Spectator abuse of referees has reached such proportions that the officials in one league this weekend staged a wildcat strike and if the bad behaviour continues then playing behind closed doors might be next.
The football teams involved all play in an under-10s league and are officiated by younger referees, many of them aged 14-15.
What innocent fun that must be, many would assume. Far from it, said Helen Beales, marketing and partnerships manager for the Northumberland Football Association. “Unfortunately we are finding that they are getting more and more abuse. From the start of the season it has just crept up and up and up to the point where, a couple of weeks ago, we had eight referees in tears which is just absolutely crazy.”
Beales said the abuse was coming from coaches and parents and enough was enough. “They are shouting at referees who are starting their careers and are learning. You wouldn’t shout at an under-10 goalkeeper who let in a goal.”
On Sunday the referees staged a day of action by refusing to officiate games at venues in Newcastle, Gosforth and Killingworth. Supporters went round with disposable whistles telling parents they would have to find their own referee.
“It gave people an idea of how hard it is to referee a game,” said Beales. “A lot of people were shocked to hear about the amount of abuse there is. I think it was a real eye-opener for people.”
Abusing referees has long been an issue at all levels of football but Beales said, post-lockdown, it was getting worse. “We have seen a deterioration in behaviour. I’m not an expert as to why that has happened. I know people have missed football and been very frustrated by not having it. Is that the reason? I don’t know.”
It is a small minority, Beales said, but it was unacceptable. “We’re all very passionate about football but I think some people just get caught up in it, they can only see it from their point of view or their child’s point of view.”
The organisation is planning a season-long campaign to improve behaviour including a weekend of games on 20-21 November where spectators, coaches and players are expected to make only positive comments.
There will also be paid referee mentors, a monthly competition to reward positive behaviour and a new course to train parents or volunteers who want to act as assistant referees.
If none of that works then Beales said further action might include playing without spectators. Teams could also be excluded from the league. “Something has to be done now, we can’t go any further with this.”
Ian Coates, general manager of Northumberland Football Leagues, said: “All the referees at our central venues are new to officiating. They are children themselves and are still learning – yet they are receiving horrendous verbal abuse when they make an honest mistake, or make a decision that not everyone agrees with.
“I would urge every one of our parents and coaches to take a look at their own behaviour. Please support and encourage our referees – without them there would be no football. Let’s all move forward together in a positive manner.”