Football refereeing in England is broken



The following was submitted to us by an anonymous user.


I am writing this post shortly after deciding to hang up my whistle and quit refereeing after ten years.


Hello, I live in England, and I am an English Football Association Level 5 Referee, and will help you understand why I had come to this decision. I will take up back ten years to when I first qualified. My career as a Referee began in the spring of 2011 with a three-day-long intensive basic referees course in Yorkshire, Northern England. The course was a mix of classroom lectures and field practicals, but I would say mostly theory. After which, I qualified as a Level 9 Trainee Referee.


At the time, it was Football Association policy to undergo a period of six games; some of which should be supervised by a mentor to provide feedback during those early formative games, in order to be promoted to full referee status. However, this did not happen and following six matches and my report back seminar; I was promoted to Level 7 Referee.


I then took a short break from Refereeing owing to working overseas for six months, and on my return, I began to struggle with the practical aspects of refereeing. During my ten years, I have only been observed while on the promotion pathways, and the feedback given has helped but has only got me so far given the long intervals between sessions. During COVID, I was assigned a mentor for a short while, and I was improving. However, my mentor stepped back suddenly, and I haven't had help since.


This leads me to the first reason for my resignation: the woeful lack of tangible development offered to most match officials in England. There are schemes primarily aimed at very young or female referees who display early promise; however, there is nothing other than meetings for the majority, and the only personal support is observations when on promotion.


My next source of frustration is around the apparent conflict between the role of the referee, the Laws of the Game and England's Club Marking System. Several of football's laws do not impact the fair outcome of a match. Examples of these laws include the need for tapeworm around a player's socks to match the colour of the sock, the colour of a player's undershirt/shorts to match the colour of their uniform shirt/shorts, and the need to wear them no jewellery. These are Laws of the Game, and it, therefore, follows that referees must enforce them. However, many referees do not, the players and club officials do not want them to, and doing so is likely to frustrate players before the match has even started, the result of which is a problematic relationship from the outset.


When an FA appointed observers are observing a referee, this can lead to a catch 22; do not enforce the Laws and lose marks on application of Law, or enforce it and appear to have less match control (also marking criteria with equal weight to Application of Law). If an observer isn't appointed, then this loss of rapport has a good chance of being reflected in your club mark, which can have consequences on your promotion prospects, and the quality of the matches the referee is assigned in future. In addition, a club might use the system to "punish" the referee, including the awarding of a penalty kick or the dismissal of a player. This creates an environment where referees are forced to "officiate safely" and not make decisions that they can get away with not making. In my view, this is entirely contrary to the principle of officiating fairly and impartially.


My final area of concern is around referee abuse and the lack of any demonstrable will on the part of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) and the English FA to do anything to curb it. It has been known for a very long time that the discipline of Football and respect for referees has fallen far behind that in other sports. In recent years, reports of assaults on football pitches, particularly referees, have increased in both frequency and more alarmingly severity.


The English FA and IFAB have mainly dismissed Campagnes by individuals and charities such as Ref Support, with the latter moving to close a loophole in the Laws of the Game, which previously left the legality of Body Worn Video (BWV) in a grey area, by banning it outright. Individuals and Ref Support supported BWV devices to improve the disciplinary process for violence on football pitches and, where appropriate, support criminal proceedings where applicable. Referees, particularly at the grassroots level, are extremely vulnerable. They are often the sole match official at the matches they are appointed to. This usually allows violent and abusive players to escape punishment in FA disciplinary hearings and criminal proceedings due to lack of evidence. The opposition is often unwilling to support criminal investigations.


Returning to development briefly, BWV would not only serve to support the disciplinary process if allowed, but also aid the development of match officials, particularly those at the grassroots level, by enabling them to rewatch their matches alone or with experienced colleagues to find performance enhancements in the future. It is my view that refereeing is no longer a safe occupation, which since the end of England's last COVID lockdown has become even less safe.


Overarching this is a lack of any concern for the mental wellbeing of referees; I genuinely believe it is only a matter of time before a referee ends up taking their own life following a football match, and I believe that a football player who abused that referee shortly before their death and having learned of that referee's death would have no remorse for the harm they had caused. This is because referees are not considered humans by most football players. After all, if they were, there is no way the abuse would be as bad as it is.


What I have written in this post will not come as a shock to many referees in England, nor should it be a shock to my own County FA, as I have discussed my concerns at various times and been roundly ignored.


Finally, I want to pay tribute to my colleagues, the refereeing family across the world, particularly in England. You do a fantastic job facilitating football at all levels of the game, and I will continue to fight to give referees the protection and the respect that they deserve; but until that day comes, please stay safe and, if you ever find it is becoming too much to handle, get out; it's not worth risking your physical or mental health for.

Premier League Referee: Martin Atkinson