For many years, scholars have looked to develop a first person approach to research that advances social sciences through ethnographic storytelling. By challenging traditional methods of research, supporters have found thoughtful and engaging ways to open up, express, portray and evoke an ‘insider’s point of view’. The approach loosely aims to tell the reader ‘what we do not hear’ and show ‘what we fail to see’. Within the field of sports research, scholars have naturally embraced the qualitative approach and have produced a variety of creative and insightful vignettes around a range of topics. However, first person representations from sports officials are scarce and embracing such methodologies may help to illuminate experience and bridge the researcher-practitioner divide.

With this in mind, taking on the collaborative approach of critically analysing and reflecting upon personal narratives, both the first and second author seek to add to the growing pool of sporting literature by exploring the first author’s short adventure as a county accredited referee in association football (AKA Soccer). With past experience playing and coaching in the sport, the first author believes he has an understanding of the environment. Despite this cultural insider status, when he reflects upon his refereeing training and continued development, he found himself facing difficult challenges and this account draws on these experiences. The vignette is focused on the events surrounding his first competitive fixture following achieving his qualification status as a ‘referee’. It is our hope this manuscript will provide the stimulus for others to share their stories of similar experiences and provide support to others in the officiating community. We encourage you to share your stories in the comments below or alternatively, you can email research@johnpmills.com. We also hope to follow up with referees to better understand the triggers of the events that follows to improve the guidance available for amateur referees. If you would be interested in contributing to this process, again, please get in contact via the email above.

The episode that follows will outline events and reveal the first author’s feelings attached to his first refereeing adventure post-qualification officiating a grass roots Sunday league Under 10 fixture in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, his thoughts looking back are offered. Please note that this is an abridged version of the full manuscript and that the document is still a work in progress. The full work can be found here.

REFEREEING ADVENTURE

Arriving a referee

My eyes flicker as the sun gapes through the small gaps I have unintentionally allowed between my curtains. To fightback, I stretch my arms towards the top of my brow and make contact the adjacent bedside cabinet. As I do so, a half full glass of milk pours straight onto the carpet below. Undeterred, I remove my phone and automatically scroll towards my inbox. I curse under my breath as I finally acknowledge the consequences of the curdling white liquid, yet I realise I have to by-pass this issue if I am to move forward today. In fact, I referee a youth’s football game in under an hour. I run my fingers through the strands at the top of my hair. I know I just need to quickly re-familiarise myself with the latest youth soccer laws. It’s all I put my focus on. I note the updated changes to youth football, find my pre-packed bag, tracksuit and swiftly I scamper towards the nearby venue.

On arrival, the combinative smell of Bovril and fried bacon greets me as I walk past a once white, now derelict, club house turned greasy café. The players are already here and they look ready. I catch the eye of the home manager; I know him but not well enough to remember his name. I confidently shake his hand and tell him, “what a lovely morning it is to play football”. I’ve seen them play before so I don’t expect any trouble. Bending forward to re-lace my boots, I follow my muddy imprints back to the centre circle. Crossing one lace over the other, I am diverted to expletives that reverberate around the venue. At 6ft 4, 30 odd years old, I see steam rise from the shaved scalp of the away coach. He’s screaming at one of his late arriving players. I want to rush over and stop it but my lack of caffeine and expectation that others will intervene stops me until the moment passes. I look towards the line of parents — this is a nine year old kid don’t forget — but all I can see is the combination of hangovers and lost sleep. Some don’t want to be here and frankly nor does this kid now. The coach soon stops his onslaught and inevitably this means it’s time for me to introduce myself. I tread forward cautiously. The coach reactively opens up his body to let me in, I inform him of my name and quickly retreat. I better take my position, call in the captains and get this fixture started.

