Football: Game of survival for the man in the park

Paul Trow talks to a referee about the dangers at grass-roots level
Click to follow
The Independent Online
DEPENDING ON who you talk to, refereeing is a mug's game, a masochistic outlet for the dysfunctional, or part of the essentially British habit of pretending nothing is wrong.

Eight days ago, Sheffield Wednesday's Paolo Di Canio decked the referee, Paul Alcock, who was in charge of the Premier League match with Arsenal at Hillsborough. His actions were indefensible and condemnation was duly heaped upon him from every source - the media, the authorities, the opposition, even his own club. Only time will tell whether the incident acquires the cult status of Eric Cantona's infamous kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park, but to officials at grass-roots level it was an all-too-familiar tale.

Dan Rutstein, a 21-year-old referee who officiates at local club and student level, has certainly suffered his fair share of traumas since first picking up a whistle seven years ago.

"I've been assaulted at least four times," Rutstein said, almost matter-of-factly. "But the worst incident I witnessed was while I was running the line at Croydon in a match in the Surrey Premier League, which is the level immediately below semi-professional.

"Our referee heard a player swear and called him over, not intending to send him off, only to have the player swear loudly at him again. At that stage he had no option but to send him off, and then the trouble really started. The player walloped the referee on the side of his head, knocking him to the ground. He hadn't broken his jaw but there was a lot of swelling and bruising. I dashed over to pull the player away from the referee, and then we three officials beat a hasty retreat to the dressing room.

"Once we got there, I sat on a chair to barricade the door, but the player followed us and pounded the door with his fist, eventually smashing a hole through the wood. We waited for everything to calm down, but as we left the manager of his team also swore at us and at no stage did anyone feel the need to apologise.

"The guy eventually received a life ban, reviewable in five years, which is the maximum punishment, but shortly afterwards, the referee decided he didn't need such aggravation and packed it up. At least he saw the funny side of it when, for his retirement present, we gave him the damaged door which, by then, had been removed from its hinges."

Admirable though retaining a sense of humour may be, Rutstein admitted he was disillusioned by an activity which he originally had hoped, after realising he was not a good enough player, would propel him to the heights of the Premiership.

"Even though I'm a Londoner, I also did a lot of refereeing in Yorkshire where I was at university," he continued. "They're generally friendlier up here, but there's one pub in York which I can't visit on Saturday nights for fear of being assaulted or abused by someone I've either sent off or who was aggrieved by my decisions. The trouble is that if you want to climb the refereeing ladder you have to be quite strict at grass-roots level, but a lot of the older referees, who don't have those kind of ambitions, are more lenient than they should be."

And then there are the death threats. "I've had a few, which isn't very nice. However, even though players shout a lot and threaten you, I'm always surprised when one actually hits me. The last one was this fellow who can't have been more than 5ft 2in tall. I'm 6ft 4in so he didn't knock me over, and I just looked at him in astonishment. On the field of play I'm obviously constrained from retaliating, but I don't know what my reaction would have been if he'd done it in a pub."

Rutstein, who was sufficiently disgusted to call Channel 4's Under the Moon phone-in show last week, acknowledges that local referees' societies and county FAs are generally supportive of their members. "I've been let down only once - when a team from Sunderland University arrived late for a game in York and I cancelled it because there wasn't enough light. Later on in the bar, I was attacked by some of their players. When I wrote to the Durham FA, they refused to intervene, saying it was purely a student matter."

All this must make particularly depressing reading for two dedicated officials - Colin Downey, the Football Association's referees' secretary, and Arthur Smith, the secretary of the 18,000-strong Referees' Association. With some 6,000 newcomers taking up refereeing each year, Downey feels experiences like Rutstein's are a distortion of the truth.

Smith, who like Rutstein began refereeing in his teens, rose to Football League status and ran the line at the 1989 FA Cup final between Liverpool and Everton. In his view, park football is no worse or better now than it was a generation ago. Numerous referees pack up each year, but he argues that advancing years, work or family commitments are more likely explanations than disillusionment.

Financial recompense, or lack of it, is often cited as a reason why the referee's lot is far from happy. But loneliness is probably nearer the mark. "When you put on a black kit for the first time, you're on your own and it can be quite a daunting experience," Smith said. Rutstein agreed: "I've lost count of the number of times after a game that I've gone to the bar for a token drink and then stood on my own with no one speaking to me." Who, indeed, would be a referee?