that ref a beer."

  2. No one:
    Absolutely no one:
    Tifo football: Graham bell didn't invent the telephone, it appeared on a story he read by thE AtHlETic.

  3. Comments here just go to show, refs are there for one reason or another but presumably because they love football? Yes? They go out at every level every weekend in the cold and muck and have to take a less qualified moron giving him " big man " abuse at a game involving teenager's, this ref iseint some kung fu mthrfuckr he goes to some ground and has to be intimidated by some some baldy fat prince* who wont live past 50… shouting childish abuse at him, if only every ref knew kung fu… (the sad part, we're not talking about teenager's here)

  4. I can say from experience that the FA does nothing to help young officials. I was threatened by a club with a reputation for violence when I was 16. I reported what happened to my local FA and their response? The club saw no sanctions and I was pulled from all games for 6 months. I got punished for being threatened.

  5. Most of football fans that go to matches are chav scum. Same for players, most of them are chavs, in lower leagues. Feel sorry for refs.

  6. I trained at like 15. Pay isn't worth it. Parents are irritating and travel isn't covered which makes it pretty difficult.

  7. Used to be a referee myself at the age of 16/17. The insults and abuse you’re getting from people for making a wrong call just isn’t worth it. I believe this is a global problem.

  8. Abused referee should stop the match, give his cards and whistle to the guy who yelled the most and say: "Here, you do it if you think it is so easy"

  9. Lack of respect, lack of common courtesy, lack of civility and lack of values but also lack of moral fibre in the larger community.. The moral decay we've been warned so often about is finally here and this is one particularly short sighted and self defeating form of it.

  10. Very nice video, I have never thought to be in the "opposite side of the game". In addition to your video I believe that with the introduction of VAR, fans are more likely to find someone to get angry with, because you can't blame a machine. Then I admit the rules about how and when using Var sometimes are vague and not clear yet (I'm Italian and serie A is getting worse from this point of view), but I really believe that some people need to have someone to blame for their team's defeat.

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