In the latest installment of our popular series, Irish League elite referee Raymond Crangle discusses fan abuse, treating players like men, high profile mistakes and why he hasn't quit yet
Q. How you started refereeing is a tragic story. What happened?
A. I wanted players to be protected. There was a scuffle in a Belfast and District League match, a young guy took a blow to the head and unfortunately died on the pitch. My team Glanville were involved in the game and I went to his funeral. The fella had an underlying health condition but no-one expects their family member to come home from football in a box. That was a sobering moment for me. I was coming into my late 20s and was disillusioned with playing. A referee in the league suggested I gave it a go and I took the course. I haven't looked back since.
Q. And you're mad enough to still be a referee nearly 20 years on. The obvious question is why?
A. A lot of my close friends are amazed I went into refereeing because if anyone was going to give a ref an earful it was me. Maybe that's why I can have a rapport with players on the pitch. Players will give a lot and I can give it back. I don't adopt a schoolteacher's approach; I treat men like men.
Q. So you don't mind using strong language?
A. I think what happens on the field of play should stay there between referees and players but sometimes you have to give it back.
Q. Are you meaning stand up for yourself?
A. I wouldn't say that but if you are a shrinking violet the more experienced players in the league will try and influence or intimidate you. They will try to get the upper hand by trying to get the next decision in their favour, when the next 50-50 challenge happens. Players can be shrewd and good at their job. They will use every tool in their locker to get a decision. Equally, us referees have to use every tool in our locker to maintain discipline on the pitch and get the best out of the players. If the players don't infringe the laws of the game you won't hear about the referee. We only have to step in when they do that and it's the nature of the beast.
Q. So why are you still doing it, all these years later?
A. Sheer enjoyment. You don't have the thrill of playing but you can enjoy refereeing.
Q. But you must have experienced some hard times?
A. I'm not the only referee in the country who has gone home, thrown the kit bag up the hallway and said 'that's it, I'm finished.' I've had those moments but your colleagues will always support you and we believe in what we are doing. You need a football and a referee to play this game. Sometimes people will say neither the football nor the referee are any good but that's our life. A player can have a go at me but I can say to him 'you're not having such a great game either, I see your number on the board, you're going off!' I think a bit of banter with the players is okay and I'm fortunate to be well established in the game.
Q. How do you find the criticism, including from social media?
A. I think the scrutiny on the referees and players has never been more intense. When I started out you might have had one BBC camera while six games were on. Now every game is covered and every fan has the potential to be a cameraman with his mobile phone. In the refereeing fraternity here we think VAR is a fan on the sidelines posting on Twitter. We put ourselves in the kitchen and we expect a bit of heat. At times fans will overstep the mark. I don't believe because they pay in they can say what they want to you. Players and managers also get scathing criticism. I don't think it's right when people want to infringe on people's personal lives. That line should not be crossed but some people don't see it that way. Some people just want to lambast you.
Q. The fitness requirements for the referees are pretty strict. How do you find them?
A. Our game doesn't have the finances to have full-time referees, unlike our colleagues in Germany, England, France or Spain. It's ironic that their fitness tests are the same as ours. They don't have a 40 hour working week to try and fit their training around. In an ideal world it would be great for us to have a panel of 13 professional referees. With all due respect to Irish League sides, our refs have to have the same level of fitness as the ref who takes charge of Liverpool v Atletico Madrid.
Q. With respect to Irish League clubs, we would all acknowledge it's a different level of the game.
A. It's a different game but the fitness standards for the refs are the same and that sometimes baffles referees here because it's strange to say the official who takes charge of the Irish Cup Final has to be as fit as the referee in the Champions League final. And yet the financial rewards for the job are certainly not the same. We referee because we want to be involved in the game.
Q. What high profile games have you been involved in?
A. I've been involved in high profile international appointments with teams of four and six with Mark Courtney and Arnie Hunter in Europe. In 55 Uefa associations, I've been in about 48 of them in an officiating role. I'm very privileged and you always have those memories. I've stood in the lashing rain at Paris St Germain and have been as far as Azerbaijan. I think the Nations Cup games were a highlight. I refereed Scotland against Wales at the Aviva. It was a fascinating insight into how players at a much higher level conduct themselves. I always maintained you needed a Jekyll and Hyde personality and style for the Irish League and Europe. I became a completely different character and there's an obvious language issue but they can still throw English swear words at you. In 2018 I came off the Fifa list and was proud to be an international referee for eight years.
Q. So the feisty verbal exchanges don't bother you?
A. We are all in the workplace and if players are prepared to use industrial language, they have to be prepared to take some of it back. The alternative is a referee resorts to extreme disciplinary matters which the laws of the game dictate. None of us want to go down that road. The game would then become a farce. Refs get caught up in the emotion too. Some games and some players are more difficult to manage. Players know what buttons to push and if you've been around as long as I have you know what buttons to push back to get the desired reaction to get through the game. Guys who are absolute gentlemen off the pitch become different people on it. You have to get into a player's head to keep him onside to make your job easier. If a player is verbally abusive, I would usually give him a chance to think again by saying 'excuse me?' If they repeat the stuff it becomes a personal attack. We aren't all saints, we fight fire with fire and I believe what happens on a pitch should stay there.
Q. Have you seen major changes in the game?
A. It's become a lot quicker and with that must come speed of thought for referees. When I started out we had a wooden flag. Now we have buzzers and you will know when the assistant wants your attention. Radio communication systems are relatively new but the standard of equipment has increased. One example of that communication was in the Irish Cup quarter-final when I gave the hand ball for the penalty which Glentoran scored against Crusaders. As a collective, justice was served. Clubs want correct decisions and consistency. It may not have looked great but the most important thing is that the right decision is made.
