Insults, threats and chaos: a ref’s guarantee on a matchday. Without referees, the much loved game becomes a lawless scrap. So grab your whistle and ask yourself: Can football survive when its officials become targets?

Take yourself back to the last time you were cheering in the stands, the air thick with excitement as your team battled it out on the pitch.

You belted out a few chants, perhaps shouted some inappropriate nonsense, and then headed home.

Just a typical matchday, right? The truth is, while you may never give that game a second thought, there is someone who won’t forget a single moment; the referee. 

The BBC recently discovered some uncomfortable truths – a survey found that over 30% of referees have faced physical abuse from spectators.

If that wasn’t enough to raise your eyebrows; the FA’s Disciplinary Review for the 2022/23 season uncovered an alarming 100 more allegations of serious misconduct directed at match officials compared to the previous grassroots season (3,636).

But isn’t this supposed to be the ‘beautiful game’? It’s not looking so beautiful now, is it? These numbers have exposed the ugly truths about what unfolds on and off the football pitch. 

Understanding the Abuse

Let’s face it – the harsh reality of referee abuse on matchdays is a bitter pill that many football fans find hard to swallow. Abuse isn’t exactly a term we’d associate with our beloved game.

But from that very first whistle, it’s like a tsunami of repeated remarks pelting down onto the pitch, all aimed at those donning the official all-black attire.

For chairmen of non-league clubs, this abuse has seemingly found a prominent place in the concourse . John Bathurst, Chairman of Herne Bay FC, said: “There has been more abuse from the fans, less from the players. Foul language is becoming so common among supporters.” 

Verbal abuse accounts for over 55% of the total abuse referees encounter.

Although it may not leave a physical mark on the officials, the continuous taunting from all corners of the ground leaves the referee feeling isolated and alone.

Bradley Godden, a non-league referee, opened up about his experiences on the pitch – an environment where his love for the job should prevail. He said: “Since the pandemic, most of my experiences as a referee have been negative. 

“When I get abused, it angers me. I have to just stand there and accept something that is targeted towards me without being able to stand up for myself.” 

However, in no world should we be going to a football game and witnessing verbal and physical abuse, let alone one of the two. Shockingly, the latter constitutes 13% of the total mistreatment faced by referees.

From punches to objects thrown, officials find themselves in the crossfire as supporters and players unleash their frustrations.  

John Bathurst wanted to underpin how an incident of physical abuse transfixed his entire club.

“One of our players slapped a referee which left the other players on the field visibly shocked. He was immediately dismissed from the club.

Honestly, everyone was speechless.”

Yes, you read that right – a player slapped a referee. The official likely expected a routine game, perhaps dishing out a few cards or pointing to the penalty spot.

Instead, it ended with a slap across the face.

Such incidents not only stain the reputation of the ‘beautiful game’ but cast a shadow over the spirit of fair play. It’s a wake up call for fans and the football community alike, urging us to foster an environment where respect and sportsmanship take centre stage. 

Time for Action

So, how do we put an end to this problem? Even the smallest of strides towards improvement can alleviate a significant burden off the officials shoulders.

Action needs to be initiated from those with the power and influence at non-league clubs across the country.

Terry Doherty, Chairman of Brightlingsea Regent FC, sees a clear path when contemplating the future of football officiating. He said: “Rugby officials and fans are showing us the way forward. 

“The FA need to follow their example and stick with it until it becomes ingrained in our sport as it has done in theirs. It will take time and patience.” 

The rugby world places a great emphasis on fair play, with respect for the referee considered an essential part of the game.

Although it may be unrealistic to eradicate the abuse entirely, a tougher approach from the FA could significantly reduce its frequency.

Other members of the grassroots hierarchy have called for more action to be made to stamp out the abuse.

Simon Negus, Chairman of Ascot United, said: “The current FA sanctions need to be tougher. They need to make it socially unacceptable like smoking inside and drink driving.”

Referees themselves have reached out about the lack of help they have received from the authorities.

Bradley Godden has admitted he was not ready for the amount of abuse he was going to face. He said: “I didn’t receive any training or preparation for the abuse I might face when on the field.

The abuse has to be witnessed by someone else and the majority of the time fellow teammates ignore the abuse given by their colleagues as they prefer to stick up for a mate.”

It seems bizarre that officials are completely kept in the dark about such a glaring issue in all ladders of the game, but especially non-league. Those at the helm of the football hierarchy must address two pivotal issues if we hope to see a positive shift in how officials are treated.

  1. Be harsh on sanctions – if the punishment for abusing referees becomes more severe and strictly enforced, fans would likely think twice before hurling insults at a referee. 
  2. Give officials support – the FA must acknowledge the problem within the game and equip young referees with the tools to handle the abuse

What we need to realise is that some referee decisions do have serious consequences.

No – I am not justifying the abuse at all, but clubs have become frustrated at the lack of consistency among officials. Desmond Flanders, the Chairman of Metropolitan Police FC, has highlighted that referees and club officials need to cooperate more. 

“A move forward would be for referees to make themselves available for enquiry and debate after the game. This would allow for the referee’s interpretation of a certain event to be shared and explained.”

Understanding the reasoning behind a decision could increase the respect and sportsmanship shown towards officials. Managers, coaches and players having the chance to seek clarification after the game might just be the bridge needed to create a better footballing environment. 

Q and A

Bradley Godden

Q1) What would you say is the most common form of abuse in your years of officiating?

“For sure it is verbal abuse. The amount of grief you get from the sidelines and even on the pitch is constant. Players and fans feel they have to blame someone for the result”.

Q2) What advice would you give to upcoming referees about the problem of abuse?

“My tips for young referees coming through is to try and ignore the abuse and use the tools given to you such as yellow and red cards to stamp it out early”.    

Simon Hewett 

Q1) How often do you witness verbal/physical abuse on a matchday?

“It’s pretty much every game. I get that fans get caught up in the game but the things that come out of people’s mouths are unacceptable.”

Q2) Have you tried to encourage others around you at the game to be more respectful to officials?

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m an angel when it comes to this stuff. I feel like every fan needs educating, including myself. I’ve tried to set an example for those around me, yes”

William Killeen

Q1) Have you noticed an increased amount of abuse towards referees?

“For sure, I think it gets more and more every year. I feel like there is quite a rough fan culture coming into football which can’t really be stopped”.

Q2) Why do you think people find it acceptable to direct their frustrations onto the officials?

“I feel they are the easiest people to blame. Kids are listening to what they hear adults say and think they can copy. It is only going to lead to a never ending cycle of abuse”.

Full Time

The whistle blows for full time, not just on this match, but on the unacceptable abuse of referees in non-league football. Change demands a united front.

The FA must tighten sanctions, support referees and champion their cause. But, it isn’t just down to the FA. Clubs across the country must foster a positive fan culture and educate spectators.

However, now I am talking to YOU. Use your most potent weapon: your voice. Refrain from the negative and start replacing the jeers with cheers. No referees means no football. #RespectTheRef