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EXCLUSIVE | Referees targeted with abuse as early as grassroots level

Referee abuse may have hit the headlines in recent weeks, but it’s nothing new in football - with even our youngest officials being targeted. 

referee abuse

By Steven Oldham

Young refs targeted from sidelines

As we explored last month, referees are regularly subjected to abuse despite being a vital part of the game we know and love. 

Bristol Manor Farm manager Lee Lashenko was filmed confronting referee Richard Lawrence following his side’s game with Paulton Rovers. Both he and the club apologised in the days after the event, but he was subsequently charged under FA rule E3, pending appeal.  The rule surrounds improper conduct and can result in a touchline ban and fine when breached.  

Now one former youth referee - who has asked to remain anonymous - has spoken out about the incident that put him off officiating for the rest of his life. 

He was under 16 at the time - refereeing an U9s game - when one manager spent the game berating him from the sidelines. To their credit, the opposition manager was supportive of the young referee. 

“One manager was relentless towards me pretty much from the first whistle to the end of the game. I got constant criticism for every decision, and he let me know exactly how bad he thought I was. 

“It makes you question what you’re doing - am I making mistakes? If I’m making the right decisions, why is someone treating you that way? It plants that seed of doubt in your mind, and you’re then reffing the game on eggshells because you don’t want to make more mistakes in that guy’s eyes. I was counting down the minutes on the watch to half time just so I could get away from him,” he said.

Referee: “I felt like I was on trial” 

Having completed the game and made a swift exit before any further confrontation could follow, he sought advice from his father - also a serving referee.

After informing the league he wanted time off to consider whether he wanted to continue in the position, he filed a report to the county FA.

A few weeks later, a letter arrived inviting him to an appeal hearing.  The manager was protesting his innocence. 

“It crossed my mind straight after the game, that if this is how it was, then it’s not for me. My dad told me to report it, and what to write in a report. I was a young kid myself. I got off lightly - if a manager would treat me like this as a child, what would they do when I became a man? 

“After filing the report,  I didn’t think anything would come of it.  I was dumbfounded when the letter arrived to say he was appealing.  I didn’t know how someone could have the front to appeal. 

“I had to take time off school to go to the appeal, knowing I would have to relive it and go through it all again.  My dad told me that it was likely he would be in the room which was quite daunting.  I’m not the most confident person anyway, but just the thought of having to see him again was terrifying. 

“There were three refs on the panel.  It felt like I was the one on trial and getting the grilling. It felt like I was in the wrong and I had to prove my innocence, rather than the other way around. It certainly didn’t give me confidence that if anything like that happened again I’d want to report it,” he said. 

“It’s not worth the abuse” 

He never refereed another game, and has no intention of going back to the game in that capacity.  

He believes more support is needed for referees, as at the time of his experience in the mid-2000s, they were not told how to deal with abuse in-game.

“I wouldn’t consider going back as a referee. It’s not worth the abuse you get.  I’ve seen it first hand both as a player and ref.  I wouldn’t want to put myself in that position, having seen what referees go through.

“I know they can’t prepare you for every eventuality, but I don’t think we were ever told what to do if we were abused in a game. From the get-go, you need more knowledge and experience of what to do in that situation,” he said.

In information provided to by the FA, they say incidents of serious misconduct have reduced since the introduction of ‘sin bins’. Ten-minute temporary dismissals for dissent were implemented across the grassroots game two years ago. The rule covers Step 5 downwards, and Tier 3 downwards in the women’s game.

They also point out that County FAs now have more support in place for match officials, most commonly in the form of a Referee Development Officer.  They are able to provide guidance and support for both on and off field matters. 

Let’s keep our young referees safe

CEO of independent charity Ref Support UK Martin Cassidy believes that the FA still need to do more to protect young officials specifically. 

He’s calling for an FA-led unified approach to identify referees aged 18 or under.  County FAs currently use a wide range of identifiers including different coloured shirts, socks or armbands. 

He also wants clubs to be punished with points deductions for referee abuse, and believes sporting penalties are a bigger deterrent than fines. 

“In children’s football, when a referee under 18 is threatened and this is reported to a county FA, that should be delivered as a safeguarding issue and not disciplinary. We need to address it and no one is talking about it. The problems in youth football are on the sidelines, whereas adults it’s on the pitch.

“If it’s a safeguarding issue, there should be far more serious implications for people who threaten and assault young referees. 

“The fact that we have to identify children at all to stop them getting abused is a terrible indictment of football. The FA should fund a national scheme so that all young referees get the opportunity to wear a common identifier.

“We’re calling on them to deliver a national cohesive approach and have one way of identifying a young referee. It needs a strong campaign behind it, and let’s make it clear that abusing these kids is a safeguarding issue,” he said. 

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