Hundreds of junior soccer matches have been cancelled next weekend with referees protesting against abuse and threatening behaviour from the sidelines.
While a group of about 80 match officials made the decision to withdraw their services following incidents over the weekend, the leagues themselves called off games in response.
The decision, which affects thousands of players between the ages of seven and 18 in the North Dublin Schoolboys and Schoolgirls League (NDSL), the Metropolitan Girls League (MGL) and the Eastern Women's Football League (EWL), is expected to prompt action amongst clubs.
On Monday, NDSL chief executive Tony Gains said the referees' decision had come about due to inappropriate conduct from managers, players, coaches and supporters.
“This weekend a female referee refereeing her first game of three games was abused so badly from the time she entered the pitch, she decided that she is not taking any more of this abuse from these people and she has now decided to give up refereeing entirely,” he said in online post.
“Another young referee who has only been refereeing for the past two months was petrified on the pitch, he was so afraid even to collect his gear. This abuse he took was absolutely disgraceful.”
Describing it as a “sad day for football”, Mr Gains said he had informed the league disciplinary committee to adopt a zero tolerance response and to “penalise these culprits where it hurts”, a swift response welcomed by match officials.
“Let me remind all our clubs you are responsible for the conduct of managers, players, coaches and supporters.”
The North Dublin Schoolboys/Girls League, which is more than 40 years old, is the second biggest league in the country, and organises matches each week involving 13,500 children. In total, some 550 games in the Dublin area will not go ahead next weekend.
Sean Slattery, vice president of the Irish Soccer Referees Society (ISRS) whose members were among those involved in calling the strike following a Whatsapp exchange on Sunday evening, said the issue was about leagues and clubs not using the rigorous sanctions already available to them.
He said obscene language and prolonged criticism of match officials - referees often run games on their own - was commonplace in front of small children, serving to normalise the behaviour.
“There is a feeling that a lot of it is just being ignored,” he said. “All we are asking for is for fair play; if the sanctions are there, use them.”
Although lengthy bans for violence and lesser bans for verbal abuse are available, often clubs receive small fines alone, he explained.
“A lot of the time it’s the same people and there is the impression that [if] I’m not going to lose anything I can keep behaving like this. The kids are watching that and they can think it’s ok to behave like that.”
The situation is felt to have worsened since families returned pitch-side following the lifting of Covid restrictions. The ISRS, which has 260 members, welcomed the move by the leagues to call off matches in response to the concerns and will now await a meeting to address remedies.
Nathan Rogers (25), who has been refereeing for seven years, said abuse hurled at him during one of three games on Sunday led to him giving one club manager an ultimatum - either an aggressive parent left the sideline or he left the game. Referees, he said, are now worried such incidents could escalate to the point of violence.
“You are kind of scared for yourself; what’s going to happen now? You are looking out for that man in case he comes back,” he said. “It’s a doubt in your mind and it can distract you from the match.”
Mr Rogers said he and his colleagues hope a greater level of respect might now come about. “Without us there is no game,” he said.