The Whistleblower: The good, the bad and the ugly of refereeing schoolboy football
Emmet Malone on the ups and downs of being the man in the middle
Emmet Malone: “At the end, in front of the 14-year-olds he is supposed to be teaching about respect and sportsmanship, the manager tells me I am “a disgrace”. I leave feeling precisely the same way about him.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
It is 11.50 on a Saturday morning and I’m wondering, once again, why I am doing this.
I have just refereed my second schoolboy game of the morning and throughout it I have taken sustained grief from the manager of the visiting team; the high/lowlight has been him lecturing me on protecting his players as he attended to one injured in a clumsy collision with one of his own team-mates.
At the end, his assistant comes over and apologises though he has done nothing wrong.
As I leave the pitch at the end, as is standard practice, the home team manager pays me. Moments later, the visiting team’s tiny striker, who has generally looked a good player but for his persistently poor finishing asks me if they have given me extra for letting them win.
I’m pretty fed up and for a split second consider replying: “Yeah, but clearly not as much as you must have got for missing all those open goals”. Thankfully, I think better of it and avoid the loss of dignity that would inevitably accompany trading insults with a 12-year-old.
Being there in the first place is all a bit of an accident. An old friend had told me of having earned a few quid while studying in UCD 30 years ago by refereeing. I suggest doing the same to my daughter who was about to start studying there. I tell her I will do the two-day course with her but, after the timing repeatedly proves a problem for one or other of us, I decide to do it alone.
For a football reporter who has had the luxury, more than once, of checking some aspect of the laws of the game online while a referee is being abused by fans at a game for applying them, correctly it almost always turns out; it can only be a good thing. After completing the course, it seems daft not to do a few games and so off I go to the Dublin and District Schoolboy League (DDSL).
My debut, a game that involves a team managed by friends as it happens, is something of a learning experience but the fact that it is a very one-sided game makes the couple of disputed calls I make fairly irrelevant.
I get better pretty quickly but those early weeks are full of mismatched games like that. The South Dublin Schoolboy League has just been subsumed into the much stronger DDSL and as the process has been last-minute and rushed, a fair bit of guesswork has gone into placing teams in particular divisions. Most managers are pretty good about it all and there is a collective effort to avoid kids feeling humiliated.
After a few uneventful weeks I begin to think I have it licked. The games flow, my Saturday mornings are generally good-natured and it is all really quite nice to be a part of.
The worst thing I witness during that month or so is a parent reducing a child I presume to be his own son to the verge of tears by shouting at him that he is “an absolute disgrace”. His offence, as far as I can make out, is to restart play after a goal before I am ready. I call the boy back and make him kick-off again. There is a delay of a few seconds.
In one game I make a mistake and a manager gets on my case. Pretty soon, his players, emboldened, are doing the same. At the end, though, the coach who has berated me is transformed; cheerily remarking that it could happen to anyone.
Losing the head during games, it seems, is something you have license to do when you are a football manager. It is not the last time I encounter this attitude. The problem seems most acute among managers of better than average but not really good sides.
Other weeks, I find myself having to explain particular rules, especially ones that have changed, to disgruntled players or managers. Often, after initial anger about some decision they have managed to get pretty worked up about, the reaction is a sort of chirpy, “oh well, there you go”.
Then there is the bulk of it, making run of the mill decisions as best you can and sticking to them. Offsides, regularly a cause of debate when there are assistants and TV replays involved, are a persistent source of problems even though the coaches contesting my calls are very rarely in a better position than me to judge them. Nobody, with one or two very honourable exceptions, ever goes against their own side’s interests.
Bigger shouts, like penalty incidents, whether given or not, routinely give rise to fairly feisty debates. Only very occasionally do those arguing their corner cross what might be considered to be ‘the line’.
By and large, I think I do okay but then there are a good many occasions when you will simply never know whether you are right or wrong and I learn quickly enough that the reactions of the participants are generally not a very reliable guide.
In a less than ideal situation, you have to accept that you will get some things wrong and I tend to view it in much the way a player making a misplaced pass might, as part of the game. Most of those I encounter along the way clearly accept that you are doing your best. But not everyone is quite so philosophical.
On a particular Saturday morning I do three cup games, one after the other; all the same age group but varying levels of ability. The first is a decent standard and fairly competitive, the second much more about kids getting a run out. The third, though, is a tense enough encounter between two good sides who, I learn later, have recently had a fairly ill-tempered encounter in the league.
