From Grassroots to Premier League: Treatment of Referees Needs to Change 

A referee helps a young footballer with their shoelaces
Ben Broadbent

Recently, Aleksander Mitrovi? was sent off for pushing a referee during Fulham’s FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Manchester United. Mitrovi?’s actions were aggressive and in the end his teammates and coaching staff had to shepherd him off the pitch. It came in response to the awarding of a penalty and sending off for Willian, which most agree was the right decision. Ben Broadbent considers the implications not only for Mitrovi?, but for grassroots football, including IMS leagues at the university. 

In the aftermath of the Mitrovi? incident, the conversation concerned the correct length of ban for the Serb, with many suggesting ten games would be an appropriate punishment. Former referee chief Keith Hackett and BBC Sport pundit Chris Sutton were among the notable names.

This incident got me thinking about referees at all levels and the way they are treated. Every well-known ref will face a stream of criticism on social media on Saturdays, and during matches I play there are certainly comments aimed at the ref. I am by no means innocent in keeping my mouth completely shut in these circumstances. 

Unfortunately, in intra-mural leagues it is the student refs who take a lot of slack

Abuse of referees is nothing new to football; we have all caught ourselves shouting at the stadium, or at our screen, when a decision goes against our team. But it is not just professional football where this is a problem. Even when playing some sub-par IMS (intra-mural) football, a stream of abuse can be heard from most pitches. Generally, this comes in a match where tensions run slightly high, especially if it’s a close game. Emotions run high and outbursts happen in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, in intra-mural leagues it is the student refs who take a lot of slack.  

It is worth noting that, despite this article, the overwhelming majority of players play IMS in the right way, with a good mix of competitiveness and enjoyment. IMS football is a huge part of university life for many of us, and leads to new social groups. It is an excellent example of the benefits of university life.  

I spoke to George Harris, the IMS Football Executive, about the experiences his referees face, and the feedback he gets from them. He revealed how much preparation goes into readying the referees at the start of the season. Meetings discuss what is expected from referees, and what to expect.  

“They’re human at the end of the day, they can make mistakes just like the players”

He also emphasised to me that he and other members of the IMS teams will support their refs. “They’re human at the end of the day, they can make mistakes just like the players. And trust me, IMS players can make a lot of mistakes!” 

Problems arise when the criticism gets too much, or even physical. In the rare instances where there has been violent conduct toward referees, George was very clear that there was a “zero tolerance policy”. 

“We have a long waiting list of teams,” he explained. “We’re not going to keep a team in our program that are going to cause us problems when there are five in the waiting list that are going to be great assets to our program.”  

This kind of response leads to a general confidence that if a team, or individual, is taking advantage of the system or acting out of order, they will be dealt with accordingly. The IMS executives are in contact with the team captains and will send out reminders to the whole team if they feel there has been a problem in a game, or recurring issues.  

One thing that’s important to remember with IMS is that it is all done within a university context. Those of us playing sometimes do need that reminder that we need to be respectful to everyone involved. “If you’re shouting, it is exactly the same as shouting at a lecturer.” 

Clearly this is a national problem, not confined to Nottingham. In October, The Merseyside Youth Football League cancelled all games that were set to be played one weekend to raise awareness about the abuse referees in the league were facing from both parents and coaches all the way from its under-sevens league up to the under-16s league.  

The culture is far too ingrained throughout the pyramid: this change needs to come from the top

The abuse came mainly from the parents of the kids playing. Is it any surprise that many youngsters are conditioned to hurl abuse at refs after seeing their supposed role models doing exactly that? 

Constant abuse of refs will only lead to worse refereeing in the future, and heighten the issues surrounding referee shortages. If this culture continues to worsen, not many people will start refereeing, never mind enjoy it so much that they want to carry on and work on Sunday league matches. Something needs to change. The culture is far too ingrained throughout the pyramid: this change needs to come from the top. 

So, should Mitrovi? face a harsh punishment? I’m conflicted. He was very aggressive toward Chris Kavanagh, who made all the correct decisions, therefore a harsh punishment would set a precedent to other players of what is and isn’t acceptable. Hopefully this would start a slight culture shift.  

However, banning Mitrovic for 10 games whilst letting Bruno Fernandes off for his embarrassing push on the linesman during Manchester United’s 7-0 defeat to Liverpool would seem hypocritical. Both actions were unacceptable. Any physical contact with the referee, whether it’s in IMS football or the Premier League, is unacceptable.  

We need referees, and they need more respect

At every level, referees allow both teams to get stuck into the game without accusations of bias (for instance if a coach has to step in to officiate). We need referees, and they need more respect. 

Ben Broadbent

Featured image courtesy of Adrià Chrehuet Cano via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article image courtesy of @SkySportsPL via Twitter. No changes were made to this image.

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