During Jeremy Wilson’s brilliant recent campaign in the Daily Telegraph about abuse of referees, there was a particularly poignant interview with Mike Cairns.
Cairns was a Premier League match official for 15 years who, out of love for the game and a sense of duty towards younger referees, returned to the game at grass-roots level, only to find what Wilson called ‘a very different landscape to the one he left in 1995.’
Many people reading this, including younger referees, will deem it all too familiar. “The level of indiscipline I see on a weekly basis is extreme,” Cairns told Wilson. “It is beyond belief. I just don’t recall this level of abuse before.
“If you dismiss a player, you get this torrent as you leave the pitch, calling you everything from a pig to a dog. That didn’t happen. Many of the referees are turning a blind eye to foul, abusive and insulting language simply because they feel it is not worth the hassle.”
In the circumstances, Cairns can be permitted the mixed metaphor because even the words to which they are cocking a deaf ear are more acceptable than the violence, real or threatened, that some have experienced.
Reports of the supply of referees decreasing are hardly a surprise. It all provides a dismal commentary on the performance of the FA’s Respect campaign, which has been going for nearly eight years and appears to have made a bad situation worse.
The recent increase in abuse of rugby referees, which the Telegraph also reported, is hardly an excuse or a distraction. It appears to point towards a general deterioration in behaviour in society at large and this was held to be a problem in 2008, just as it is now.
The question remains: what can any sport, in our case football, do about it?
When the Respect campaign was launched, it contained a fatal flaw which has never been properly addressed. It attempted to improve behaviour from the bottom up, as if grass-roots players provided an example to elite professionals rather than the other way round.
It was an astonishing error – everyone who has played or watched, let alone refereed, grass-roots football knows that the habits of the Premier League are aped on every humble pitch across the land – and yet it still appears to govern the campaign.
The professional game has even developed a different kind of refereeing in which officials are trained to explain decisions to dissident players as the match goes on. How do the FA expect grass-roots referees to learn those dubious skills as well as attending to their real-life jobs or studies?
No wonder they cannot control the tempers of the errant – why should they have to?
The best way to reinvent the Respect notion would be to impose strict rules on the elite. And enforce them. No backchat, no questioning except politely and briefly from the captain – and strict enforcement, backed by increased punishment by the FA.
If that means the elite referees can no longer practice their communications skills, too bad. The way things are going, their long-term successors may choose a different way of spending weekends. Only through zero tolerance of abuse at all levels can we do the game justice and – just as important – help to combat the shortcomings of an unruly age.