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7th April 2023

“You’re avin me on ref” – The abuse of referees in football

Events at Old Trafford on Sunday must lead us to question whether football has an endemic problem with the abuse of referees.
“You’re avin me on ref” – The abuse of referees in football
Photo: Ben Sutherland @ Flickr

Old Trafford, Sunday March 19 2023, minute seventy-five. Fulham, a club perennially branded as a ‘yo-yo side’, constantly bouncing between English football’s top two divisions, and existing aimlessly without ever winning a major honour, are one-nil-up and dominant against a discombobulated Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarter Final. They look poised for their first trip to Wembley in that competition since 1975.

Yet suddenly, a seemingly perfect afternoon for Fulham is torn apart in front of their very eyes, as Manchester United’s Jadon Sancho is played clean through on goal, before Fulham’s Willian blocks the ball from hitting the back of the net. Getting sent off and giving away a penalty in the process. Pretty dramatic, huh? However, it is what follows that will eventually grab the headlines and dominate conversations in the footballing world. 

In a moment of madness, Fulham’s striker Aleksandr Mitrovic goes up to the referee, Chris Kavanagh, and shouts at him in order to protest Kavangh’s decision to award Manchester United the penalty. Before eventually completely losing his cool and pushing Kavanagh, leading to Mitrovic being shown a straight red card. 

Aleksander Mitrovic in action for Serbia. His behaviour at Old Trafford has opened a wider debate surrounding referee abuse. Photo: Эдгар Брещанов @ Wikimedia Commons

The chaos that has resulted from this event, and the discussions around what exactly Mitrovic’s punishment should be. Some have suggested that Mitrovic should face a ban of up to a year from playing in the Premier League due to his violent outburst towards the referee. However, these discussions have opened up a can of worms within the discourse of the sport, leading to the confrontation of a clear problem that exists within both professional and amateur football around the abuse of referees. 

It is no secret that within England’s footballing culture, the referee often plays a ‘pantomime villain’ role in the functioning of games. They are constantly on the receiving end of ‘banter’ and accusations from players and fans alike, by virtue of the fact that it is the officials that have to make the unpopular decisions. Fans will commonly chant slurs towards the referee such as “the referee’s a w***er”, while players will never shy away from showcasing their discontent with many of the referee’s decisions. 

Yet while this culture around referees is merely an inoffensive part of the functioning of the sport, there is an increasing – and wholly alarming – presence of instances in which a dislike of the referee, as well as officials such as the linesmen, is taken too far. Something that is pervasive across all levels of the game, from the bright lights of the Premier League all the way down to pub teams that play in local parks on a Sunday morning. 

Investigations and reports have repeatedly seen an increase in recent years in the amount of extreme verbal abuse that is directed towards referees, which clearly crosses the line and can no longer be dismissed as just ‘banter’ or ‘high jinx’. In the Premier League, there have been repeated instances of managers completely losing their temper and being far too aggressive towards the referee. During a match against Manchester City in October, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp launched a foul-mouthed rant towards the officials, in which he repeatedly shouted in their faces. While Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was filmed mockingly imitating the referee during his side’s match against Aston Villa in February. 

Furthermore, down at the grassroots level of the game, a 2023 report by the BBC found that during the 2021-22 season, there were fifty-seven instances of referees receiving death threats from players on the pitch.

The problems around the abuse of referees at all levels of the game sadly do not just relate to verbal abuse, there has also been a clear rise in the levels of physical abuse directed towards referees in recent years. Showcasing how the actions of Aleksandr Mitrovic on Sunday merely scratch the surface of an endemic issue within the beautiful game.

Photo: Mika Korhonen @ Unsplash

In the Premier League, Manchester United player Bruno Fernandes was caught on camera visibly shoving a linesman during his side’s match against Liverpool earlier this month. While at the amateur level of the game, the same 2023 report by the BBC found that 293 referees across the country had experienced physical abuse from players, managers or spectators. 

Therefore, it is clear that a horrifying issue is festering right at the centre of all levels of the English game when it comes to the abuse of referees and officials, something that was all too clearly demonstrated by the actions of Fulham’s Aleksandr Mitrovic on Sunday. An event that I hope shall be the catalyst in order to push the footballing authorities to take greater action in terms of combating these issues within football. 

When it comes to how such issues can be dealt with within football, I am fully supportive of the Football Association’s plans to give referees grassroots-level cameras to wear during games, in order to ensure that there is recorded evidence of everything that takes place on the pitch, including everything that is said. As if such a programme is implemented at all levels of the footballing pyramid, it will act both as a deterrent to individuals taking despicable actions against referees, and help to bring those who launch abusive tirades against referees to justice far easier. 

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