Junior football under threat: The danger to the grassroots game posed by the abuse of young referees

Written by on 31st March 2023

An investigation into the culture of abuse of match day officials which could bring English football down from the bottom.

Football, the game millions love, wouldn’t happen without referees. The game relies on referees to go ahead, and many people are not brave enough to step up.

Unfortunately, the new generation of referees are receiving more abuse than ever whilst they are doing their job.

We depend on the new generation to want to continue with their refereeing careers as they grow up. Discouraging and shouting abuse to these young people could tear football apart. We need these young referees to continue through the ranks and up the pyramid to form the new generation of referees later in life.

Grassroots football. Credit to Caitlin Wheldon

Mark Bell is a referee himself and helps to coach young referees. He said, “The young lads I coach it tends to be people just chipping away at them, calling them shit, calling them useless. Some of the girls that I coach getting told like it’s a man’s game, they shouldn’t be there like that kind of stuff still goes on, which I find like, phenomenal.”

A young linesman.  Credit to; Alamy

A young female referee. Credit to; Alamy

The abuse is the main issue. Grown adults shouting and sometimes physically abusing young referees that can be as young as 14/15. Another issue is the referees not reporting the abuse straight away. Whether that be because they’re scared, intimidated or not having the experience on how to deal with it.

Intimidation is a big part of the abuse. Making these young referees feel like the best situation is to ignore the ongoing shouting hoping it might stop, but it’s the opposite. When the referees ignore the situation during a game and don’t deal with the issue it can’t be reported. However, the referees are so scared of the yelling and potential more yelling they may receive after dealing with an issue that they ignore it. It is a vicious circle they find themselves in.

“I always try and say to them… don’t put yourself in a position where you don’t feel safe. If you need to abandon the game, you abandon the game. Just learning them tools and its experience ultimately, but unfortunately some of these refs are packing in before they get the chance to build that experience,” says Mark.

Although Mark normally referees at a higher level, he does occasionally help at County games. The last County game he did he was subjected to abuse. With more experience and knowledge of the game he sent off the offending coach. The coach started walking towards Mark and made him feel unsafe in that environment as ‘you’ve got no mates when you’re the ref, it’s you by yourself.’

“He was amazed that I sent him off and that tells me that he’s intimidating young referees’ week in, week out saying things like that and then they’re too scared to go and send them off and I totally get it cause at that age I would have been, he was a bigish guy, but I went and sent him off. I’ll speak to people on the way home from the game and I’m like, I can’t believe this, I’ve went to do a county game like a low-level game, and I’ve got more chew than I’ve had all season.

“I did the report and put it in to the county because I don’t want that to happen to a young referee because people aren’t reporting it and I think that’s where everybody needs to be reporting all this kind of abuse because if the FA doesn’t know about it that’s when you get these instances of people doing it week in week out, whereas if they’re reported week in, week out, they will get banned and I think it’s just supporting the younger refs with the reporting and making them feel safe to come forward and do it.

“At that age group they don’t pay a massive amount to the young referees. It’s good pocket money, you’re paying the cheapest fees that in comparison, as you go up the leagues, you pay more obviously for higher qualified referees, you can’t expect to pay £15/£20 for a referee and have Mark Clattenburg turn up and referee you and be perfect on every decision cause it just doesn’t happen.”

There are plenty of referee associations around the Northeast to support referees and especially young referees. More experience referees are at these meetings to not only keep their game sharp but to also help the new young referees to improve their game throughout their career. They can provide advice and many groups have mentor programmes and pair up experienced referees with new referees.

The people that keep abusing the young referees are ‘a cancer of the game and they need to be taken out of the game’, according to Mark. Bans could be a preventative measure for other people.

Both referees believe harsher punishments should be enforced by the FA. It obviously starts with the referees reporting the abuse more and standing up to the bullies on and off the pitch. Connor Daniel, a referee of 8 years, believes the body cams could help combat the issue, “I think if this was nationalised, it would give the refs much more protection and help combat the problem.”

Connor shared some words of wisdom for young referees, “Be big and be brave. Don’t let anybody either on the pitch or around the pitch intimidate you. When you step onto the pitch, that’s your game. Be confident in your decisions. There are plenty of pathways for progression for young referees now and plenty of support networks. Take advantage of the opportunities you have there.”

Mark gave a little bit of advice, “When things happen, don’t allow it to happen, report it. You become part of the problem if we’re accepting it and allowing it, we become part of the issue and at grassroots that’s exactly where we need to start. It starts at grassroots when kids are little, I think dealing with it at the bottom of the pyramids where we need to start.”


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