By Rich Hook
Following a number of recent high-profile incidents at both local and national level, Sussex County Referees’ Association secretary Dave Ellmer has said the FA’s Respect campaign is clearly not working.
Three games have been abandoned in the last few weeks in the Sussex County League with shows of extreme violence. Firstly, the game between Clymping and Southwick had to be abandoned when striker Steve Duffin allegedly headbutted the referee.
The following weekend, Arundel saw their chairman Bob Marchant knocked unconscious trying to break up a fight in their match against East Grinstead.
Much to the dismay of Sussex FA, the unprecedented level of violence has continued when a Lingfield player allegedly chased referee Simon Griffiths from the field, after being shown a red card in his side’s game against Chichester.
These problems come in spite of the FA re-launching its ‘Respect’ campaign on the back of handing out a ban to Wayne Rooney for swearing into a TV camera.
Mr Ellmer said: “Sadly, these incidents demonstrate the FA Respect programme is clearly not working across the county.”
Speaking before the Lingfield versus Chichester game, the Referee’s Association secretary said: “The Sussex County Referees’ Association said that they are concerned at the number of assaults on referees, including the well-documented recent incident at Clymping.
“To date this season there have been 10 assaults, including two where the referee was headbutted. One of these required hospital treatment.
“Participants should be aware that those found guilty of assaulting a referee will face long bans which in the more serious cases will be an indefinite ban of not less than five years.
“We hope that efforts will be made during the summer break so that clubs and leagues re-adopt this programme with vigour.
“The onus is on the Sussex CFA, as well as clubs and, indeed, individuals, to make Respect work and football a better sport. It is essential for the good of the game that our members can continue to support football by officiating without the fear of being assaulted.”
The FA originally launched the ‘Respect’ agenda in 2008, with a blaze of publicity and national TV adverts starring Ray Winstone and Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock. However, since then assaults on refs in all non professional leagues have increased 70 per cent.
One of the key aspects of the ‘Respect’ campaign is enforcing a long-term change in negative attitudes and abusive behaviour.
The FA has set up Respect FC – a site made up of fans, managers, players and referees and their chairman.
Comedian Mark Watson said: “It’s much easier to take a stand against poor behaviour as part of a team. So we created Respect to unite against the people spoiling our game.”
Sussex County League secretary Paul Beard said the incident at Arundel was evidence that the Respect campaign was not working locally, Arundel manager Simon Butler believes things need to change.
“Incidents like this can ruin our game. Grassroots football is all about enjoyment and players acting like this isn’t appealing to fans or potential young players,” he said.
Yet Rustington boss Brett Torode believes the current problems are being blown out of proportion.
He said: “Football’s a passionate game so things will happen when everyone’s amped up – but it’s not nearly as bad as 20 years ago, there’s much less aggression on show now.”
Butler believes it’s the responsibility of managers to set the right examples.
He said: “It boils down to management, if you want your side to play like that then you’re asking for trouble. When their [East Grinstead’s] manager refused to leave the field when the referee asked him that sent a message to his players.”
But Torode thinks it’s not always that easy. He said: “You’d hate to think managers tell their players to go out and hurt the opposition, but some old-school coaches I played for would give you the hook if you hadn’t kicked their flair player in the first ten minutes.”
Former Worthing United manager Dominic Di Paola thinks responsibility is ultimately with the individuals.
“These were just two outrageous, but isolated, incidents. You’re always going to get idiots at our level but the record in the County League has been excellent since I’ve been involved,” he said.
The recent shows of disrespect do not appear to have put off potential officials, with the Sussex FA reporting an increase in active officials from 650 to more than 800 in the last three year.
A welcome move for Di Paola who says referees are often not up to standard at County League level.
He said: “Refs are nowhere near as good as the players in our league. If they [referees] got decisions right more often, then there would be no excuses for a lack of respect.
“Simplified rules would be better, but I don’t think the rugby approach of only the captain speaking to referees would work.”
In rugby, England star Delon Armitage received an eight-week ban earlier this year for reportedly verbally abusing an official, which caused him to miss the Six Nations.
Worthing Raiders RFC team manager David Hinchliffe said: “Referees are soft in football, they won’t stand up to players. It won’t stop until someone sends off three players from ‘Moneybags United’, and if they did, the FA probably wouldn’t back them.
“I was asked the same questions about the attititude towards officials in football and rugby five years ago, and it seems like nothing has changed, so I’m sure it’ll happen again in another five.”
Raiders captain James Arthur says the attitude towards officials is ingrained in rugby players from a young age: “You’re taught from six up to call the referee ‘sir’ and there’s a prevailing attitude that we won’t stand for bad behaviour in our game. If you’re giving backchat to a ref, you’ll get pulled up by your teammates first.”