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‘Referee, you’re a joke’: It’s now seen as normal to shout abuse

Lisa Fallon: The game started and pretty much straight away … I heard: ‘Referee, are you blind?’

Last Sunday I attended the Women’s FAI Cup final between Shelbourne and Athlone Town in Tallaght Stadium. As I arrived at the game, the crowd and atmosphere outside the ground was buzzing with a tangible energy. Men, women and children of all ages decked out in their club colours in anticipation of a great contest.

Shels, under Noel King were going for the double, while for me Athlone have been the story of the 2022 season.

Under manager Tony Hewitt they pretty much came from nowhere this year to finish second in the WNL, just two points behind Shelbourne and here they were, franking their credentials in the cup final. I was also looking forward to seeing goalkeeper Niamh Coombes, a player I had the pleasure of coaching when she was the netminder for the Peamount United Under-13 development squad when I was their manager way back in 2011.

The game started and pretty much straight away the ref abuse began. Just in front of me, when Shelbourne were awarded a free-kick, I heard: “Referee, are you blind?” There were a few chuckles from those seated nearby and I don’t know, maybe she felt those smiles and half laughs were an endorsement.


Either way, it continued.

Shelbourne scored early from a free-kick and there was a question mark over the goal. There may have been a foul on the goalkeeper but in real time, from where we were sitting, it was hard to really tell. “Referee, you’re a joke. That’s a disgrace. Go back to school. You’ve no idea what you’re doing.”

It went on and on and on, every break in play, every time the whistle sounded, whether they were good decisions or 50/50 calls, there was a loud comment designed to be heard.

The novelty wore off pretty quickly in the stands and it just so happened that Paula Brady, a genuine pioneer in Irish refereeing was sitting close to me. After the first few comments, we exchanged disappointed glances but as the aggression grew and consistency in them grew, Brady leaned into me and said: “This is the problem. People don’t associate that behaviour with the problem. They think it’s only about assaults.”

How true that statement is.

Now, I’m no saint myself. I remember a game down in Castlebar about 10 years ago when Brady had to remind me of my responsibilities after I disagreed with a decision she had made, so I know we all have to check our behaviour and challenge it when our emotions get the better of us.

But this was incessant.

I’ve written in these pages previously about microaggressions and how the little comments build up over time and have a nasty cumulative effect. It happens to female coaches, female referees (ask Michelle O’Neill about her recent experience at the Dundalk v Bohemians League of Ireland match), but in this instance, at this game, the match officials were all male and the abuse was coming from a woman.

All that abuse adds up and has created a culture whereby it’s perceived as normal to shout abuse at referees

The truth is, many people are guilty of abusing referees but don’t think they are. It’s like that parent or coach on the sideline roaring at the children. Why is it different when it’s the referee you’re shouting abuse at?

All that abuse adds up and has created a culture whereby it’s perceived as normal to shout abuse at referees, funny even. “Ref, you should go to Specsavers.”

From next weekend, and up to December 2nd, the amateur and underage referees in Dublin will go on strike after a unanimous vote due to a lack of confidence in the sanctions against perpetrators of assaults or attempted assaults against referees.

The incident I’m talking about happened in a women’s match, by a woman towards a male referee. Why should that be seen as any different to the abuse Michelle O’Neill got from the Bohemians a couple of weeks ago?

About 10 years ago I was at an underage match in Dublin and every time one of the young black children on the Bohemians team got the ball, some of the subs on the opposition sideline were making monkey noises. There was a stoppage in the game and we called the referee and drew his attention to it, in case he had not been aware.

A few minutes later, it happened again, this time louder from children on the sideline, who now thought it was really funny as did their team-mates who challenged the black child more than a little unfairly, resulting in a free-kick being awarded. The perpetrator of the foul stood over the player on the ground asking if he needed a banana. Even some of the parents and coaches on the opposite sideline thought it was good banter.

He looked straight into our eyes and said: ‘If I do anything, I won’t get out of the car park in one piece’

We called the referee again, explained that this was unacceptable and that he needed to deal with the situation. He looked straight into our eyes and said: “If I do anything, I won’t get out of the car park in one piece.”

Our side was 2-0 down in the game and we made the decision to pull the players off and leave. We did. I think a letter was sent. I don’t recall any major outcome but I often wonder if that player, or referee, stayed in the game.

Would you?

About 66 per cent of new referees leave the game within two years of completing the Referee Beginners Course. “Referee abuse” is the main reason why they walk. Not assaults. Abuse.

We all need to check the comments we make and our behaviour towards referees. We may be a bigger part of the problem than we realise.

The little things really do become the big things.