Attacks on officials - including an assault that nearly killed a man, an incident in which a car was driven at a referee, and another in which a player produced a gun and a machete to settle an argument - are the biggest single factor in driving refereesout of the game, according to a survey published today.
The survey, conducted by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research in Leicester, paints a picture of worsening behaviour on the football field and of a culture of abuse and dissent aimed at match officials.
It shows that 48.9 per cent of referees from a sample of 463 have considered giving up the game, mainly because of "harassment by players/fans". When asked what was the worst thing about being a referee, 69.5 per cent cited abuse from players and spectators, and, when asked about standards of behaviour among players, 63.2 per cent said they were deteriorating.
The research, thought to be the first of its kind, was carried out by Jon Williams, senior researcher at the Sir Norman Chester Centre among referees in the Birmingham County FA district after the 1993/94 season.
"Most of the referees felt that what was happening on the pitch reflected the violence and lack of respect for authority in society," said Mr Williams. "There is a very low level of morale indeed. The survey showed that the central issues concerning referees revolve around the threat of physical violence, abuse, lack of discipline and dissent."
The Football Association in London said the number of assaults on amateur referees - ranging from light shoves to incidences of serious injury - is static, although it rose slightly last year from 339 in 1992/93 to 356. But at county level, officials saythreats and abuse aimed at referees are on the increase.
Last year, Brian Kelly, then aged 28, was punched after sending off a player who hit an opponent during a game in Bexley, Kent. His skull was fractured and he was in a coma for 10 days after having a blood clot removed from his brain. His assailant, Timothy Farnham, 31, was jailed for nine months.
In Scotland last October, a referee who sent off a player was subsequently chased across the pitch by the player in his car. The match was abandoned. A similar incident, involving a van, happened in Nottingham last March. In the same month, a referee officiating in Dulwich, south-east London, was called upon to calm down a player who had walked off the pitch, gone home and returned with a .22 revolver and a machete.
The FA says more referees are registered than ever before, although they do not know how many are active; but some counties say they are recruiting fewer referees than those that have left. The London Football Association, which has about 2,100 teams under its umbrella, has 913 referees on its books, compared with 934 last year.
Alan Nathan, the London region's representative on the divisional committee of the Referees' Association, said violence against its members was increasing inexorably. "There is no question that it is increasing," he said. "The lack of respect for authority manifests itself when people follow supposedly recreational pursuits which they use as an outlet for all the violence and aggression they feel.
"Referees are far more likely to be thumped these days than ever before. It can be very frightening for an official when players round on him. We're just about holding our own at the moment, but I think we could be seeing a shortage of referees in the future."
Jon Williams believes a new image would help referees to appear more like "one of us" and less like "one of them".
He said: "In our Birmingham survey, we found very few working-class, black, Asian or female referees. Instead, we found men who did their best but often felt isolated and alone. They felt that no one talked to them before or after the game; at half-time no one offered them a cup of tea. Basically, they felt threatened and unloved.
"If they were to appear less austere and stuffy, if they reflected the players' social status more, then I think they might find that they are accepted more as part of the overall team and less as the outsider there to be abused."Reuse content