Grassroots referees: Stories of assaults, threats and respect

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'Spat at and punched' - life as a referee

"I've been headbutted, spat at and punched by players," says amateur football referee Ryan Hampson, who is calling for grassroots officials to go on strike in protest at the treatment they receive.

We asked you for your stories of grassroots refereeing and were inundated with replies. Here are a selection:

I am a grassroots referee. I get offered a fight almost every week by players in my game. I have even been offered fights by coaches of junior teams after making decisions that did not go their team's way. It is disgraceful to act this way to a teenager who is simply doing it for a small match fee and giving something back to the game. Joe Craven

As a 17-year-old referee, I find that the biggest issue is in youth football right now, and not adult amateurs. At adult level, if you make a decision, generally it is accepted. At youth football, you can't make a decision without angering parents on the sidelines. Ewan

One incident caused me to give it up for good at 18. A few of the parents for one of the sides playing felt some of my decisions were awful, which is pretty normal. At half-time, I was confronted by a couple of the dads and threatened with having my legs broken and being put into hospital. I tried to remain calm in the situation, tried getting their names, but then it turned violent. I abandoned the game, wrote a report on what happened, but nothing actually happened after that. I felt there was no protection from the local FA so decided to give it up at the end of that season. There is no protection for refs at local level. Martyn Pritchard


I used to referee games in a Portsmouth league between boys of six to 10 years old. I was verbally insulted, sworn at and threatened and even driven at by a 4x4 in the car park after I abandoned a game with the opposing coach shouting at his players to break the opponents' legs. Later on as a parent I saw 13-14-year-old teams kick and punch opposing teams with no sanction from the referee as he seemed too scared. Many young skillful players, particularly the smaller ones, drift out of the game at this level as they get intimidated and kicked out of the game. I stopped refereeing as I found the whole thing too stressful and was afraid of being seriously, physically assaulted. David Farnworth

Having to give up playing with a knee injury in my 20s I took up refereeing and have refereed on the same league [the Watford Sunday League] for more than 30 years. There has been the occasional abuse over those years but on the whole it has been a brilliant and fulfilling experience. Unable to play, I have gained so much pleasure from contributing to games and still being involved in the game I love. Nigel Rothband

There used to be a referee in Huddersfield who called all of the players his brothers. Games would be started with: "Let's have a good game and enjoy ourselves brothers." He was always positive, encouraging and praised good play. He made the odd shocking decision of course, but everyone loved him and there was never even a hint of bother, no matter how bad a decision was made. He earned respect from the players through his attitude and encouragement. A perfect model for a referee. Father Luke

When I was a referee I remember one game when I had a player make a horrible tackle on his opposite number. Then 30 seconds later that player got his own back by lashing out with a straight kick to the shins. Then when I asked for him to be subbed [as it was an academy friendly] he squared up to me. Doesn't seem too bad? Well this was an under-12s game and I was 17 at the time. Tom

The first game I ever refereed, I sent a player off. He told me that after the game he was going to smash my head in and do my knee caps. I am still refereeing now but understand why so many give it up. Carl

When I was 16 I did my referees qualifications. I only officiated a handful of youth games before packing it in - the abuse from the parents [and the kids] didn't justify the £30 weekly pocket money! I'm 28 now and still playing, but suffice to say I try my hardest not to give the ref a hard time! Tom Perry

Referee shirt

Why are we only hearing negatives about referees and players? I've been a ref for nine years and have never suffered physical abuse or intimidation. Let's not tar all players with the same brush, most are decent guys and girls who respect officials and the laws of the game. Jamie

I've been abused and threatened by parents from teams as young as under 11s. The quickest way to stop this kind of abuse is to clamp down on it from the top. David S

When I was 17 I was refereeing a men's adult match and was violently abused by one of the players. He tried to punch and stamped down the back of my leg after he disagreed with my corner decision, also calling me a stream of expletives. Fully backing the strike as referees are treated dreadfully by the majority. Action is needed. Without referees there is no amateur game. Freddie Young

I refereed semi-professionally in Australia before switching to amateur football in England. The level of abuse and disrespect referees receive in England compared to Australia is disgraceful! Players complain about not having quality refs but when they force 50% of new referees to quit in the first year because of abuse, how can they expect grassroots refereeing quality to get better! Aaron Softley

I started reffing this season at 19 years old and decided to make the jump straight into the adult leagues. Have had no major abuse so far, all of the minor comments seem to be down to frustration at decisions not going their way! Harrison Thompson

A strike won't change anything. The problem with amateur referees is that at a lower level you are there on your own, no linesman, just you and the hate. The hate is directed at you and you alone. As an ex-player I realise that the aggression is increasing both verbally and physically and I worry someone will be killed. It is deemed acceptable to abuse, argue and berate refs but it needs to stop. Phil Wheeler

I have been a referee for 35 years, and in that time have only felt threatened once. Sunday league games are usually the most difficult, but I have found if you treat the players with respect you usually get it back. David Crowe


I was reffing an U15s match on Sunday afternoon. I gave a last-minute penalty to the away side, then the home team manager threw the linesman flag at me and called me a disgrace, plus verbal abuse by the parents. Had to be taken back to changing rooms by the away team manager. I stopped reffing after this match. Craig Birchenough

I have refereed for eight years and have never received the abuse mentioned. It's about how you treat the players before, during and after the game. I tell both teams before the game that I'm probably going to give some decisions that they don't agree with, and that I'm not doing it to annoy them, it's my take on the incident. I think it makes the players realise that I'm only human too!! Chris

The last game I ever refereed I was threatened to be stabbed, didn't collect my match fee and left straight after the final whistle. Never again. Jonathan Almond

A couple of months back I, being 16 years of age at the time, was told by a PARENT to meet him in the car park after a game in which he had to be sent off for being aggressive towards players of BOTH teams. Still big changes needing at grassroots level sadly. Ethan Evans

I used to referee rugby union - juniors, ladies and men's seniors. Yes there were challenging games, but everyone [players and spectators] was always respectful. The players appreciated that without the ref, there is no game. A bad decision if sold the right way or apologised for was always accepted and the game moved on. There were very few games I didn't enjoy. Respect is key - and that is why I wouldn't referee football. Alex

I have been a referee for the last six years or so. I rarely get hassle or abuse, but know of plenty of refs who have suffered verbal and physical abuse. I start each match by introducing myself to both teams in the warm-up, I tell them what I will and won't put up with and make fun of myself [Things I am already aware of, I am fat, I am going bald and I am old, but I am also VERY sensitive so please don't call me names or it will cost you money]. Most important of all is reffing with a smile on your face and talking to the players on the same level. If you make yourself a human being in the eyes of the players and one of them decides to be an idiot then his/her own team-mates will normally side with you. James Murgatroyd

I ref at a reasonable level but still also cover Sunday football at grass-roots level. The VAST majority of players are perfectly fine. Sure, I have had my share of verbal abuse but it's almost always a split-second thing, is normally nothing too bad and, when it does cross the line, is dealt with by use of the cards, which either hits the player in the pocket or sees him off the pitch for the remainder of the game. On the less-than-a-handful of occasions when it looked like things may escalate beyond words, it was the other players on the pitch who stepped forward to ensure I was in no physical danger, even those who may have expressed their dissatisfaction over earlier decisions. Football is a passionate sport and we need to be able to deal with incidents when those passions can overspill. I don't see how calling a strike can help. The main pain will be felt by those 99% of recreational footballers who never cause us problems! Mike Coen

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