Q. What has been your worst experience as a referee?
A. Like every referee, I've been involved in some high profile errors. One that sticks out was the Glentoran v Portadown Irish Cup Final when I was assistant referee. Communication broke down between the team of officials. The referee was Ross Dunlop but as a team we fell down that day and we all still feel the pain of that day. Glentoran scored off the back of our mistake and we have to take that on the chin. It's a performance-related industry and we weren't involved at the start of the following season.
Q. Did your daughter suffer personal abuse around that time?
A. Melissa was at university in England and enjoying student life. She was on social media and did get some vile abuse. At that point I was close to packing it in because it's one thing me taking abuse on a Saturday afternoon, it's much worse when you're walking with your daughter in the town and someone wants to shout personal abuse. My daughter does not deserve that. Twenty years ago unless you were a devout Irish league fan you would not have known who the referees were. Now you can find out just about everything about them online. Melissa actually did a referee's course and has never refereed. She has seen the abuse and doesn't want that. Maybe I'm more established and perhaps my armour is a bit harder to dent. You become more resilient but we know when we make mistakes. I've been subjected to a comment like 'I hope you die on the pitch tonight'. It was one headcase shouting as I was coming out of the tunnel. Some comments will sting and hurt you. I've spoken to many refs on a Saturday night and they've been feeling down. Football is a release for the refs as well as the players. We have all had down moments and there is excellent pastoral care for the officials.
Q. Have you ever felt physically threatened?
A. My colleagues at junior and intermediate ranks may be more exposed to that. If I referee Linfield v Glentoran at Windsor Park two stewards will come on and escort me off the pitch. Stewards are also keeping fans off the pitch.
Q. What's your view on discussing incidents with managers?
A. What we would ask for is a 10 minute grace period so everyone can cool off. I don't know too many managers who want to knock your door and tell you what a great game you've had. If I'm wrong I'll throw my hands up and admit it. I have made calls to managers and said sorry. I just can't go back and change it. I can try and better myself and not repeat my error. But it should be a two way street. Managers could call us and say 'I gave you stick but you got it right' but they are few and far between. The more astute managers may throw heat at the referee as a deflection from their players who probably underperformed. A game is played over 90 minutes at least, refs make 500 decisions but may be remembered for just one. That's why we are like goalkeepers, make one mistake and we're a villain. I don't know any referee that goes out to make a bad decision.
Q. How do you feel about the perception of some referees being arrogant?
A. I come from a working class background which I'm proud of and I manage a pub in a working class area. An old guy in the bar told me: 'I call a spade a cement mixer'. I carried that forward in my refereeing life. I don't make something out of nothing. If a player says something to me he has to be prepared to take it back. I'm not a shrinking violet, I'll stand up for myself in a constructive way. There's more than just two teams at a football game. The referee has brought his team too and you need to protect them. I'm streetwise and not afraid to stand up for myself.
Q. How long will you keep doing this?
A. I would like another season or two. Purely because I still believe I have something to offer. I want to prove to myself that I can still do it. When you're gone, it's gone. There's no coming back. I still enjoy it and as long as my spine holds, I can offer something to our game. Our senior panel is younger, fitter and hungrier. I can perhaps assist them. Of course we have made mistakes but we always strive to be better. If David Healy wants to bring in a young player into his team he can't expect the same level of performance as an established, experienced player in that position. With experience, you get better. Anyone can referee a game but in our Premiership it's about managing the game. You need to have many tools in your man management locker to get through certain games.
Q. Which players have tested those skills?
A. Michael Gault at Linfield, a good friend, would try to get in your head to get something from you. We've had a laugh about that. Jamie Mulgrew is quite smart too in terms of exerting influence. Players will be cute and try to sow a seed of doubt in your mind. It's human nature and not a criticism of players. Nice guys can become raging bulls after one decision.
Q. We have seen some crazy sights in the Irish League. What's the worst you've witnessed?
A. The Newry v Larne Irish Cup game in 2010, I did have to walk off. It was my first game with an international badge on my chest. I replaced Adrian McCourt on the international list and his last game with the badge was what was known in refereeing circles as 'the battle of Seaview', the north Belfast derby on Boxing Day when six players were sent off. I told him to take the badge back, it was cursed! Things got out of hand in the Newry v Larne game. Everyone was knocking lumps out of each other and I decided I'm not here for this, I had to abandon the game and let the authorities deal with it.
Q. Are there any laws you don't like?
A. Sometimes you are left shrugging your shoulders and you have to say to a player you've done that and I've nowhere to go. Take your shirt off in a goal celebration and it's a mandatory yellow card. You try and say don't do it and they do it. As soon as you cover your face with your shirt you give the referee no option.
Q. Did you think about retiring?
A. People thought I was gone last year. I had a back injury and resigned myself to downing tools but close friends within refereeing encouraged me to work with physios and I'm up and running again. We are self-employed and no matches means no earnings but the onus has been on us to maintain our fitness levels. It's a job which can be tough but it's given me great memories and friendships.
Q. How do the referees feel about returning to action after the Covid-19 crisis?
A. Like everyone else, we are keen to return but safety of all involved is paramount. We all love and miss our beloved game but the betterment of wider society is way more important.
Date of birth: July 3, 1973.
Place of birth: Belfast.
Current Position: Elite referee, Danske Bank Premiership.