A few years ago, during a Southern Amateur League pre-season friendly the referee started on one of our players. It was quite a shock. It had been a petulant affair: a few late challenges, everyone was a bit hot, tired and off the pace. As with every game I’ve played over the past two decades the ref was getting a fair bit of stick – he was making mistakes, we were making mistakes – but nothing out of the ordinary.
And then it happened. My centre-mid was clipped from behind as he strode forward with the ball. Sitting on the pitch he yelled one of the classics: “Ref, how many more times?” And that was it. The combustible official completely lost it.
“Right that’s it. You. Me. Let’s go.” All accompanied with three direct points of the index finger. At the player in question: “You.” At himself: “Me.” And then the ground, the proposed venue for the fight: “Let’s go.” “This game is over,” he then yelled.
A couple of players stood between the irate official and our bemused player, and it calmed down and we carried on. And from that moment something quite strange happened. The game was played in a kind of beautiful Christmas Day no man’s land spirit. “I’m sure that came off me.” “No honestly ref, it’s a corner.” “No you have that one … no you … no honestly … I insist.”
I haven’t seen players at any level behave better, not even in charity games. Perhaps it was a calculated moment of genius, to unite both teams against a common foe. Or it was just a really tense man at the end of his tether.
It was interesting how different it felt to see the man in authority lose it compared with any number of players I’ve seen push each other or engage in the rutting stag, foreheads clasped together by an invisible forcefield, before one yields and collapses to the floor.
It’s no surprise then that referee Darren Drysdale’s tensed stoop towards Ipswich’s Alan Judge on Tuesday night became headline news. As Keith Hackett wrote in the Telegraph: “I would never have expected that kind of behaviour from Darren. I have known him a long time and have always considered him calm and controlled.” He’s not that kind of player, I mean ref, Jeff.
The interesting question is which referee would Hackett have expected it from? What’s the fuse like on Craig Pawson? Is it only a matter of time before Trevor Kettle chins a full-back? There’s been a sense in the reaction that this was bound to happen at some point. Given the pressure, the abuse, the scrutiny of referees, one of them would have a Michael Douglas Falling Down moment. We should be thankful it was Drysdale on a cold Tuesday at Portman Road with nothing more than a firm step towards a footballer and not David Coote taking an uzi to a neon wall-mounted Subway menu on his way home from a particularly tense VAR-filled Premier League game.
Drysdale accepts he made a mistake and won’t be refereeing this weekend. Had it been the other way round there would be little sympathy for the player. He should get a ban of some sort, but let’s not go overboard.
What has been interesting, and quite refreshing, is how much sympathy he and referees in general have received since. Many people sent the footage to me on Twitter, but no one called for him to be banished from football for ever. One Ipswich fan was delighted that something interesting had happened at Portman Road for the first time in years.
And it’s worth considering Drysdale’s week. One brief loss of control and suddenly you’re broadcast across the world, in newspaper columns such as this, worried that a career you’ve built up over years might disappear; having to deal with the reaction of walking into your other workplace for the first time afterwards, plus the difficult conversations with the PGMOL. You have to hope he has good people around him and the perspective to realise that what he did wasn’t the end of the world, and that next week we’ll be back to discussing parish councils or Zoom cat filters while he can serve his punishment and get back to refereeing.
It’s not even two weeks since Mike Dean stood down from a game because of online abuse. And perhaps it is worth taking a step back and considering the language that officials have to deal with – that we, and they accept, that has become part of the game. It is what it is. You can’t change it.
On TalkSport last week, Dean Ashton was scathing in his assessment of how we all treat officials. “The abuse that referees receive from players, from coaching staff, supporters when they’re in the ground, parents when they’re at 10-year-olds’ football that I’ve seen is disgusting. We should be absolutely ashamed of how our sport acts towards our officials when you look at other sports. I’m ashamed of myself for how I used to talk to referees. We can’t say: ‘Oh, rugby is a gentleman’s game and it’s a private school game, and they’re brought up in a different manner, and we’re working-class so we’re allowed to talk however we want and it’s fine for us to abuse referees.’ Well it’s not. It’s time for us all to look at ourselves and say this has to stop. The referee is just a human in the middle of the pitch doing an incredibly difficult job.”
As someone who has moaned at referees for years, I know I should stop. But I have never abused one. And fewer people do in my league because of one very simple change: sin-bins.
Comparisons between the amateur and professional game are normally fatuous: fantasists trying to liken what they do in the park to the pressures, pace and money of the elite. It’s the same game but it’s completely different. However, sin-bins work. Since they were introduced a few seasons ago, if you swear at the ref, he can book you and you go off for 10 minutes. It’s simple.
The law is used inconsistently at our level, but it has still made a difference. There is a huge reluctance to mess with the game, to change what’s been the same for years and years. But if we want to stop decades of abuse for someone trying to do their job, then there’s a simple solution.