‘I’ve been slapped and stamped on’- an insight into life as a football referee in Norfolk
- Credit: James Bass
A shocking assault which broke the jaw of referee Daniel Sweeney in an amateur football game in the Republic of Ireland last year drew attention to an ongoing issue of abuse of match officials. But what is the situation like in Norfolk? DANIEL BENNETT reports...
Without them the hundreds of football matches which take place across the county each week would struggle to go ahead, but Norfolk's referees have said that barely a week goes by without an official experiencing some form of abuse.
In more serious cases, referees are threatened by players, coaches or even supporters or things become physical. In the very worst scenarios, referees are assaulted while doing their job.
Norfolk Football Association (FA) figures on incidents between players and referees, which cover football from step five and below down to the under seven age group, show that the most common incidents are dissent, which can range from anything from a player sarcastically clapping to swearing at the referee.
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There have been 879 reports of dissent this season, which includes 635 sin bins, while there were 1,518 cases, including 331 sin bins, last season.
There have been two reports of improper conduct against a match official including physical contact so far this season and four last season, while there have been seven instances of improper conduct against a match official including threatening behaviour so far this season.
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While the stats show that incidents of the most severe nature involving players and referees are a rarity in Norfolk football, with one assault having taken place so far this season and one last season, officials say that abuse is a real problem and many incidents go unreported.
Matt Newman, 45, from Dersingham, is in his ninth season of being a referee and officiates in the Anglian Combination and Thurlow Nunn leagues and said he has had two severe instances of physical abuse in his time as a referee, one in 2015 and the other in 2016.
'I was assaulted, a player slapped me round the face. I showed a yellow and he hit it out of my hand then slapped me across the face. I did nothing about it, I just ignored it' he said.
'The second one, I had already sent the player off through two yellows. He stamped on my foot three times and went to head butt me. He was threatening me after the game. I've refereed him this season.
'My concern is if that was a young person in that incident, they would probably quit. I have been threatened a few times.
'What got on my nerves more is the protection I got from the county. No one came with me to my next game. There was no protection there for the referees.
'Children's football is still just as bad, it's still really bad the abuse from the sidelines. I think every week a referee gets something said towards them, I think it's part and parcel of the game.
'I don't think the FA do enough about the parents and things like that.'
Matt Carpenter is football services manager at Norfolk FA and deals with the administrative side of the game, including referees, safeguarding and discipline.
He said: 'We provide as much support as we can. I hope we don't have referees who don't feel they can report to us but we will have referees who aren't happy with the outcome of things.
'You'll find referees who say that we don't support as well as we should in the same way you find that in any walk of life about anything, but we do the best we can with the resources that we have and policies and procedures in place.
'There's no doubt in adult football it's primarily players and managers, in youth football it's primarily managers and coaches and spectators.
'It's a significant challenge dealing with parents and supporters. We can't change an individual but what we can do is charge a club for not controlling that individual.'
Referee shortages are a real concern in some parts of the county. In December last year, the Norfolk FA issued a statement highlighting a 'worrying trend' in the decline of referees in the North West Norfolk League.
The Norfolk FA has a target that in each league, 90pc of matches have an appointed referee and last season every division reached that.
However, in the North West Norfolk League this season, the percentage of coverage has dropped to around 80pc.
Mr Carpenter added: 'In north west Norfolk we have challenges with recruitment sometimes and I would suggest a factor in that and indeed general referee recruitment is player behaviour, primarily around what you could loosely term as abuse.
'I wouldn't suggest that the North West Norfolk League is significantly worse than any other but it is one of the factors. Most of the time when you ask a player if they would become a referee, most of them will say no thanks and when you ask them why they say they couldn't handle the abuse.
'The overall experience isn't as good because it's not like having an independent set of eyes. The lower the number can be in terms of games that are in that position the better it is for all of us.'
Nationally, concerns have been expressed about the state of grassroots officiating, with former Premier League referee Keith Hackett claiming that many referees are 'operating in fear.'
It's been almost two years since many grassroots officials in England took to participating in a strike to showcase their frustration at the abuse they receive, which reportedly led to large numbers of games being cancelled.
Phil South, 39, from Diss, has been refereeing for 22 seasons and was named Norfolk FA Grassroots Match Official of the Year for 2018. While his experience and standing within the local game means he has a good relationship with many clubs, he explained how he is still subjected to verbal abuse.
'This season I reported a club. I sent one of the players off and I went off to make a sub and had my back to the stand and was sworn at. I reported it, if I hadn't had done that they would have carried on' he said.
'The outcome of that was that the club were charged and hopefully that will make them not do it again.
'I had an incident just before Christmas, it was the last minute and we gave a penalty. The manager gave us a lot of abuse, telling us we were a disgrace and we were awful along with some swear words. We reported it and that is all we can do.
'I can imagine younger refs getting more because players think they can bully them. They think they are going to push them into making decisions because they often get away with it.
'I think it's at the top of the game. You still get players in referees' faces and you can see the words they are saying and refs are shrugging it off. Someone sees that and goes down the park on a Saturday or Sunday and does the same thing.
'Clubs sometimes treat us like we're outsiders, like we aren't part of the day. I think it stems from managers and the kind of image they present to the teams. If the managers are respectful it feeds into the teams.'
Unlike many other counties, the Norfolk FA makes referee appointments to games centrally, rather than the leagues, and has a system in place to investigate reports of abuse.
Rebecca Burton, marketing manager at the Norfolk FA, said: 'At Norfolk because we appoint centrally, I hear it everyday, our staff know all the refs by name and can call them up. Personally I'd be very disappointed if they felt they couldn't report to us.
'There's a level of relationship that isn't there in other counties.'
While the Norfolk FA is in a position to punish those who abuse officials with fines and bans, Mr South believes that things often go unreported and that there needs to be more of an effort from referees to do so.
He added: 'I think until referees and the clubs take the time to report to the county FA that something has happened, then they won't know. If a ref doesn't report it then they can't do anything.
'I don't think there is enough, not that we want to report every one, but if it's severe enough to make the ref feel uncomfortable.'
The long-standing Respect Campaign has been in place since the 2008/09 season to encourage positive behaviour but further steps have also now been taken to tackle the issue, including the launch of the We Only Do Positive Campaign and the pilot of sin bins.
Despite the difficulties referees face, Mr Newman said he has always had the desire to continue.
'I just carry on despite that. I ref three or four games a week for the love of the game' he said.
How is the issue being tackled?
The Norfolk FA is piloting sin bins in an effort to encourage respect towards referees and reduce instances of abuse.
If a player is sent to the sin bin they are told to leave the field for a short period of time before being allowed to come back onto the pitch and all adult leagues in Norfolk are using them this season as part of a national pilot of the initiative.
Rebecca Burton, Norfolk FA marketing and communications manager, said: 'You'd be surprised at the impact sin bins have had with teams not wanting to lose a player for ten minutes. The pressure seems to come more from their peers now, it's had a massive, massive impact.'
This season has also seen the launch of the We Only Do Positive campaign, which aims to encourage a positive environment in youth football.
Ms Burton added: 'This January the 21 days of positivity started.
'The FA will send loads of information about how to create a better environment and do things in a different way to help with youth football. That's what the whole idea is trying to do.'