Referee junior soccer? No thanks!

Why can’t we have a qualified referee for all of our youth games?

by Julian Carosi

OK, let me set the scene, I (the Referee) am 10 minutes into the first half of the Under 10’s Minor Youth Cup competition, and so far I have had very little Refereeing to do. Suddenly, for no discernible reason at all, little ‘Bradley’s dad has decided to continually walk up and down, two metres inside the field of play, and right in front of all the other parents standing on the touch line who are trying to watch and enjoy the game.

“I say walk, but what I really mean is – have you ever seen those athletes on television who participate in ‘walking’ races? Not so much a walk, but a sort of funny shuffling pace.

Bradley’s dad is oblivious to everything but his little boy, and the blue mist that has descended in front of his eyes. Anyway, I am totally distracted from the game action itself. Little Bradley casts some furtive and frightened looks towards his dad. His eyes are beginning to glaze over, his head drops. Bradley’s dad continues with his funny walk and tirade of meaningless instructions to his son, interspersed with the usual pleasant expletives for me, the Referee, every time a decision is made against his son’s team.

Bradley mumbles “Oh shut up dad”. I’m glad that Bradley’s dad cannot hear him – I dread to think of the consequences for Bradley. But Bradley is right “SHUT UP DAD” !!!!!!!!!

Are you beginning to get the picture?

Refree junior soccer

Officiating at ‘Youth’ games where young children are involved can sometimes be likened to being attacked with a double-edged sword. Not only does the Referee have the dissenting players to contend with, they are very often given the extra bonus of parent abuse! And all for no extra cost.

“So…….is it is all doom and gloom?”

After a very long-playing career at local level, I had Refereed in the English County of Wiltshire for a number of years. Why did I decide to become a Referee? Probably for the same simple reasons as everyone else who is involved with football – because we all love this beautiful game. It’s in our blood. It is addictive to both players, and to Referees.

This article attempts to give just a very small insight into some of the real problems that Referees have to face. There are a number of Referees who are totally committed to Youth football, and I admire them for their fortitude. A close Referee colleague of mine, is the local County Youth Referees’ Appointment Secretary, and he is one of the best Referees in the County. He is totally dedicated to Refereeing both in Youth and in Senior levels of football. There is also a very dedicated band of Youth Team Club officials and parents in my County, whom are dedicated to improving the relationships within youth football – so it is not all doom and gloom.

But officiating as a Referee in youth matches is not my ‘cup of tea’. – And I’ll explain why.

Refereeing is mostly a very thankless task. When a Referee travels to a game, their destination is akin to visiting the Coliseum in Rome. The Referee standing in the centre circle at the beginning of each game – is much like being thrown into the lions’ den. Surrounding the Referee, and waiting for the first sign of weakness or excuse, are 22 passionate players; 6 or more substitutes, managers, coaches, spectators and of course let’s not forget ‘The Parents’. The Referees role and responsibilities at the lower Park levels can be very daunting. This job is certainly not for the faint hearted. Conversely – the buzz that a Referee can get from officiating can only be explained by experiencing it yourself.

Contrary to popular belief, Referees are human. When first arriving at the ground, Referees like to be sociable, yet at the same time, they must not be seen to favour a particular team. This means that Referees can sometimes seem aloof. This is one way that Referees can use to distance themselves from becoming over-friendly. Experience has taught Referees that no matter how friendly they are, it only takes one incident in the game to turn pleasant everyday people (and more so ‘The Parents’) into what can best be described as ‘monsters out of control’.. And that is why………

“It’s not really my cup of tea”

These incidents are known as ‘flash points’. Referees are well aware of ‘flash-points’ and you can almost guarantee at least one of them appearing in every game. To become a Referee, you have to pass exams on your knowledge of the Laws of Associated Football (commonly referred to as the LOAF). Passing the exam is the easy bit. The hard bit comes during the Referee’s ‘baptism of fire’, when he suddenly realises that Refereeing is not so much about learning and applying the Laws, but more about single-handed man-management of the most difficult situations a person can ever be confronted with.

When I trained new Referees with my local Melksham Referees’ Society. We organised three of four Referee training weekends throughout each year. This voluntary training takes up the whole of a Saturday and a Sunday (0900-1830) each day. The training was provided free of charge, and the instructors are NOT paid. Of the approximately 15 candidates per session, about half will have come from a Youth Football Club background, some of them parents, some players, some managers, some Club Linesmen etc…..

