Amateur football brings in barriers to keep pushy parents in line

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Puce-faced fathers and mothers have long been a staple of Saturday morning primary school football matches, bellowing their invective from the touchline at the amateur referee's every contentious decision. Not for much longer, if the Football Association has its way.

Pushy parents are to be held back with barriers at junior football tournaments to stop them abusing match officials and, occasionally, the players.

One of the largest pilot schemes will take place in Northumberland. The county FA will introduce the measure from the beginning of the next season in its Association of Boys Clubs league.

The barriers – wooden poles linked with a ribbon to keep parents far back from the pitch – are hardly Italian police-style crowd defences. But limited trials last year showed them to be the most effective deterrent. Making all players, parents and coaches sign "behaviour contracts" proved ill-fated.

"Putting a barrier in place has been the most positive measure," said Stuart Leason, the Northumberland FA's development manager. "Moving the spectators back just a little bit has made a big difference, even when the barrier is just some cones."

A spokesman for the FA in London added: "Referees quitting the game is one of the biggest problems we have. The referees taking part in the trials told us the barriers along the touchline were having a real impact on behaviour. They are not only physical barriers that put the parents further away from the action but a psychological one too."

The FA was moved to action after research that suggested 86 per cent of people involved in junior football had seen parents abuse match officials. Some 70 per cent of those questioned said that the worst behaviour was by adults. An exodus of experienced referees threatens amateur branches of the game in some areas.

In April, a youth cup semi-final between 15-year-olds in Coventry had to be abandoned after the awarding of a second-half free-kick. A fracas broke out between two players. A dozen parents promptly rushed on to the pitch and joined what degenerated into a mass brawl.

In another notorious case in 2003, Bath police had to be called to intervene in a match between 11-year-olds after a parent acting as a linesman threatened and swore at spectators. He had become incensed after rival parents questioned his offside decisions, so he sprinted half the length of the pitch to confront one, threw down his flag and began ranting. The referee was a 15-year-old in only his fourth match as an official.