Tough times for men in the middle

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Could you take the abuse? The Football Association is keen to recruit more referees, reports Martin Whittaker

BILL BONBROFF was just 16 when he started as a linesman in 1952. He worked his way up to refereeing football league matches before he retired a decade ago.

Now he is a referees' assessor for the county football association in Gloucestershire. He says the pressure on referees has increased dramatically since he first took up the whistle.

Their decisions are constantly questioned, there are more fouls and flare-ups both between players themselves and with referees, and spectators yell abuse from the sidelines. And that's just in local children's matches.

"When you're refereeing youngsters, the attitude of parents is unbelievable," he says. "Say our Johnny is playing, dad and everybody else is telling him what to do. In some instances, they're even throwing abuse at the referee. It's not often in youth football that you get trouble with players. Most of it is coming from the parents on the touchline."

This partly explains the shortage of referees throughout the 43 English county football assocations. According to the FA in the past five years the number of new recruits to refereeing has increased steadily from around 6,000 a year to over 7,500.

Yet many get no further than completing the initial course. Only around 20-30 per cent go on to referee matches and even then the drop-out rate is high.

"In Bristol recently we had 45 on the course," says Bill Bonbroff. "Only eight of them are going on to referee. We tend to get parents whose children play for a local team, or teachers looking for something extra on their CV."

Where do you start? Training begins at this local level. Initially the Football Association requires recruits to be over 14, fit and with good eyesight. A passion for football also helps.

You take a training course in one of the county football associations. This is based on a standard syllabus set by the FA and the Referees' Association.

The recommended initial training is a minimum of 12 hours, culminating in a written exam and oral test. In Bill Bonbroff's day these were based mainly around the rules of the game.

Today they are more a set of incidents that ould happen on the field in a hypothetical match, with questions such as "Is this man offside?"

If you pass you are a class 3 referee, qualified to preside over local and youth matches. But like taking your driving test, only when you get out there on the pitch does the real training begin.

After a year or so of matches, a class 3 referee can apply to the county FA to be assessed to move up to class 2. And it's the same process up to class 1.

Only from that level onwards can referees progress up the pyramid of leagues, ultimately - if they're good enough - to the Premier League.

So it's a long old road. Of the 33,000 referees registered with the FA, fewer than two dozen get to preside over Premier League matches. And you do it for love, not money. Although Premier League referees earn pound;600 per game plus expenses, at county level they get around pound;8 or pound;10 per match and their bus fare.

Over the past few years the FA has staged recruitment campaigns around Euro 96 and the World Cup, aimed at attracting youngsters into refereeing. The FA is also trying to recruit more women.

But Ken Ridden, the Football Association's director of refereeing, says apart from recruiting, they also have to try to keep referees.

"They're just not ready for the amount of hassle they get," he said. "I think this is a reflection of society's attitude towards authority. People have been encouraged to question rather than just accept decisions.

"If I was refereeing in the football league 20 years ago, we might have had one camera there for Match of the Day. Now for most Premier League matches, there are something like 16 camera positions. There are things a referee and two assistants couldn't possibly see from those positions."

With these demands and pressures, so the training has changed. "We now have to look beyond just teaching the laws and the interpretation. We have to teach them how to handle difficult situations. And we have to look much more in terms of teaching communication and management skills. In some respects it's almost a damage limitation exercise."

For more information contact your local county football association via the FA, 16 Lancaster Gate, London, W2 3LW, telephone 0171 314 5245

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