File pic. Cathal Noonan

‘People are getting phone calls in the middle of the night… A lot of that goes unnoticed’

Gerard Perry and Sean Slattery discuss the various challenges and worrying instances of violence involving referees.

Updated at 16.37

PERHAPS MORE than ever nowadays, referee controversies are dominating football discourse.

The ubiquity of social media over the past two decades has amplified these issues.

You did not need to have watched Wednesday’s Europa League final between Roma and Sevilla, for instance, to know that Jose Mourinho was not happy with the officials’ performance.

It is conceivable that more people will have seen the viral video in the aftermath, of Mourinho in the car park branding referee Anthony Taylor and his fellow officials a “f***ing disgrace,” or the subsequent footage of Taylor being accosted by angry supporters at the airport.

These types of instances are fairly commonplace in the professional game, though they often go largely unnoticed when the venue is a loud stadium, while there are occasional exceptions, such as Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp’s blatant goading of the fourth official during a Premier League match with Tottenham a couple of weeks back.

Such behaviour is unacceptable on multiple levels but one primary reason is that the habits of players and the various personalities at the elite level invariably tend to be replicated in grassroots football.

Ireland, meanwhile, is certainly not immune to officiating controversies at either the top or bottom end of the game.

This season, a number of managers have been openly critical with several referee performances coming under scrutiny. It has become such an issue that, according to The Irish Sun, last week League of Ireland players took the step to meet with referees and express frustration at the manner in which games are being officiated.

Away from the spotlight, the situation is hardly healthy either. Last month, a footballer’s ban for “assaulting a match official” was increased from five to seven years following a match between Sporting BJD FC’s and Bay United FC in the North Eastern Football League on 6 April.

During the incident in question, one of the Sporting BJD players allegedly ran at the referee, lunged and kicked him in the chest in mid-air.

The situation is not unique to soccer, with several incidents of referee assault in GAA among other sports also highlighted in recent years.

One particular case that caused alarm occurred in 2018 when three Mullingar Town players were banned from “all football activity” for a period of 40 years following a “vicious” assault on a referee.

Around that period, the Football Association of Ireland started to put together a working group to look at how rules and regulations on these issues were being implemented.

“As a result of that, the penalties or sanctions that were imposed on players or club officials for assaulting a referee, were increased,” says Gerard Perry, chair of the FAI referee committee

“So there was a 12-month minimum ban [for assault]. 

“And if it was an aggravated assault, it would be a three-year ban.

“Another important point is that there are 78 leagues across the country that are affiliated with the FAI.

“And prior to that time, assaults on referees were dealt with locally. So, you had a huge variation in terms of process and sanction.

“So one of the big changes was that the disciplinary control unit of the FAI undertook to centrally deal with an assault on a referee from grassroots football or any football for that matter, within the FAI headquarters.

“So that was a huge development, I suppose, as well as the increase in sanctions.”

budapest-hungary-01st-june-2023-coach-jose-mourinho-of-as-roma-looks-on-during-the-uefa-europa-league-2023-final-match-between-sevilla-and-as-roma-at-puskas-arena-final-score-sevilla-11-as-roma Jose Mourinho is currently in the spotlight for his abuse of officials following this week's Europa League final. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In November 2021, Sean Slattery, Secretary of the Dublin Branch of the Irish Soccer Referees Society, suggested officials would withdraw from all footballing activities “nationwide” unless appropriate measures were enforced to end the high levels of abuse and violence.

Slattery now has a more optimistic outlook, saying the tougher sanctions in recent times has been a welcome development.

“We’re hearing from our own members that there is more confidence in stuff being dealt with properly now in trying to weed out repeat offenders,” he tells The 42.

“Up until last year, we weren’t confident that they were being dealt with properly and the same names kept cropping up. 

“But there was one big one that came in last July, it’s the minimum six-match ban for threatening a referee for a player, coach or any club member, there’s no league in the country that can do any less than that.