First Half

I take one deep breath, blow my whistle and finally, the contest gets underway. Like a pinball, the ball moves left, right, and left again with each player eager to connect their footwear with the leather sphere. The contest moves so fast. I just wish one team could just gain some control of proceedings and let the game slow down. But I realise this will be doubtful given the evident lack of quality from the players on show. Suddenly, the ball moves out wide in front of the away supporters. With close control, the home defender shows the first signs of composure as he darts past an opposing player. Yet, his movements are greeted with a chorus of disgruntlement. Why are the visitors angry? A short time later, I realise they believe the ball has proceeded out of play. It’s so difficult to tell, the faint white lines are masked by the mud that has freshly appeared. The game continues, but the away coach wants to make his thoughts heard…

As I feel the words deflect off my outer skin, I realise I have two choices available to me; should I pretend I didn’t hear the comments or react? I choose the latter and do my best to stay calm and quell the situation. However, seconds feel like minutes as I delve deep into the depths of my mind to find the correct words to use. “I can understand why you are frustrated, but please err… stop.” I worry the warning may have not hit its mark, but I realise I needed to say something. In an attempt to move the fixture forward, I encourage the players to move into position so I can restart it. But, I notice the coach prowling up and down the touchline. I’ve seen this behaviour before; it’s the same as you see from caged lions at a zoo as they prowl the glass begging tourists to enter their enclosure. Louder and LOUDER… I hear the coach shout. His arms now move pointedly as he storms towards where I am. At the top of the food chain, I know the coach wants to tease me outside of my comfort zone ready for ambush. I now purposely jog over to no mans’ land and send him off, aiming in the direction of the graffiti tagged children’s playground situated metres from the playing surface. There is a sense of bafflement as I consider that this abuse all started over whether a ball crossed a line in a kid’s game of football. I can’t back down now; I have to survive. Instantly, I feel adrenaline projecting through my veins. I wipe the sweat from the far corners of my brow as a knot develops in my stomach. Was I too hasty? I assure myself that condemning problem behaviours will be beneficial to the game. “You’re kidding, right?” the coach mutters simply in pure disbelief. I purse my lips tightly to hold back my annoyance at his arrogance in suggesting his abuse could be deemed a joke. Does he want me to push him there? Fortunately, at this point a helpful parent moves in front and forcefully orders him away. I feel a little vindicated as I am back in control.

I can almost feel the coach’s actions waking the parents from their former slumber. A few seem embarrassed, while the majority react to my every move. It starts with a few comments, but before long the parents turn into thriving angry mass of anonymity. I don’t understand. I don’t need this attention. My fragile confidence drains away as I realise that I’m on my own. The grass feels like quicksand and the more I struggle the faster I sink.

I need help.

Seconds later, the away team now gains the lead through a long range dipping effort. A goalkeeping mistake but his opponents are not shy in rubbing it in his face. The celebration lasts minutes with each parent taking it in turns to congratulate the goal scorer. As I restart the contest once more, the sent off coach reappears with a can of energy drink in hand. Ignoring my dismissal, he returns to applaud his player. There is just over a minute left in the first half, I blow my whistle early and hope that the coach leaves again before we return for the second half.

Half-time Interval

During the half-time team talk, both coaches point to tactics boards and brief their players on their masterplans. The kids are between nine and ten years of age, but this doesn’t stop both teams from moving tiny magnetic men around a white board. I stay in the protective chalky lines of the centre circle and try to regain my composure. I keep my distance, but like wolves, the away team’s coach and parents continue to prowl and stare in my direction. They can smell blood. I think to myself that this must be what it’s like to be a medic in a war zone, but quickly shut down the analogy. This is not a war zone, it’s junior football.

Second Half

The relative serenity of half-time is over as one boy rolls the ball to the other, the battle resumes. The ball immediately canons out of the pitch towards the left hand touchline and I award a throw to the home team. Unbeknownst to me, I have wandered into enemy territory once more. I have made the decision in front of the away team parents. I know this as “you cheat” now rings strongly in my ear. I choose to ignore it, yet with a gush of wind I feel a large splat of substance hit the side of my face. I can feel it has viscous properties as I put my fingers to my cheek. Time stands still as my nervous system sends this message from my finger tips to my brain. I look down at my palm as I see green, sticky mucus dripping slowly towards the turf. Suddenly, the lost time races back as I quickly turn to identify a culprit. I’m dazed and confused as shouts come from all directions. “Come on Ref!” echoes around the park turned amphitheater. I briefly pause and ponder whether the words are a challenge to fight, but it’s merely that the game has continued and I haven’t been watching.

