'You f*cking WHAT?!'
We all hate referees. But what if you ARE the ref. Or you are THE ref. Emphasis aside, here's Richard Bellis on the perils of being the man in the middle...
It was when that bloke starting coming to all my matches with an easel, then I knew things had really got out of hand. Every Sunday it was the same. I’d turn up, look around hoping he wasn’t there, it’d get closer to kick-off, I’d shout at the ‘keepers, check they were ready to stand getting cold, then I’d spot him wandering along the bumpy field, equipment tucked under his arm. Was I cursed or just unlucky? All this decisions I had to make, I couldn’t make a decision on that question…
At first it was just a bit odd, funny even, how these situations would turn up. I remember early on when I started reffing, a free-kick an under 7s team took went straight into their own net – quite a slice of bad luck – but, I knew, it was a corner-kick not a goal. No question, no doubt, no pause to think. I’d read up, knew, knew I was right. It was an odd one alright, when I told the other refs at the monthly meeting they all laughed with me, a good bunch I thought. We were all in it together, us Sunday League refs. It’s a crap job, but it gets me out, keeps me fit. I like football but was never much good, this was a way to get involved, give something to the game.
I tried to keep it light hearted too, have a laugh with the players. This was supposed to be recreation after all, why be a horrible bastard? Why ruin someone’s day? Most of the time the players are alright, as long as you’re clear with them, clear decisions, can communicate with them. They know, most of the time, if they’ve caught a player, if they touched it before it went out or not. Be genial, that’s what I always tried to do, so when a beach ball (a beach ball round Leeds!) deflected a ball past the ‘keeper and in I joked about it. Said something about the team needing a sandcastle at the back – I didn’t say it was a good joke. I knew that one too, was less sure, but was confident, disallow.
Then the next week, there was a free-kick, these three hefty centre-halves made the wall – you didn’t need a fourth with these fuckers in the way. These were hard bastards, legs decorated with bits of bar stool, one with a spider tattooed on his face, not the sort to ever even joke about being effeminate, or show affection – their idea foreplay was probably shouting “BRACE YOURSELF!” And there they were, holding hands. I didn’t dare look at them funny, but after the free-kick was blasted over the other team’s striker was saying how they were obstructing him, because he couldn’t get in between them. I just looked, but it was strange you know? When I told the other refs at the next meeting there wasn’t any laughing with me this time, they were perturbed; made some weak jokes at my expense, shifted in their seats.
From then on it really started getting bizarre. I was reffing a university match, ACS v Phil Soc or some shit, intra-mural not between universities. The pay was the same and the players were nicer so I was looking forward to the match. Anyway, we were playing and a couple of the lads had clearly been out the night before. Nothing wrong with that of course, but there was this big tall ginger lad up front who was so buggered he threw up on the pitch. I stopped the game, went over and said “you should probably get off mate, if you’re not well”, which was fair enough I thought. Then the other striker, an even lankier lad with a too-straight nose comes over and says: “You cannot order substitutions, but you can encourage them. Explain to the manager and the player that vomit on the pitch represents a health danger to all players, and if it keeps happening, or if it cannot be fully cleaned up and disinfected, you will have to abandon the game. That should make them think again, and realise that a substitution is the sensible option. Thanks to Hamish Mackay.” Just like that. I couldn’t speak, I just stood there gob open as though I’d just been smacked. What the hell was he on about? Who was that Hamish bloke? How had he managed to speak in italics?
I think the lad went off in the end, and I got myself home as quick as I could when the match finished. Ok, it was a bit strange, I thought, but, well, it’s a university match, that sad bastard probably memorised the rulebook for a bet: recite rule 27B or down this mix of Guinness, apple sours and off-milk. Yeah, that was it; a desire to avoid a particularly virulent end to a night’s drinking that happened to come in handy on a cold Sunday morning.
After that though, everyone was an expert. How I don’t know. It was like some kind of fucked up Kafka novel – everyone knows but you, if you know you die. A trial of unfortunates like me, the football man who doesn’t get it; is it a cosmic joke? It seemed like that when, on a deserted slab of grass, more moor than pitch in rural Yorkshire, a ‘keeper came rushing out to me, ball in hand screaming, screaming at the top of his lungs about the racial abuse from the crowd. I mean, yeah, he was of exotic origin, but, well, there weren’t any fuckers there. Or at least I thought so. A school master sudden voice boomed: “As always, base your decision on what you have observed, not on what players are claiming. If you have not heard any racist chanting, award a direct free kick outside the area and advise the keeper that you will monitor the situation. If you have heard the chants, stop play and either restart with a dropped ball or consider taking the teams off, depending on the severity of the abuse. Whatever course of action you take, you should also liaise with the stadium manager so that more stewards can be placed in the relevant area, and report what happened to the authorities after the game. Fergus Slade wins the shirt.”
I looked at him, a fattening pensioner, whitening on top and puffing a pipe. “What did you say?” I asked, “What was that about Slade?” “Eee lad, in’t rules in’t it?” he said, no, he Yorkshired. My mind raced: why did he speak perfect Queen’s then dirty Barnsley? Where do I find the stadium manager? What have I just observed? My body froze, colder than cryogenics. Eventually they sorted it out themselves, did a drop ball, I thawed after them.
And there was more, so much more. Every week I’d have some peculiar little incident to baffle me. I tried, I really did, read the rulebook back to front (as opposed to front to back like the first time I read it) and it was still no good. One week Zlatan Ibrahimovic turned up – for a Sunday League side – swore like a sailor every time he touched the ball, but, I don’t know, it wasn’t directed at anyone, more at himself, his ego. I couldn’t book him I don’t think, don’t know. It was like he was a cartoon version of himself, some parody. Still, parody Zlatan managed to score eight, all from 25 yards plus. He spoke to me at the end: “Steve Higgins wins the shirt.” I’ll always remember that.
By now the monthly ref meetings were torturous. I was well and truly the butt of all the jokes, but it was worse than that. They would avoid me at all costs; they didn’t want me “to rub off on them”. I was a bad crowd, bad luck. I asked one of them once, what their problem was. He said: “You are the ref”.
It was about that time the bloke with the easel starting coming. I can’t say I really noticed at first, but one time he was sat behind the goal, all set up. It was the 88th minute, nothing weird had happened, I was happy, it was a penalty. The bloke began his run up, was about to strike, I CAN’T GET NO (duh, duh) SATISFACTION, the striker fluffed it, oh shit. Easel bloke had pulled out a boom-box and was playing the Rolling Stones at full blast, some bastard centre-back did the usual spiel (“Guidelines state that there should be no PA announcements or music played during a game”) and easel bloke just sat there, sketching.
At the end of the match I went over and asked him what the hell he was doing. All he could say is: “You are the ref, the one.” I called him a bastard and turned to leave. He shouted again, “You are the ref, ref.”
And so it is: I am the ref.