Belfast Telegraph

More refs needed but would you be able to take the stick for £170 a game?

Irish League football which kicks off in earnest next week is facing a shortage of referees, even though senior match-day officials can earn almost £2 a minute per game. Ivan Little, who was briefly - very briefly - a hapless ref, takes a sideways look at why so many football fans are giving the job a bye-ball.

They are - if the football loudmouths are to be believed - the most unlucky participants in any sporting pastime.

According to grandstand critics the world over, referees are all cursed with the same misfortunes of having questionable parentage - mothers and fathers from whom they have inherited less than perfect eyesight and anything but handsome looks.

And by an even stranger twist of fate, the men in black also regularly contrive to keep the ball in the air by angering fans in both the home and away sections of football stadia who accuse them of being biased against their teams… on the same pitch, in the same matches at the same time.

And it's not just the dog's abuse from the supporters that the whistlers sometimes have to withstand. Physical assaults aren't unknown from hotheads in some hot-blooded countries and there have even been death threats in the wake of controversial decisions.

And more and more, television bosses almost expect some post-match interviews with football managers to turn into bear-pit rants with the beleaguered bosses putting the boot into referees who have denied them a penalty or given a dodgy free-kick against them.

So it's perhaps not a shock to learn that footballing chiefs in Northern Ireland are crying foul over a shortage of referees. And even the FA in England claimed not so long ago that 7,000 officials were quitting every season mainly because of abuse on the pitch and off it. The argument is that referees are sending themselves off to a quieter life on a Saturday afternoon, suggesting that they've had enough of the ugly side of the beautiful game and know it's one in which they just can't win despite improving financial rewards.

Here, the man in the middle of the appointments process for senior referees - David Malcolm - has revealed that his team is playing with only 10 men, literally.

He said "It's a huge challenge for us. We have only 10 senior refs and that isn't enough. We need to have three or four more but if the quality is not there we cannot hit our target."

A number of referees officiating at games in the local Championship, which is one level down from the Premiership, have been trialled but some apparently didn't quite make the grade.

In years gone by, Irish League matches were often refereed by top officials from Britain like the eccentric Maurice Fussey. But the modern day refs now command salaries of up to £85,000 so there's no chance of them coming in as substitutes to fill any gaps in the rotas here nowadays.

Not that the local part-timers go unrewarded. After talk of strikes over the last 10 years, their fees were improved but they're not in the same league as their counterparts across the water.

The match fee for a senior ref here is around £170 but throw in 30 pence a mile for travelling and that figure can rise significantly, though many officials car-share on their way to games.

Meal allowances, however, have now been ruled offside by the Irish Football Association who say clubs must "supply adequate post match refreshments".

Even so, the basic fee means that a senior referee is getting almost £2 a minute for officiating at a match which lasts an hour and a half.

But that's really only half-time in the refereeing game.

That's because officials also have to spend time keeping themselves fit. And that doesn't come with a pre-match runabout. An inch of flab around the waistline or even a hint of tardiness in keeping up with the play will not go un-noticed among the naysayers on the terraces.

"We train very hard and very regularly," said one official who didn't want to draw any more attention to himself from the begrudgers by allowing his name to be used. "You need stamina to keep going for 90 minutes."

And other attributes besides, he admitted.

"The name-calling can get to you. There are some grounds where the insults are worse than others. But every fan seems to think that referees have got it in for their team. Which is, of course, just nonsense.

"We strive to be scrupulously fair in all our games.

"And it doesn't matter if someone has maybe had an allegiance to a particular team in the past. We leave that in the dressing room."

The IFA and the referees associations are determined to find more officials but privately they concede it's not a walk in the park.

Earlier this summer, however, 170 grassroots referees, as the IFA call them, attended a development session where they were tested on fitness and laws of the game and next year it's hoped the figure will double.

An IFA statement online said: "The world of refereeing has changed a lot in the past five years.

"Long gone are the days where very few games would have a referee and the well-meaning volunteer with a 40-year-old whistle would 'referee' the game standing in the centre circle with four layers of clothes on."

Funnily enough it was 40 years ago that I was one of those mugs as I helped out friends who ran a small-time league at the height of the Troubles.

One team in particular were frightening to say the least.

And only days after trying to keep their players in line, I was reporting on three of them in their first court appearance on terrorist charges.

The referee's whistle has stayed in its box ever since…

Belfast Telegraph


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