I do well, I think, in the earlier games and am happy with the opening stages of the third but the manager of the visiting team, an academy side from a League of Ireland outfit, is on my back from the outset, questioning every decision and, I really think for the very first time, deliberately trying to undermine me in a systematic way so as to gain an advantage.
My problems really start, though, with a challenge on one of his players a few metres out from the home side’s area. In what I still regard as a decent piece of refereeing, I move my whistle to my mouth while taking a second or two to weigh the situation up then conclude there is no foul and wave play on.
For this, in a field in the middle of nowhere in front of a few coaches and perhaps a dozen parents, I am loudly accused of having wanted to give a free but losing my nerve. It is ridiculous, and thinking he must really see that, I try more than once to point it out, explaining what happened from my perspective. It makes no difference. He abuses me from the sidelines and his players start to do it on the pitch. At the end, the home team’s manager tells me I shouldn’t have taken it and he is right.
As I walk from the pitch this time, the manager responsible for the problem casually points behind me and says I need “to sort that out”. I turn to see a mass brawl which we are told by locals had been started by one of the visiting players punching the home side’s goalkeeper. The manager is completely dismissive of the suggestion that one of his players is at fault.
In the 30 odd games I have been involved with, there was just one other like that. Most, two thirds maybe, go perfectly well with parents and coaches appreciative of the fact that you turn up on time and facilitate the playing of games that do clearly need to be refereed. You leave feeling like you have contributed something. A handful involve the sort of low-level stick from the sidelines I always would have expected, stuff that is generally set to one side at the final whistle.
On the day the photos accompanying this piece were taken, however, I again make the mistake of trying to reason with a manager whose initial criticism of me relates to a decision I still firmly believe was correct. I was in a much better position than him to call the incident and he made it clear at one point that he thought the free I had awarded, which led to a goal, had been given for something different.
Over the 40 minutes that follow he and another coach get into my head, however, with their persistent complaining and I do begin to question my own decisions, eventually making a couple of poor calls, although nothing that materially affects the outcome of the game.
Their team is ultimately well beaten and they actually acknowledge that this is not down to me but still they carry on. At the end, in front of the 14-year-olds he is supposed to be teaching about respect and sportsmanship, the manager tells me I am “a disgrace”. I leave feeling precisely the same way about him.
I should, of course, have sent him off but that still feels somehow like a sort of nuclear option in my head, one I am especially self-conscious about resorting to with team officials. In fact I have shown just one red card, to a player who kicked an opponent in the back in what was a good but slightly niggly game.
Later, as I prepare to start the second half, I absentmindedly point out to another player that his side is one short. Mustering heroic levels of contempt for one so young, he replies dryly: “Yeah, that would be the one you sent off in the first half”.
Smartarse kids, eh. Sometimes, there are just no killer comebacks.
Men in the middle
For the 31-year-old sales manager from Ballybrack, refereeing seemed an obvious way of staying in the game after he tired of trying to manage an amateur team.
“We were in one of the lower divisions of the Leinster Senior League and some of the players just weren’t all that committed which obviously becomes an issue for everyone,” he says.
“I had done some very casual reffing in the UCD Superleague and decided to take the course. Thought about giving it up again plenty since then but I’ve also had some amazing experiences over the last eight years.
“I’ve refereed in America, Norway, Taipei, England, Switzerland (organisers often pay expenses for referees to come and do games at invitation competitions); I’ve been involved in some amazing youth tournaments and made great friends here at home through it. It’s given me far more than I’ve given it,” concludes the Dubliner, who has done well enough back in the Leinster Senior League and elsewhere to be brought into the FAI’s school of excellence, a necessary step for any referee hoping to work at the highest levels of the Irish game.
The 21-year-old student and entrepreneur hit the headlines at the start of the summer when he announced on social media that he was to give up refereeing in the Kildare District Underage League “after four years of abuse and violent threats”.
Five months on, he still feels he had no option because, he says, of the lack of support offered when he reported a specific incident of being physically threatened by a team official during a game.
“I haven’t done a game since that day,” he says. “I thought they should have taken action and let me know what had happened but I literally never heard back from them after I had submitted the report.
“I didn’t think that they had an interest in protecting me or other referees and this was after what I think was about the worst thing that could happen short of an actual assault.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s something that I really enjoyed. My brother was a referee, my grandfather had been a League of Ireland referee so there was a connection but I didn’t feel that I could keep at it after that.”