He insists he wouldn’t bring his 10 year-old daughter to a game due to abuse and calls for major investment and a support programme
Danske Bank Premiership referee Lee Tavinder has given an honest assessment of the challenges facing Irish League officials from abuse and criticism to the need for greater support and investment.
The 39-year-old official even admits he would not bring his 10-year-old daughter Charlotte to matches due to ongoing abuse directed at referees and he is unlikely to encourage her to follow in his footsteps.
While the Irish FA attempts to address a refereeing shortage, the officials have been hurt by strong criticism from managers this season and frustration turned to anger when the Belfast Telegraph published an interview with Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) chief executive Gerard Lawlor last Friday in which he warned that, without vital support, refereeing was a threat to the league.
Lawlor’s comments reignited the debate over the standard of officiating but Tavinder insists a lack of investment and support for referees is now a major concern.
The Englishman, who has bravely spoken about mental health issues he has suffered, says his love for the game is being tested like never before.
“Being a referee has always been difficult but the culture in football hasn’t changed and I would like to see a respect campaign set up by the Irish FA. I’ve been asking for that for many years and nothing has been done,” said Tavinder, who worked on the IFA’s Stay Onside programme and does occasional workshops on mental health and refereeing.
“We talk about the football family and referees need to feel part of it. My 10-year-old daughter Charlotte wants to come and watch a match with me but I would never bring her because of the abuse from the crowd.
“I accept it happens but I would love to get to a place where I can bring my daughter to a game. We are a long way away from that and if she said she wanted to become a referee, I’m not sure I would be comfortable with her doing that because I know how difficult it is to do it on your own. She watches the Northern Ireland women’s team and sees me on the television, but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing her to a game.
“If I didn’t enjoy refereeing I would stop. The vast majority of games I enjoy and it’s been a good challenge for me, especially during the pandemic when it helped me socialise and gave me a good focus.
“My concern is that nearly all the referees I have spoken to this week are reflecting on whether they are still enjoying it and I include myself in that. We don’t want to lose more refs. I firmly believe the Premiership referees we have are the best in the country and we can’t afford to lose them. We need support from everyone because if we lose more referees, standards will drop.
“If I reach the stage where I am not enjoying it, I will stop and I will admit at times it is really difficult.”
Tavinder has chosen to speak out and share his personal views in light of so many others offering an opinion on the quality of officiating. He welcomes the debate but warns that standards will decline unless there is greater investment and a more effective support network.
“We need more support to help us improve and recruit more officials,” he added.
“It’s brilliant that the league is improving and I enjoy watching the games when I’m not working but refereeing has not been invested in and, when that’s the case, I struggle to see why people would expect it to improve.
“UEFA funding covers refereeing at the Irish FA and, if the league is going to move on, there must be investment in refereeing. There has to be a support structure to help referees improve and also in terms of looking after the welfare and mental health of referees. I think that falls well short of where we want to be at the moment.
“Recruitment also needs to improve. A lot of matches, including NIFL academy games, have been called off because there is no referee and that situation will only get worse.
“I have sympathy for the Irish FA as their recruitment has been impacted by the pandemic but the big issue is looking after the referees we have. I ask myself would I start at grassroots level with the knowledge I have now and I’m not sure I would because it is so tough out there on your own without the necessary support.”
Tavinder believes a collective effort is needed to give the refereeing family a better chance of emerging stronger from this testing period and added: “We take on board there is always room for improvement and that argument is constructive. But we have been disappointed by the lack of comment from refereeing bodies and football authorities putting our views across. We need all interested parties including the Irish FA and Northern Ireland Referees’ Association and the referees to have regular meetings to discuss the best way forward.
“Refereeing assessment needs to go further, we need more video analysis and stronger one to one coaching. If VAR is a viable option, it should be looked at.
“The football family needs to welcome referees and understand there’s a person there. Clubs run mental health campaigns and they are brilliant but consider the refs as well. They may walk away from the game. I’ve been involved in football since I was five years old and staying in love with football can be challenging. The Irish FA have poured money into youth football and it’s brilliant but, in terms of investment, refereeing has been left behind. Make a commitment to funding it and standards will improve.”
Tavinder insists refs are held accountable when they get big decisions wrong and it does impact their mental health.
“We are far from perfect, we will get some decisions wrong but we put in maximum effort every week and make sacrifices,” he said. “Every referee reflects on decisions and when performances drop below standards, it does hurt. It’s not the case that referees don’t think about decisions again, it can ruin weekends and affect the individual’s mental health. The negative media does hurt. It’s also said we aren’t accountable but if I make a bad decision, I am moved down the league and appointments are reduced.
“Currently, our communication with managers and players is very good and I support feedback sheets but we need to see them so we can improve. It’s pointless otherwise.
“I will communicate with managers, players and fans but there has to be willingness to talk more often in a forum.
“Everyone was talking about how great a match the Cliftonviille v Glentoran game was on Monday but no-one acknowledged the performance of the referee, Andrew Davey, who was part of it. It’s not right to say refereeing is a threat to the league, we need to help referees.”
The officials have been stung by criticism and a few have contemplated strike action but Tavinder says he wouldn’t support that.
“I would hate to see referees go on strike,” he added. “I don’t think it would help us or the game. We should have a full programme of fixtures which is so important to fans. If a match official came to me and said they weren’t comfortable to work at a game because of the pressure that’s there, they also need to be supported.
“Withdrawing our services would be counterproductive but people must acknowledge how referees are feeling. It’s crucial we create a better working environment or the refereeing shortage will get worse. The culture has to change.
“If we lose referees then standards, criticism and abuse will get worse. We all need to be brave, honest and work together.”