Bans were handed to 380 players and coaches for attacking or threatening referees and match officials in English grassroots football last season.
Football Association disciplinary reports for the 2021-22 season highlight a catalog of abuse against officials in youth and adult football.
The Merseyside Youth Football League has canceled all fixtures for this weekend in protest at “multiple incidents of inappropriate and threatening behavior” towards officials.
It said “we cannot allow this toxic behavior to continue to escalate”.
Keith Radcliffe, a senior referee in the league, told BBC Radio 5 Live the issue “seems to be across the whole of the country” and that the league had decided to “take a stance” in postponing more than 70 games. There are 1,100 leagues and 18,500 clubs across all ages in England.
Last weekend, the referee suffered “significant” injuries when he was attacked while officiating a game between Platt Bridge FC and Wigan Rose FC on Sunday, and Greater Manchester Police (GMP) arrested a 24-year-old.
Radcliffe added: “It’s parents, managers, coaches. They constantly bombard officials with a must-win attitude and say ‘you’ve got it wrong’. They all want to have the next Messi and Ronaldo, because they couldn’t be.
“A national rule has to come in to say if any misdemeanors happen, they are banned for three or four weeks, never mind a week.
“It can’t continue. If it doesn’t stop, referees are actually getting physically assaulted and there is going to be a national strike.”
What do last season’s FA reports show?
Sanctions for last season’s incidents – which occurred across thousands of games – ranged from 112 days to eight years and came in a season where grassroots referees protested over the abuse they faced on the pitch.
Kent FA called for match officials to be treated with respect, blaming a 24% fall in the number of officials on “an unacceptable level of physical and verbal abuse”.
Evidence given in disciplinary hearings show referees and their assistants being kicked, headbutted, punched, spat on and threatened with violence by players, club officials and spectators.
One cup final between sides from Blackburn and Oldham saw the referee knocked to the ground and up to 20 people punching him.
Some of the cases happened in junior football matches featuring children as young as 11.
‘Parents are horrendous & referees are the easy victim’
Mum ‘Helen’, spoke to BBC Radio 5 live anonymously about her referee son, who she said is now in his late 20s and at “quite a high level” in the game.
“He’s been refereeing since he was 16 and I’ve watched him make his way up through the ranks.
“I have just seen so much vitriol. The behavior towards him is disgusting. I just can’t go to any of his games any more.
“It’s everybody. The parents, the players, the managers. It’s yours [the media’s] pundits – they aren’t backing the referees. They are setting a poor example for people who are emulating that behavior.”
‘Helen’ said her son had received death threats, but has told her “nothing will change”.
Referees Association president Paul Field says he has “no sympathy” for those who are banned following match official abuse, particularly as it has a “profound effect” on their mental health.
He added the collated statistics “sounds a lot” and that referees are “easy victims” as they are often a team of one at grassroots level. Field feels strongly about making punishments more severe, including revoking coaches’ FA qualification.
“I think there has to be a real recognition of partnership from the elite game throughout the FA,” Field told BBC Sport.
“Grassroots football needs a lot more TLC and I’d increase bans towards any abuse. I’d increase it for spectators. The worst are parents. Parents are an absolute nightmare. It’s easier to referee a Dog and Duck and Black Horse than it is an under-14s game. Parents are absolutely horrendous.”
According to the FA there are about 28,000 qualified referees in England and some 4,000 taking refereeing courses each year.
Field said the number has remained stable for “decades” but explained there is a retention problem with thousands of officials leaving the game each year – although to attribute people leaving solely because of abuse is “factually incorrect”, he added.
Work commitments or wanting to spend more time with their family at weekends were typical reasons for people leaving the role behind, he said.
Despite abuse not being the sole reason officials leave the game, Field does recognize the game has a problem. It is not just the abuse itself which is central to the issue, he said, but the lack of support referees have when it does occur from county FAs – typically the abuse happens outside of office hours.
“If someone got assaulted on a Saturday morning, it might not be until Wednesday that the county FA picks up the phone and asks how are you?”
‘I felt very unsafe and didn’t receive much protection’ – other case studies
Many of the reports contain first-hand accounts of attacks on referees. Here are some examples:
“He headbutted me. I managed to turn my head but he made contact with the side of my head. I had minor swelling but I count myself lucky that I managed to avoid the full brunt. I refused to start the game until he had gone from the playing area.”
“I gave him another yellow and sent him off. Angrily he punched me in the face by the touchline.”
“I showed him the red card for threatening and abusive behavior. He then punched me on the left side of my face. He also threatened to meet me in the car park after the match.”
“Upon being shown the red card the player immediately aimed a punch at me which caught me on my lower jaw. He then attempted to strike me again but his captain managed to get in the way and usher him away. At this point I abandoned the match.”
How are cases dealt with?
Changes to how cases are investigated and charged were brought in by the FA in October 2019.
County FAs look into the incidents and bring about the charges but since that change all physical contact and assault cases on match officials are now heard by a panel centrally appointed by the FA. This change was made to ensure a consistent approach and that appropriate sanctions are applied.
Since that change was made, the FA panel had dealt with 822 cases up until the start of this season. That covers a period in which football was suspended for long periods because of Covid-19 measures.
Government restrictions brought an early end to the 2019-20 season and the following season saw non-elite football severely disrupted by two further national lockdowns.
The recommended sanction for physical contact – which can include a push, barge, or snatching cards out of a referee’s hands – is 182 days.
Assaults carry a minimum sanction of five years and upwards to life bans, which the FA says have occurred.
Point deductions for the clubs involved, fines and a requirement to attend an educational course can also be applied in addition to the bans.
“We are clear that all forms of abuse, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable and we will continue to do everything we can to stamp out this behavior from the game,” an FA spokesperson said.
“Match officials play a crucial role in creating a safe and inclusive environment for all participants and The FA works very closely with our 50 County FAs around the country to recruit, retain, support and develop the referee workforce to service the game and give them the best experience possible. The retention of all referees is crucial and this remains a priority as part of The FA’s wider Respect campaign.”
Last month the FA launched its ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign targeting bad behavior in the grassroots game.
“Sadly last season, at all levels of the game, there were too many examples of unacceptable behaviours,” the FA said at the campaign’s launch.
And last week a meeting of an advisory panel for the game’s law-making body, the International Football Association Board (Ifab), looked at new initiatives for addressing “a lack of respect for referees and their safety”, which it said had become ” global problems”.
One of the measures being looked at is to supply referees in adult grassroots football with body cameras – although Ifab says “detailed protocols would need to be drawn up before any potential trial could be conducted”.
Field says he welcomes the “positive” steps taken by the FA, including “increased penalties” but added: “We would like to see The FA take a tougher stance on qualifications and/or accreditations being removed from coaches and clubs for continued poor behavior , which may result in financial grants being withdrawn.
“The football family needs to take ownership; it’s not all down to The Football Association.”