The game has gone.

I blow my whistle; retrieve the match ball and turn once more to confront the parents. The need to defend myself starts to overpower any feelings of being a victim. I recall my years on a school playground; lines of bullies converge to see if one lad will react. He almost always gives them what they want. I too see those stormy dark clouds start to drift in, but as the referee, I have to clear the weather again. I demand to know who spat at me, but the group deny any knowledge as to the origin of the phlegm that still trickles off me. I stand and wait, staring at each of them waiting for someone to break. However, I know there is nothing I can do. I stand my ground forcefully, but I’m crumbling on the inside. I’m trapped. I want to find the culprit by any means necessary, but I am wearing black and representing the county. I’ve been taught about how to deal with these situations, but am ill prepared for the application of theory. I think back, it is the club secretary’s responsibility to report such incidents, but he has just fled the scene to get home. If I now push forward I could lose everything that I have worked hard to achieve. I cannot stop the game now either, as it would only punish a group of kids who have behaved far better than their parents. In the blink of an eye, I encounter a second wind of emotions. The strong desire to resist still urges me forward. Yet, my shoulders shrink and my legs become heavy. That’s it, I have no chance. Enforcing any code of conduct will be an aimless task now. I need to back down and go where they want. Carry on this duty for them and in the way they deem appropriate. The damage has been done.

I attempt to see the game out, but the away team’s parents now know that almost anything goes. I’m sure they know and are being purposefully antagonistic, to kick me while I am down. Now, in the controlling the seat, the supporters begin to exploit every moment of my indecision with an ironic cheer. I only wonder how they would feel in my position or how they would react if they were losing. I question my ability again, and whether I should walk away, but I can’t answer it now. The players zig and zag around me, but I stand motionless lost in a well of self-doubt. I am done with all of this. As the final seconds pass I wait anxiously ready to blow my whistle three last times. I know I am a hostage to their desires and I will not endure a second more of this than I have to. The game eventually finishes with a convincing 3–0 win for the away team. They have won in more ways than one. I want to ask the parents if they are proud of how they behaved or how they would feel if it were one of their children in my boots. I could go over and get the last word. Maybe, I could question their footballing pedigree? But I don’t have what it takes to play their game. I bite my lip. I could have just stayed in bed this morning. I just want to go home and right now; it’s over. I never want to come back.

BLACK CLOUDS

A week later, I tug at the side of my window so my head can stick out. I see rain. It feels early. But, I can only hear the spray of cars moving through pot holes along my flooded road. It seems that the day has already started without me. I now move away to find my referees kit in the dirty washing basket. I know I haven’t moved anything; it must be still there. I hang an empty smile below my eyes as I find my last sock and immediately, I go walking towards today’s coliseum. It isn’t that far. I now feel vibrations from a 4×4 as it shuttles past, soaking my black tracksuit through to the skin. But, I’m not here and you can’t see it, so it doesn’t matter. As water now drips off the small number of hairs that attempt to conceal my sunken jaw, I trudge through the gravel pit, they call a carpark. I now see the home team manager meandering around puddles towards me. Have you ever been caught up in a dream, where your legs were frozen but you could not escape? I have. A wave of relief rushes through me as he tells me today’s fixtures are cancelled. Yet, I have to let my lips lie to vent my disappointment; my heart knows how I feel. But, do I need to tell him of my desire to quit? No, that will get me nowhere. I stand under a hollow birch tree as the wind picks up and the precipitation falls more violently. Maybe this is what it means to be an official?

