Before the international break, we saw one of the greatest games in Premier League history: Chelsea 4, Manchester City 4. A beautiful spectacle, but one marred by the ugly finale of Mauricio Pochettino storming on to the pitch at full-time to abuse Anthony Taylor. It trickles from the top down.
The difference is at grassroots level. There are no cameras or stewards there to make that angry bloke think twice about what he will do once he’s approached you.
It is a situation that has spiralled out of control at the grassroots level of our game and a subject long overdue being at the forefront of football’s mammoth media coverage.
It is much worse than simply being called a ‘f***ing cheating b******’ by the parent of the player you’ve just penalised for a foul, as grotesque as that is.
This week, we heard from Rhys Baldwin and George Sleigh on Mail Sport’s It’s All Kicking Off podcast. How Rhys has been threatened with knives not once but twice. How George will live the rest of his life with metal plates in his jaw. There are many more with horror stories like theirs, I am sad to say.
Grassroots referees told Mail Sport’s Ian Ladyman (pictured) and Chris Sutton about the horrors they have had to go through while officiating on the It’s All Kicking Off podcast
Rhys Baldwin (left) and George Sleigh (right) are young referees who have quit due to abuse
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Young people and children are often confronted by aggressive adults at grassroots level
They’ve lived to tell the tale, but sometimes it can feel as if English football is waiting for its first death before these shameful scenes attract the scrutiny they truly deserve.
You have 28,000 referees in the UK and yet there is a constant recruitment drive for more to sign up to wear black on a weekend. Why? Because it is such a struggle to keep referees on the roster. Who can blame blossoming officials like Rhys or George for wanting to quit? No matter how much you love football, the £40 match fee is never going to make up for the abuse you receive in tow.
The problem is there is no protection for those in grassroots, whether you’re overseeing a game involving children or adults. The lack of respect is remarkable and the Premier League needs to set a good example, first and foremost.
Daily Mail columnist and former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg
I was 16 years old when my teacher, Mr Reach, took a few of us from Cramlington High School to sit a refereeing exam. He’d broken the news to me that I was never going to make it as a professional footballer and thought this might be the next best thing.
By 18, I was refereeing adult matches and, as you can imagine, abuse was routine. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. I once had a player tell me that if I red carded him, he’d break my legs.
I finally lost my patience in the 75th minute and he said he would wait for me at full-time to fulfil his promise. I spent those last 15 minutes wondering if I’d be spending the next three months in a wheelchair. I escaped unharmed.
But it wasn’t only on the pitch where you’d encounter these threats. Because you’re local to the games you referee at grassroots, I’d be in a pub with my mates and a bloke might come up to me. I didn’t remember him.
But he remembered me, because I was the ‘f***ing t***’ who showed him a red card. This is the grim reality facing every referee at grassroots level. The exposure is extraordinary.
Abuse from players and spectators is leading to a huge shortage of referees at grassroots level
The Premier League needs to set an example of behaviour because it filters down the pyramid
Roberto De Zerbi claimed this month he does not like ’80 per cent’ of Premier League referees
Fulham’s Marco Silva (left) is one of two managers to have been booked three times for dissent
I was refereeing games in the Premier League when a friend asked for a favour. He wondered if I was free to officiate a top-of-the-table Under-15s match in Sunderland. I agreed to help.
Wrong. There was one parent on the sidelines who spent the entire time abusing me. In the end, I walked up to him, dropped my whistle, and said: ‘You do it if you think you’re good enough.’
He was chucked out by the other parents who wanted the game to continue. I had the confidence to do that. I was used to officiating fixtures in front of tens of thousands, after all. But is a 16-year-old referee supposed to have the courage to do that?
I used to watch my son play on weekends and I’d keep my trap shut, no matter what. But some of the vitriol that would spill out of parents’ mouths was extraordinary. The players on the pitch see that and think, ‘If my dad can do that, I can too.’ It will only lead to disrespect from the next generation towards our referees unless we see a cultural change in this country.
When overseeing games involving academies, there is a level of discipline. The players know if they step out of line, they risk losing their scholarship. The same goes for the parents of those prospects. There are tangible consequences to their actions.
Mail Sport has launched a campaign to stop the abuse of referees to help boost the game
|Cards for dissent
|West Ham United
|Brighton and Hove Albion
But the local parks of the grassroots game have turned into the wild west of football. It can be a thankless task for those trying to uphold the law in such lawless circumstances.
Only recently, we saw a statement emerge from the Northumberland Football League in which they said the behaviour ‘is the worst we have ever seen’. They had to threaten cancellation of fixtures unless parents stop acting like ‘hooligans’.
I’ve heard of one initiative that involves using ropes around the perimeter of the pitch – also known as ‘respect barriers’ – but that can be as effective as placing a plaster on a broken leg. Punishments for players, coaches, spectators – anyone who abuses – need to be strong enough to deter it from ever happening again, while I would also encourage any grassroots referee to wear a bodycam as an added layer of protection against abuse.
If you go to a game where you live this weekend, I urge you to show respect towards your referee, not abuse. We’ve had enough.