Watch your back on the way home

The role of the referee is a simple one: not to get too abused. Praise will never be copious – it is much easier to take advantage of an obvious scapegoat. A referee could get 95% of decisions correct and still cost one side the match with an incorrect penalty decision. It is axiomatic in many ways – but in what other sphere could doing your job correctly ‘only’ 95% of the time amount to a ‘bad day at the office’?

Having qualified as a referee aged 16, my initial experiences were daunting in the extreme. Spotty, shy and easily intimidated, my first games were harrowing. Adult Sunday League football, awash with big, bald 40-year-olds was no place for a man with no experience of refereeing – let alone a boy.

A professional referee has his linesmen to rely upon, but these are almost more of a hindrance in the grassroots game. Most of the leagues I refereed in used a system of ‘club linesmen’. This basically meant that a substitute, or even the side’s manager would also be responsible for raising his flag (or, more often, a training bib) to signal offside. Sometimes their bias is palpable – but if you are going to have linesmen, you have to trust them. On occasions they haven’t properly understood the rules, or have had to be told repeatedly to get off their mobile phones.

On a few instances, after complaints from the opposition and my own complete conviction that the linesmen were hindering the game, I would opt to referee without them. Indeed, to avoid the controversy club linesmen so often bring, some leagues opt to do without them altogether. It’s not ideal – it leaves the referee no one to pass the buck to, as is expedient in certain situations. On large pitches, it also exposes my lamentable lack of fitness. But it’s better than indulging cheats, and players tend to be slightly more sympathetic when there are no linesmen – they can see it is no easy job.

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But it’s not easy for linesmen, either. There were occasions when I was convinced the coach of one particular side, out of his desperation to be even-handed, was giving every debateable decision against his own side when he was acting as linesman. After all the mindless abuse emanating from the sidelines, such occasions were almost enough to restore my faith in human nature.

As I gained in experience, I slowly became conscious of the ‘tricks’ of the players – but that is not to say I was not susceptible to them. Canny players will seek to be your friend on the pitch, knowing that it is only human nature to favour those you have built up some kind of rapport with. They would frequently say things like ‘leave the ref alone’ or ‘good decision ref’ – fully expecting me to remember their apparent decency in any 50/50s.

But at Oxford college level everyone is remarkably well-behaved. The days of witnessing players having to be broken away from each other by teammates seem long gone. Complaints are naturally still made from players – one wouldn’t expect anything else – but it tends to fall on the non-threatening side of ‘banter’.

However, despite witnessing fists hitting faces in games I refereed, my most challenging experience was not so because of the malice of the sides. One of the sides was Fulham Deaf Ladies, posing immense logistical problems. A referee’s greatest tool is his whistle. When one side cannot hear it, a whistle is somewhat less useful. I had to improvise, getting in the way of the ball, waving my arms around and generally making a nuisance of myself whenever I had to stop the play. It is remarkable how often foul throws are committed in grass roots football of both sexes, and unfortunately this was equally true of this game. This drove me to despair; to the point where I just let all but the most blatant foul throws escape unpunished, such was my frustration.

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For students looking to earn a little pocket money and a life experience exceeding any bar stint, refereeing is a fantastic option. While Oxford intercollegiate games do not pay as well as some Sunday Leagues – the going rate is £22.50 a game, while some leagues pay as much as £35 – the money is more than handy. And you have the added bonus of knowing that Oxford boys are polite, well-behaved chaps – who will never say “watch your back on the way home, ref”. With a few expletives added for good measure.