Fear that haunts park referees

For the men in black of the local leagues, far away from the crowds and the television cameras, violence from players happens all too often.
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WHILE PAOLO Di Canio's assault on the referee, Paul Alcock, on Saturday was being captured on television cameras (ensuring, in theory, that the Italian will be properly punished), thousands of officials up and down the country were risking the unrecorded wrath of players who took a dislike to their decisions.

Although some representatives from the country's local leagues said yesterday that the game is no more violent than in the past, more voiced concerns for the safety of their officials.

"It's alarming," said Jim Parker, the discipline officer at the Lancashire Football Association. "Assaults are definitely going up."

Last season, he said, there were 15 proven cases in his county. This season seven assaults are already under investigation and new cases are happening each week. Football has always had a problem with referee recruitment, he added, but now the problem is intensifying.

"There's a real shortage in the North-west," he said. "People are getting sick of the intimidation."

It is not hard to find referees for whom abuse has been more than verbal. Phil Morris, an former referee with the Manchester County FA, was assaulted four years ago. His experience in the UniBond League, the Pontins League and the Football Conference did not help him on the Sunday morning he was attacked while in charge of a local league game.

"I'd cautioned a player for an offence," he said, "and the next minute - wallop. It wasn't a push, it was a crack in the face. I ended up with a broken tooth and a swollen nose. I abandoned the game."

The FA took charge of matters and the player was suspended for four months.

"It didn't change my attitude," he added, although he retired from the game the following year. "We are losing far too many [local league referees] through indiscipline [against them]," Morris added. "It's a lot easier the further up the ladder you go."

The Manchester County FA recorded 42 assaults against referees last year, a figure that must lead some to question whether the endeavour is worth the rewards. Local league officials receive pounds 12 per game, rising to pounds 22 per game at county level.

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said yesterday that violence towards officials was leading to a recruitment problem. "There's a problem at recruiting referees particularly at grass- roots level because tempers can get inflamed," he said. "We've had quite a number of physical assaults on referees at this level."

In the 1996-97 season - the last year for which national figures are available - there were 293 proven cases of assaults on referees, according to the FA disciplinary unit. The offences are split into three categories. A Grade A assault, of which there were 209 incidents, includes any common assault, from knocking the referee's book from his hands to manhandling. A Grade B assault, of which there were 72, is an offence involving attempted bodily harm. A Grade C assault, of which 12 were proven, involves causing actual bodily harm. The penalties for the offences run from a 182-day ban and pounds 100 fine for a Grade A assault, to a sine die suspension and pounds 200 fine (with no appeal for five years) for a Grade B offence, to permanent suspension from all football for a Grade C misdemeanour.

To give an indication of how serious even the more minor offences can be, an FA spokesman said that Paolo Di Canio's shove on Paul Alcock would not even count as a Grade A assault. The spokesman added, however, that the 293 proven assaults in 1996-97 showed just "a very small percentage" of incidents from all football matches around the country. The FA figures would include some 1 million-plus games involving 44,000 clubs. "But one assault is too many," said the spokesman. "We don't want people to touch referees. They should be sacrosanct."

David Fowkes, of the London FA, an area in which assaults have dropped from 39 two seasons ago to 17 last season, believes the problem should not be blown out of proportion. "I'm anxious we don't create a wave of terror," he said. He added, however: "We've had referees badly hurt. Punched, knocked out, lose a couple of teeth. It's very rare, so I don't want people to think it goes on all the time."

The main difference for local league referees, says Fowkes, is that the official does not have the kind of support network offered by television cameras and a crowd, who might sometimes act as witnesses. "The referee is out there on his own," he said.

Barry Rowland, a referee in the area under Fowkes's jurisdiction, found himself in such a situation last year. "I was doing a Saturday afternoon game in the Wimbledon and District League," he said. "It was a cup game and a bit fiery. I'd allowed a goal that one side thought was offside and their goalkeeper ran from his goalmouth to the centre and kicked me in the back. I went down face-first, got myself up a bit and was pushed again." Rowland abandoned the game, and the offending player was suspended for a year. The player's team was heavily fined.

"It put me off for three weeks, but I went back," said Rowland, who still referees regularly. "I think that it was an isolated incident, but it's fair to say there is still a lot of verbal abuse."

Rowland believes Di Canio's case could be an important landmark for referees at all levels of football, but especially in the lesser leagues. "If Di Canio gets dealt with harshly, it could be good for the game and people will see they can't get away with it," he said. "If not, it won't set a very good example to young people and others who play."

What the FA decides to do with Di Canio, it seems, will be more important for officials on parks with no spectators than in stadiums with tens of thousands.