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Referees' Strike: The exploding bubble
December 12th, 2010 9:42PM
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TAGS:  england, referees, scotland


[REF WATCH] The Scottish soccer referees strike in November exploded like a bubble in a simmering sea of discontent among officials that has rumbled for over a century.

They had the courage to say "No, we've had enough. We are not offering our services until effective measures are in place to counter the constant abuse we face on and off the field of play." Bravo!

Administrators of soccer know about abuse of their volunteer match officials but have never found the most effective means to control it. Consequently, the insults, intimidation, and violence against referees continues to mount until a bubble bursts to reveal the problem yet again.

A personal experience explains my admiration for the Scottish referees action. In the early days of televised matches in England I was embroiled in a similar situation with historic consequences.

Saturday 14 October 1967, TV cameras focused on a Football League Second Division match, Millwall vs. Aston Villa, at The Den, New Cross, in South East London.

Millwall lost 2-1 and Norman Burtenshaw, one of the finest of English referees, was kicked to the ground by an angry mob. The fans blamed him for not awarding a penalty to the ir team.

For months the Football League match officials association had reported a growing trend of abuse and violence against members and had urged The Football Association (FA) and the League (FL) to take positive action before a fatal incident occurred. Burtenshaw was so nearly the first victim.

As President of the officials I obtained an urgent meeting with the FL to insist on raising fences to keep fans from invading soccer pitches. We were assured of immediate action at Millwall but the club’s bad reputation for crowd problems (three ground closures and several warnings) seemed not to influence a joint FA-FL commission, which found the club guilty but imposed a powder-puff fine of £1,000 ($1,500) - and another warning. No fences.

We were furious. Our members voted to strike until Millwall provided adequate protectiion. My public announcement to the FA and FL, provoked a storm of media support for our cause.

All reports were fair but included an ominous facet which touched my personal life. My wife, Jessie, had received threatening phone calls. One voice said, “If your old man doesn’t lay off Millwall I’m going to disfigure your pretty face.” The same person phoned again repeating the threat to put a razor to her face. We were not too upset but the menace stayed in our minds long after.

We obtained a firm commitment to meet our demand with action and withdrew our strike threat. Within days Millwall started work on constructing fencing on top of field-side wall.

The whole affair revealed an ingrained contempt of the role of match officials and a callous indifference for their welfare. The sad truth is that the essential role of the referee in soccer has never been clearly understood and accepted for what it is – to ensure that the game is played fairly and safely, for the pleasure of the players and all who enjoy it as a spectacle.

The authorities were forced to address a longstanding problem. They did so grudgingly, with the minimum of engagement . But, for several years after the Millwall affair extra policing and physical barriers, throughout the FL, provided a security screen adequate enough to deter all but the most aggressive fans.

And then came the hooligans …

(Stanley Lover is a longtime international referee instructor and author of the recently updated book "Official Soccer Rules Illustrated." He officiated over 1,000 soccer matches at all levels, including serving as an assistant referee in the Football League for 11 years, plus international and European Cup games.)

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