REFLECTIONS

Whilst writing this manuscript, both authors were keen on understanding the susceptibility for authors to be self-indulgent when creating and critically assessing narratives. Therefore, both authors began discussing the key themes of this narrative to minimise such aspects. The first vignette understandably illustrates the author’s failures in meeting the challenging situations associated with officiating. Although the first author was taught to resist confrontation, he was initially confident in his ability to control the situation through an ‘assertiveness’ evident by standing his ground in a bid to promote good conduct. However, despite the slow removal of the coach from the field of play, perhaps explained by his difficulty in accepting authority from a referee perceived to be ‘inexperienced’. The first author was then subjected to both verbal threats and physical abuse during the competitive fixture. Although Friman and colleagues advocate that similar hostilities are typically the result of others lacking knowledge of football rules, due to the nature of his mistreatment, it may be effective to associate the supporter’s actions with confrontational spectator’s behaviour normalised in professional football.

That considered, while the events are perhaps explainable, the narratives also showcase how helpless a referee can be in response to forms of conflict. When subjected to similar hostilities, refereeing workshops suggest that it is the home club secretary’s role to deal with supporter/coach behaviours. However, when such assistance is unavailable and when problem situations arise, the recommended alternative of abandoning fixtures would likely cause further confrontation from all parties. Therefore, with the option of direct resistance towards the supporters/coaches likely to be ineffective, the first author found himself in a difficult position where the only obtainable alternative to ensure his safety was to ignore the abuse and finish the fixture. However, as the narrative showcases, this process itself has many difficulties, made apparent through both the physical and psychological abuse which may leave a stain on one’s ability and desire to officiate. As a result, due to reductions in self-confidence and self-worth, burnout followed, which in this instance eventually led the first author to question his commitment to the role moving forward. That said, while the first author was burdened with self-doubt, by attempting to formulate external attributions to explain others bad behaviour (i.e. others frustrations, lack of footballing knowledge and desire to win), he did acknowledge his potential susceptibility to make mistakes to stay adequately assertive in a bid to see the fixture out until its completion.

CONCLUSION

Despite efforts to reduce the types of behaviours documented here (i.e., the English Football Association’s recent RESPECT campaign), attrition rates among referees is high resulting in a shortage of officials in the sport. The present study reveals how demanding it can be to officiate and highlights a shortfall in the theory-application gap. Thus, while having the ability to ‘block out’ abuse is a key characteristic of top level elite officials, at an amateur level, the narrative reveals that referees may feel left underprepared and lacking the necessary skills to be a success. Therefore, the narrative promotes the importance of self-reflection in a bid to improve knowledge of the role; particularly as such hostilities are common in modern football cultures. However, while the game’s authorities continue to expand their resources at the highest levels, within grass roots football, the support and training available to referees is sporadic. Changing the culture of youth sport and providing a greater emphasis on reducing the win at all costs attitudes ingrained in the sport through environment subtle law changes (e.g. silent side lines- allowing encouragement only and referees respect marks given to respective clubs) may be a start, but changing such behaviour is notoriously challenging.

By combing evocative personal perspective with theory driven analysis, we have allowed readers an opportunity to walk in the referees shoes, to explore this complex yet ‘ordinary’ experience. However, as we look to directly represent the realities of an amateur referee’s experience, we wish to draw to attention to the hurdles that many are required to overcome to do their duty as ‘referees’. We will not draw neat ‘conclusions’ from the work, rather, we simply hope the current paper enables others to overcome difficult situations and encourages those who have had similar experiences to tell their story. As this process could not only provide hope and direction to budding referees but potentially initiate change in the years to come.

If you would like to share your story, please do so in the comments below or by emailing research@johnpmills.com. Thank you for your interest in the work and we look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please note that this work is currently at the preprint stage and your feedback more generally is appreciated. The full manuscript can be found here and you can contact Charles on Twitter or by emailing him directly.

Ing, C., & Mills, J. P. (2018, July 3). ‘Why would you referee?’: An {auto}ethnographic account of a football official. https://doi.org/10.31236/osf.io/n2ym7