Let’s be honest, Paolo Di Canio pushing over Paul Alcock; Manchester United players hunting a backpedalling Andy D’Urso; Aleksandar Mitrovic’s tantrum at Old Trafford, punished by an eight-game ban: not the least hilarious things we have seen.
And why shouldn’t we laugh? Though being aggressively confronted by professional athletes must be stressful, elite referees know they are safe, so the aggravation is simply due punishment for their effrontery in seeking power, just part of the show and good, clean fun.
Or not. Greg Cruttwell’s new film, In the Middle, introduces us to a diverse range of officials at a variety of levels, all of whom know two things: player behaviour in the Premier League inspires player behaviour through the pyramid, and grassroots referees are absolutely not safe.
“An amazing bunch,” says Cruttwell. “I always found them so fascinating as a species. Who are these people? Why on earth do they do what they do? Who would want to get out there at a weekend to be shouted out and abused?”
Almost immediately the answer becomes clear, because what links all his subjects is an obsession with the game that is shaming and affirming. “I cannot live without it,” Anne-Marie, a Jamaican teacher, tells the Observer. “The skills, the dynamics, the thrill. One of the greatest things is to see a player turn someone inside out and leave them on the pot.” Or as Steve, a retired tube driver and grandfather, says in the film: “There is no other way, I think, at our level, that you could not love the game. It has to be a passion and in my opinion the person on that football pitch who loves the game the most is the referee.”
That passion makes officiating central to the identity of those who do it – none more so than Lucy, the world’s first trans referee. “I was going to give up football because I couldn’t hide who I was any more,” she says. “But then I thought you only get one life and why should I give up something that I love just because of who I am? And it seems the football world will accept me. I’m happy and proud that I’ve continued and also it’s lovely to have heard from the other trans referees that have since come out, reached out to me and said that I’ve inspired them. It’s really nice to hear that my journey has led to somebody else being their true self.”
Still, it is impossible to ignore the horror stories. After booking someone in an under-16 game, Cassandra – a former international – was set upon by the player and his mother, who chased her and spat at her. “I got a flying kick. I still have bruises from it,” she says. “Abuse is a crime and I felt violated, to be honest with you. I cried.”
Naturally she thought about quitting before deciding that morally she couldn’t justify it. “I carried on because of the love of the game and because 95% of people do the right thing,” she says. “But also because of the children – you want to give them the opportunity where they can go and build that sportsmanship and camaraderie. Sometimes football or sports are a safe haven for kids, where they experience social growth, and you don’t want to restrict them from that. Some of them do appreciate what you’re doing out there because they know that you could be doing something different, but you come out to make sure that they are able to play. I’m there to give them a safe environment and some form of protection.”
Understandably, though, others have had enough. Cassandra is responsible for allocating officials in her area and is finding it increasingly difficult to fill every post. “There’s a lot of referees that are no longer into football,” she says. “There were 206 games to be played on Sunday but you have only seven referees – that’s very, very difficult. Nobody wants to do it because of the constant abuse.
“When you report an incident, they take ages, you don’t hear from the FA, you don’t know what’s happening and, if you don’t stomp on that behaviour now, if you take too long to address it, it gets worse. When a child misbehaves, I take immediate action because, if you don’t, you’re allowing that child to feel that whatever behaviour they’ve displayed is acceptable, and they continue. But if you adjust that immediately and fix it, they will understand that it is unacceptable.”
None of this happens in a vacuum. Anne-Marie believes that what we see on the pitch reflects where we are as a society and we need a “collective effort of parents, coaches, managers” to repair things. “Whatever behaviour manifests itself on the football pitch,” she says, “is something that’s already been ingrained in that individual.”
Cassandra concurs, her experience in the game and in school telling her things are getting worse, with more kids growing up in poverty. “If we think about things like crime, if education is not a priority and people don’t feel it is, they can’t get that level of education or knowledge to take them to the next stage of their lives,” she says. “So the basic thing that we need to fix is education. It’s about working with the children at a lower level and helping them to develop values.”
However, football also needs to sort itself. When Mitrovic lost it at Old Trafford, Cruttwell, a Fulham fan, was in the away end, and he has strong feelings about what he saw. “Terrible,” he says. “Kids, adults, young adults – people in grassroots football copy that behaviour.”
The situation can, though, be quickly improved. Cassandra believes that at the start of every season players and managers should take mandatory refresher courses in the laws of the game, with anger management programmes offered to those found guilty of major infractions.
That is the touchy-feely aspect – but there is also a more draconian one, with punishments made deliberately severe for reasons of deterrence. “We need to make an example of him and say to the footballing world what he’s done is unacceptable,” says Lucy of Mitrovic – who was awaiting sanction when we spoke. “If they really wanted to set an example, then ban him for enough games to make sure he doesn’t play again this season.” In the meantime, though, things are as they are and whether or not change comes, those of us involved in the game – as fans, players, managers and writers – can take responsibility for making it better, by being better ourselves. Actions have consequences, and sometimes, things that seem like good, clean fun aren’t actually funny at all.