Ref Watch: Who's lost control?

The following is an excerpt from Ian Plenderleith's book, "Reffing Hell: Stuck in the middle of a game gone wrong." Illustrated by Tim Bradford (Halcyon Publishing)

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Four minutes to go, the score’s 2-3 in a furious and foul-ridden boys’ under-17 game, and I blow for a penalty to the home team. It’s an unnecessary foul from the defender, who keeps his feet on the ground as he backs into a forward jumping for the ball. The forward goes arse over tit and lands in a heap.

I’m five yards away — a clear foul, a clear penalty.

The away team sees it differently. Five players surround me and yell. Their bench is up on its feet, expressing solidarity through raised arms and rubicund outrage. It’s been like this the whole second half, from both teams. I don’t change my mind, but I show a yellow to the loudest dissenter and they back off. The home team converts the penalty.

“You lost control of the game in the second half,” the away team coach tells me afterward. I walk away without telling him what’s on my mind in that second, tempted to show him what ‘lost control’ really looks like.

Another way of looking at it would be to say that he lost control of his team, as did the home bench. Fired on by the bellicose reaction of the coaches to every foul, the behavior of the players deteriorated, leading to more fouls, more dissent, and a deeply unpleasant atmosphere.

In the first half there were no cards, because I was a touch too lenient. In the second half, I handed out eight yellows and issued multiple appeals for the players and the coaches to calm down. Aside from abandoning the match, there wasn’t a lot else I could do.

I can remember hearing this old cliché in the stands as a kid. The ref would book a couple of players, there might be a flare-up, and an old bloke would turn around to another old bloke behind him and say knowingly, “The ref’s lost control.” The other old fellow, usually smoking a pipe, would concur with a nod born of wisdom and experience. It’s not the wankers kicking opponents and squaring up to each other who are losing control. It’s the referee.

After a long inquisition at the final whistle — the away players laugh with open contempt when I explain the penalty decision — I walk back to the changing room feeling that, for €14, I could have better stayed at home laughing at my own reflection in a mirror. “Well reffed,” says one kind spectator as I leave the pitch. “Don’t let the bastards get to you.”

Before the game, I’d met a young referee who’d just done a boys U13 game. He’s still at school, and has only been reffing since the start of the year. He thought it would be a good way for him to stay involved in the game when he stops playing. “Are you enjoying it?” I asked him. “Not really,” he replied. “I’m thinking of packing it in.” Why? “The coaches,” he said, without hesitation. “They never stop complaining.”

Soon they’ll be able to complain that there’s no one around to ref their sorry games.

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Refereeing in Soccer America & Around the Web... 

Recent ref, rules and officiating coverage and commentary:

1. Digging ourselves into a handball hole. But there's a very simple way out.  By Ian Plenderleith

2Watch: What a referee did to earn 12-game ban By Mike Woitalla

3Watch: Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp injure himself while screaming at fourth assistant By Mike Woitalla

4. PRO's Inside Video Review (MLS) with Greg Barkey. (en español)

5. PRO's Inside Video Review (NWSL) with Greg Barkey.

6Mic up referees for TV – an idea that ended badly in England By Steven Pye (The Guardian)

7. IFAB denied French federation request to mic up refs and its request to experiment with explaining VAR decisions to the public. (Get Football)

8. New Jersey Town’s Little League umpire abuse ultimatum turns tables on unruly fans By Jeff Goldman (

"If a spectator violates the code of conduct and becomes too unruly or abusive, the person will have to umpire three games, under the supervision of an official ump, before being allowed to return as a fan."

9Behind the scenes at English professional referee training camp By Ben Fisher (The Guardian)

10Tim Ford, who will server as a video match official, is the lone American among the 25 referees, 38 assistant referees, 18 video match officials selected for the 2023 FIFA U-20 Men's World Cup in Argentina (May 20-June 11). LIST: Game officials for the 2023 U-20 World Cup.

6 comments about "Ref Watch: Who's lost control?".
  1. Kent James, May 1, 2023 at 10:32 p.m.

    When I was reffing, some people thought that if you gave no cards, you must've had a good game.  While that might be true, it's certainly no guarantee; they make cards for a reason.  Cards set the tone.  Some refs, let the first yellow card foul go with a warning, hoping it was an abberation and won't happen again.  But the opposite often happens, as players see that and say "okay, I guess that is what will be allowed today." Cards dictate levels of tolerance.  

    When I was coaching, I took pride in my players playing within the rules and minimizing complaints to the ref.  The problem is, when you take that attitude, and the ref tolerates the other team complaining about everything, inevitably the ref starts to give in to the pressure of the other team (if only one team is complaining, the calls must be biased against them...).  Which is another reason refs should use cards to limit the backtalk.

    I obviously can't comment on what happened in your game....sometimes players just don't want to play by the rules...days like that, you do the best you can and let the chips fall where they may...

  2. R2 Dad replied, May 2, 2023 at 12:56 p.m.

    I always chuckled to myself when coaches would complain their team were getting more fouls/cards than their opponents. Some coaches tell their players to press the limits, then are unhappy when someone notices. Trashtalking, late tackles, "afters" all lead to retaliation and it's the retaliation that gets punished. 

  3. Ben Myers, May 2, 2023 at 12:44 p.m.

    From what I've seen across 30 years, it all starts with the club leadership and its attitude toward winning at all costs versus the more important element of play in youth soccer, namely player development.  That attitude filters down to the teams in the selection of appropriate coaches.  And, too, there are some ethnic groups who get frantic about the play, equating their kids' teams' play to their national team in the World Cup.

    Clearly, it's not just the United States that does not get it about youth sports.

  4. Kevin Sims, May 2, 2023 at 3:03 p.m.

    Been coaching now for 52 years. Very, very, very most often, horrid games are the result of coaches and players run amuck. In 1980s, we suspended a summer league for the season after multiple matches had multiple red cards and plenty of rumbles through the first 3 weeks. Appeals to coaches went unheeded. Talented players brought poor intent onto the field at the outset. No matches. No refunds. Lots of complaining. The next summer, the entire season came off without a red card. The officials may or may not have been fully competent, but the games that turned awful were attributable directly to the coaches and players.     

  5. James Madison, May 2, 2023 at 4:22 p.m.

    The three-strikes method could have been applied to the coaches. Strike one = please.  Strike two = warning.  Strike three = caution.  One of my favorite sea-stories is of the time I awarded a DFK to a visiting team out in the middle of he field in a community college game. When the captain came up to take the kick, I was asked, "Could you please card our coach. His yelling is drivibng us crazy."

  6. Bob Ashpole, May 3, 2023 at 8:41 a.m.

    Youth sports. YOUTH sports. We have too many coachs teaching bad sportsmanship and "gaming" the officials. Morally and philosophically I am against cheating, but imo it is shear incompetence to teach developing players how to cheat regardless of the presence of cheating in the professional matches. We raise a generation of players who can hold shirts, but can't man mark, who can trip and hack an opponent, but not tackle the ball.

    I have said it before. Especially in youth sports the coaches, officials and league officials are jointly responsible for providing an enjoyable, safe match. Yet instead of cooperating to that end, it seems the majority view of coaches is that any means is justified in "winning" a contest against the officials as well as the opposing team. These view holders should not be allowed to talk to children much less coach them.

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