‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’
‘You’re not fit to referee.’
‘Who’s the w***** in the black?’
At one point or another, I’ve shouted all of these phrases to a variety of complete strangers and done so with genuine gusto and venom.
All because they were officiating a football match.
I’ve sworn, I’ve hurled abuse, I’ve questioned their parentage and I’ve considered it all fair game.
After all, they’re just a w***** in the black.
Hard to reconcile that with the disgust I felt when reading the story of a 15-year-old junior referee who was reportedly a victim of abuse from three adult football coaches and the subsequent handling of the matter by the Lancashire Football Association.
By way of context, I coach an under-11s football team, the same age group playing the match in which the alleged incident occurred. Many people who have watched their children play will have stories of similar incidents and as little as two weeks ago, I witnessed an opposition coach persistently verbally abuse the referee, labelling him a ‘f****** cheat’, whilst the kids looked on.
I was appalled.
But evidently, there’s a disconnect in my mind. One that says in grass roots football, as in every other aspect of life, there are standards to be upheld, whereas from my vantage point at Carrow Road, different rules apply.
Whether it’s aimed at the officials, the players, or the opposition fans, I like many others, behave in a way that I’d find completely unacceptable in any other situation.
I’ll throw gestures towards nameless faces in the away end. I’ll use language that would give my parents reason to question how I’d been brought up and where they’d gone wrong.
And all because of a football match.
Perhaps it’s the same mentality that leads to instances of road rage or ‘trolling’ on social media? The feeling of relative safety and detachment you can get from being cocooned in your car or behind your computer screen, that gets replicated when watching from the side lines?
Maybe it’s a release of the week’s irritations? A chance to vent the frustrations, built up from all those moments of biting your lip.
Or perhaps it’s what Richard Keys might refer to as ‘just banter’; a term so often used to dress up and excuse otherwise offensive and insulting behaviour.
The Uruguayan team, Nacional were recently fined $80,000 following a Copa Libertadores match against the Brazilian side Chapecoense in which some of their fans made gestures referring to the plane crash which killed 19 players and staff.
I’m of an age where I remember fans of Manchester United’s opponents regularly singing about the Munich air disaster that cost the lives of the ‘Busby babes’. Something which to the best of my knowledge, never received any form of punishment and was therefore presumably deemed acceptable.
In their subsequent statement, Nacional apologised and said the incident was “horrendous” and brought a “deep sense of shame” adding that “unfortunately, many sick minds channel their irrationality to sporting scenarios”.
There’s many aspects of being a football supporter that could be described as irrational. From the money we pay, the distances we travel, through to the songs that we sing, or the abuse that we direct towards others just because they have a different coloured scarf or made a decision we didn’t agree with.
Thankfully, the boundaries of acceptability are changing but there remain grey areas. A middle ground between what all (bar a few mindless idiots) would deem to be unacceptable and a place where political correctness ‘goes mad’.
A place where it may – or may not – be okay to sing a song about one former City player and another former City player’s wife for example.
But back to officials.
Richard Keys received the condemnation he deserved, not for criticising a referee’s assistant but because the criticism was linked to gender and the inference that, as a woman, Sian Massey “probably didn’t know the offside rule”.
Gender is immaterial of course, as is age. Whether it’s a woman running the line in the top flight, a 15-year-old refereeing an under-11’s match in Lancashire, or Simon Hooper disallowing Cameron Jerome’s overhead ‘equaliser’ against Palace, they are simply people who are trying to apply the laws of the game to the best of their abilities and experience.
The level of scrutiny and criticism that officials receive is surely a contributing factor in the introduction of VAR. An attempt to safeguard against contentious decisions, which ironically is also receiving a high degree of scrutiny and criticism, as we saw following the Tottenham versus Rochdale cup replay.
But the vitriol that I directed towards Hooper after his decision is no more justifiable than the abuse dished out by the three grass roots coaches.
A reminder to myself that whilst football at all levels incites passion and fervour, it doesn’t provide a license to act like an idiot.
Something I bet I’ll have conveniently forgotten, the next time he referees at Carrow Road.