“That’s a big one if the referee states in the report that they were threatened and they can remember the words that were used, et cetera. Whereas before, they used to be maybe just let off with a warning by the leagues.”

He continues: “Obviously, there was an assault in Louth [recently], and it was [put] online that night from someone in the crowd with his camera — now there are cameras at every match.

“Since that, we’ve had three assaults as well, including a referee being spat in his face by a player and we’ve had another one spat in his jersey and we’ve heard of another non-society member who got two digs in the back of the head.

“It’s not that everything’s gone away, but we just like to think that if there was a threat on the referees and it caused bad behaviour, that they will be dealt with. You can have all sorts of scenarios — people are getting phone calls in the middle of the night and cars are getting locked in at venues. A lot of that goes unnoticed.” 

Perry, who along with a three-person staff at the FAI is dedicated to refereeing issues and responsible for approximately 1600 registered officials in the country, believes it is too early to definitively ascertain the impact of the recent changes.

“Last year, there were 22 cases of assaults against referees. 11 [have occurred] in 2023 to date.

“So that’s a good thing that we know the extent of the problem at that level. But what we don’t know is the number of incidents of abuse.

“We separate out what we would call referee abuse and referee assaults. So abuse [constitutes] any sort of verbal abuse or threatening behaviour.”

The working group had four main pillars — a reassessment of the current regulations in place, a communications strategy that included initiatives such as a ‘respect the ref’, education and how the regulation changes are being implemented, as well as coming up with data on the abuse that officials in Ireland are receiving.

a-view-of-fai-hq-in-abbotstown The FAI has recently taken control of disciplinary sanctions involving players at grassroots level. ©INPHO ©INPHO

Perry cites a 2021 book by authors Tom Webb, Jimmy O’Gorman, Jamie Cleland, and Mike Rayner titled ‘Referees, Match Officials and Abuse Research and Implications for Policy,’ which gives a sense of the extent of the problem internationally.

“[The authors] give you stats on the UK, France and the Netherlands. So for instance, in France on the question of: ‘Have you been verbally abused?’ 61% said yes, and the [equivalent in] the Netherlands was 51%, verbally abused. And then the number who have been physically abused in France is 16% and in the Netherlands 14.6%.

“We don’t have enough data to give similar stats for Ireland. We don’t imagine they’re any different. Now, our intention is to do something like that [study].”

Perry also recalls one instance where a grassroots club was deducted 10 points after a player was found guilty of assaulting an official.

“I think that could be a game-changer,” he adds. “Because what we’ve moved towards here is not just individual responsibility by a perpetrator, who commits abuse or an assault on a referee, but a collective responsibility.

“I think that’s huge. Because if we look in a wider context at society, and if we don’t have wider groups involved that are taking responsibility, well then we’ll never get the behaviour to change.”

Perry stresses that the process of updating and amending the regulations is an ongoing one involving various stakeholders.

He also talks about the FA in England’s pilot projects involving “body cams” in some county football associations, though points out that initiating this scheme long-term in Ireland for 1600 referees would likely be “prohibitively expensive,” adding that he would prefer a more “collaborative approach” between players and officials rather than encouraging an “us and them” mentality.

“We have engaged with the company just in the last couple of weeks to look at the possibility of how this might work,” he adds. “But also, I suppose we want to monitor the outcome of the research from the county associations in England to see how effective that would be.”

Whether the abuse is having a seriously negative effect on referee participation levels is likewise a matter of some debate with no conclusive evidence either way.

paul-mcloughlin-surrounded-by-players-from-both-teams Officials being surrounded by players is a common sight during games. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Slattery suggests it is not a major problem. “Most of the people that are assaulted, they actually stay in the game. People might think they’d leave, but there’s a good network that comes in around them from colleagues.

“Most of them that we would know of do come back to us. Some of them go back in straight away and we encourage them if they want to.”

However, asked whether a sizeable contingent of officials are quitting the sport overall, Perry says that over 600 referees have been recruited in the past 15 months and explains: “The problem here is we don’t have the data on it. We have looked at trying to do an exit interview, usually an online one, with those who have started.