In a normal year, the Melksham Referees’ Society trains approximately 40 or 50 new Referee candidates. At a very rough guess – about half of them (say 25) actually go on to start Refereeing, the remainder being content with just learning the Laws. After a year or so, we would be very lucky to have 10 out of the remaining 25, who are still Refereeing. The others will have already decided that the abuse is just not worth it. Counteract this, with the ever-increasing departure of our experienced Referees, and you will begin to understand why there are ‘just not enough Referees to go around’.

A number of our Referee recruits are teenagers, who go on to officiate in the local youth games. These new recruits are the seeds of the next English Premiership Referees. They need all the encouragement and protection that can be provided. Some of these 14 or 15 year old Referees are initially very efficient and confident. I would never have dreamed, or dared, or been brave enough in my youth, to be a Football Referee at their young age.

To give you a flavour of what these young Referees have to contend with, at a recent Youth 6-a-side tournament, an Under 10’s game had to be decided on the taking of penalty kicks. The Referee was a very capable 14-year-old, whose dad was a very experienced Referee. During one of the last penalty kicks, the young Referee correctly spotted an infringement, and correctly made the penalty taker re-take the penalty kick. This resulted in the penalty kick being missed, and the team losing the game. The young players of the losing team took it in good grace. But wait!

One of the losing teams’ parents (a very angry man of about 35) confronted the young 14-year-old Referee. Luckily, his disgusting outburst was dealt with by the Referee’s parent, and a number of other senior Referees (including myself) who where nearby. In everyday life, such an outburst against a young child (for let us not forget that the 14 year old Referee is as much a child as any other 14 year old) could easily have been seen as a criminal offence by an adult against a minor. But no. Because the child had a Referee’s shirt on, a certain section of the population see this as immunity against the Laws of our Country. It is not. This is what each Referee (no matter what age) has to contend with.

Our young Referees, and those older ones, who regularly officiate on youth football, can only be admired for the way in which they handle themselves.

Regardless of all the recent Law changes, Football is still a very emotive physical contact sport. It thrives on high passion and emotions that lead to heightened excitement – long may it stay that way. I am a great believer, that the mistakes made by Referees (and more so players) are an actual integral part of the game itself. Take away the mistakes and you might as well stay home and watch paint dry. Nevertheless, Referees are a very genuine people, striving to make little or no mistakes in each game. But it is impossible to be perfect, and to be honest, anyone who tries to be is a fool. Referees will always aim to be relaxed and fully concentrating – and most of all FAIR.

Like the majority of Referees, I’ll sometimes hold my hands up – we do make mistakes, but we also try very very hard, on the field and off the field, to do our very best for the game we love. Why else would we suffer such abuse. There is a whole Referees’ World away from the game itself. They hold Referees’ Society meetings, seminars, and conferences. They get involved with training, officiating at friendly matches, attending disciplinary hearings, sorting their masses of correspondence, providing information via the Internet etc. etc…… The 90 or minutes that a Referee officiates, is just the sharp narrow end of the wedge as far as a Referee’s responsibilities and freely volunteered time is concerned. And sometimes, they even get time to spend with their family at the weekend!

“There are ‘just not enough Referees to go around”.

There is no easy solution for improving the relationship between Referees, players, spectators, parents and Team officials. The malaise is symptomatic of the lowering standards of society in general. Manners have long been forgotten or not taught. Respect – well, that no longer exists these days. That is not to say that we as Referees can all do our own little bit to improve both our own lifestyle and ‘football’.

How difficult would it be for team managers to insist that youth players shake the Referee’s hand after every game – especially if the game has not been to their liking. Why can’t the team managers always welcome the Referee cordially, and thank him after the game, irrespective of the result. I have had many an irate manager or player venting their anger at me immediately after games. I’m big enough (6ft and 15 stone) to look after myself, but I do worry about our youth Referees and the increasing departure of our experienced long standing Referees. I too, have considered ‘packing it all in’ on many occasions – all due to abusive behaviour received whilst officiating.

I am not advocating that football should only be played by perfectly behaved players in front of robotic parents – of course vent your emotions, but not in an openly aggressive and abusive manner. Our children will be the ones who suffer in the long run. They are suffering already.