There is a crisis in grassroots football, and I myself am part of the problem.
I am now well into my 50s. I should not still be playing football, but I am – Over 45s – and I hope to continue for a few more years yet. Indeed, the thought of hanging up the boots terrifies me. I’ve had seven knee and ankle operations to stay on the pitch. I love the game so much that the thought of no longer playing is scarier than death.
But if I am honest with myself, I can’t help but feel that my continued presence on the pitch is just a little bit selfish. In olden times, people hung up the boots in their 20s or 30s and became coaches or referees if they wanted to stay in the game. There are now many tens of thousands playing O35s or O45s around Australia, and who is it that mainly suffers?
The referees, and the junior leagues that depend on them.
There are nowhere near enough referees to service the game. All around Australia, home teams are frequently required to ref their own games and the refs that are in the game are obliged to ref as many games as they can. This leads to unreasonable pressure – in several ways.
With fewer refs to choose from, there is less pressure on those that remain to improve. That leads to substandard performances which infuriate the players (who tend to know the rules by 45) and means refs are getting abused – not least from the sidelines. That in turn leads to conflict and more refs giving up the game.
The situation has become so dire that many associations have had to issue edicts calling upon players and clubs to do all they can to ensure refs are treated with respect and threatening harsher penalties on players and officials carded for abuse.
So, it is very important to respect the referees, but jeez some of them make it hard.
We in the O45s are way down the pecking order when it comes to the sort of refs we get. It’s either young blokes still at high school (who tend to be pretty good), or old blokes with beer guts who ref from the centre circle. And the less mobile they are the more intolerant they are of any questioning of their divine right. They know they hold all the cards.
And sometimes they can be spectacularly wrong.
I’m not talking about getting a decision wrong based on what they saw or didn’t see – that can happen to anyone. I’m talking about really bad interpretations of the rules – or even making up new rules when it suits them.
My O45s team yesterday had a ref that was your classic centre circle despot. I disliked him making jokes about asking for a bribe when I met the other captain for the toss. I intensely disliked him calling most of the other team by their first names.
I tried to ignore the flow of decisions in the other team’s favour as I simply refuse to believe that any referee is deliberately partial, but what really did piss me off was when late in the game and we needed a goal…we get a throw-in decision…and the opposing team’s player threw the ball into the mulga when he didn’t get the decision (for once).
Now, I know referees have been directed to always give a yellow card for throwing or kicking the ball away after a decision, so I was somewhat nonplussed when the referee told the player to go and get the ball – wasting a lot more of our precious time – and didn’t give him a card. Meanwhile, I’m standing there with another ball, wanting to take the throw, and not allowed to while the other player was off the field. There is no law of football that permits this.
For the first time in the entire game I registered my displeasure to the referee. He had authority to book the player for throwing the ball away, but no authority to send him off to collect the ball and waste our time. I said as much to the referee who came strutting up to me threatening a card and telling me to shut up.
Two minutes later, one of our players is brought down in one of the latest and ugliest tackles you could ever see. Again I protested to the referee that he wasn’t looking after our players (by issuing a sanction) and again he strutted into my face and warned me I was about to be carded if I said another word.
Incompetence blended with arrogance always presses my buttons so it was really hard not to say what I thought. My humour was at least restored by my team mate asking the referee whether it was our free kick after our player had been carried off. Naturally the referee was too gormless to realise the piss was being taken.
I’m sure everyone playing O35s and O45s has had similar experiences (I’ve had some far worse) but the thing is, we only have ourselves to blame. If we’re still playing, instead of refereeing, we can hardly complain about those who shoulder the burden despite never having kicked a ball themselves and being way past their use by dates.
I understand the Manly District require all O35 and O45 teams to provide a certain number of qualified refs to ref the games in which they are not involved, and I think that’s a great idea. If the O35s and O45s at least reffed all their own divisions it would free up the other refs to just ref the juniors and the all age.
It might also mean that some of the O35 and O45 players would get more interested in reffing and really start putting back into the game as well as just playing.
Obviously we can’t all do this. Men of those ages have jobs and families and adult responsibilities, but not all of them and not all the time. Us old blokes can lose our rag pretty easily sometimes when the refs don’t meet our exacting standards.
It’s time we stepped up to be part of the solution.
Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.