“And some of the data we get back, people have said things like: ‘It’s not for me,’ without articulating anything further on that.

“Others will say that: ‘Oh, by the time my garda vetting or my child welfare clearance came through, I’d gone on and done other things.’

“So it’s very hard to say that abuse [is the primary cause].”

Perry continues: “Contrary to what people think, referees don’t write the laws of the game, referees apply the laws of the game.

“And a lot of people who watch or play football don’t realise that the International Football Association Board who write the laws of the game are actually constituted by football people.

“If you look at IFAB’s Technical Committee, the people who draft the changes to the Laws of the Game, they are made up of former players and former coaches.

“The current technical committee is made up of Arsene Wenger, Luis Figo, and people like that. So they make the laws of the game, and the referees will have input because there’s a technical side that talks about how a law change might be implemented. But the people who write the laws of the game are not referees, they’re football people.

“So challenging referees is naive at some level at that very simple understanding of it, because they don’t write the laws of the game.” 

Another matter of great debate is the use of video evidence — particularly at grassroots level where usually only one official is employed — and to what degree it should be relied upon.

“The disciplinary control would decide themselves what videos would be viable,” says Slattery. “There could be loads of videos submitted. 

“If people want to use video evidence towards it [they can] but the referee’s report wouldn’t be dependent on video evidence.

“The FAI decide on the validity of any videos because some of them can be edited or dubbed, so they’re not all taken as true fact.”

yerevan-armenia-february-28-2023-apple-iphone-14-pro-max-standing-on-black-table-dynamic-island-feature-on-display The use of footage from camera phones in cases involving referee violence is a source of debate. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Perry similarly believes caution must be exercised in viewing events through the lens of camera phones.

“The whole issue of using social media is it can not only highlight the problem, but it can also, in some ways, add to the problem, because sometimes by showing things that involve aggressive behaviour, it almost legitimises the aggressive behaviour, so we have to be really careful.

 ”So I think this idea of camera phones, and, there’s a debate within all sports around the use of camera phones for evidence for cases because you’re only seeing it from one small angle.”

Both Perry and Slattery believe players and coaches, particularly at an elite level, have a big role to play in helping to protect officials from verbal and physical violence.

“There’s a hearing after the game and someone like Mourinho is fined £20,000 for their behaviour but it’s not dealt with on the day,” says Perry. “That can seem frustrating, watching it from our [perspective] and we do know that people watching that would say: ‘If it’s good enough for them, they can get away with it, I’ll do the same tomorrow morning.’ That definitely doesn’t help.”

“We need players and clubs to come out and support referees more, saying that this is a difficult task, and they need to take more responsibility,” adds Perry.

“One of the negative things from the professional game is if you look at the amount of what’s termed mobbing of a referee after a certain decision. So what you get is crowds of players running around the referee, either waving their fingers looking for a yellow card for another player, which I think is appalling, looking to get their fellow professionals sent off, or they just want to challenge and put pressure on the referee to get the decision to go their way.”

On the recent criticism of referees at the top level, he says: “League of Ireland refereeing is run by Ian Stokes, who is an employee of the association.

“And he is available to all managers to discuss any issues they have with regard to referee performances.

“And I think if anybody has anything to say, they should be saying it directly to him. He’s the person who addresses these issues.

“I rarely, if ever, hear a referee, make a complaint about the performance, or behaviour of players or coaches. They deal with it professionally within the laws of the game. And maybe some coaches and managers should take a leaf out of that book.”

“The good definitely outweighs the bad,” adds Slattery on the general experience of working as a referee. “People [often] say that ‘you would be mad to take it up,’ but I’d encourage anyone to [try it]. In the society of Dublin, we have a beginners’ group, so when they do qualify, they’re not just on their own, there’s a meeting every month for them.

“It’s like a mentoring thing. And they can ring people anytime. We find the ones that join in on that are the ones that are staying on at the moment and some of them have gone on to the League of Ireland panel since.”

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