“The first person you’re going to blame is the ref, that’s just a part of the game,” Adam Deller concedes before heading out into the pouring rain.
Deller, 20, has been a qualified referee since he was 14, and has been officiating at games in the Romford and District League for the past four years.
There are more than 300 assaults on match officials each year across grassroots football in England. Thousands throw in their whistle and black uniform as abuse towards referees abounds from the Premier League right down to Sunday League football.
In need of a security alarm
Former Premier League referee David Elleray recalled in his autobiography – The Man in the Middle – how he received death threats from furious Manchester United fans after sending off their full-back Dennis Irwin in United’s 1-1 draw against bitter rivals Liverpool.
“The letters I received after the Liverpool game were nearly all from outraged United fans. The tone became increasingly menacing and I received death threats,” he said.
“I remember walking along the street and a guy pulled up in his car and started screaming insults at me. The police decided to fit a security alarm in my house, which meant they could get to me straight away if anything happened. That really shakes you up.”
Even as a teenage referee Deller faced his fair share of hostility whilst refereeing.
He said: “I’ve been assaulted during a five-a-side game. I was pushed over, but the player was then banned for life. Touch wood that will be the only time.”
Deller started refereeing because he’s “rubbish” at football, but loves the game. He also believes refereeing can be enjoyable, as it offers you the chance to “go out and have a laugh with 22 blokes on the right day”.
He looks forward to officiating matches on weekends and today’s game between Aveley Northend and Emeronians is no different but deep down he still hopes it will be another “right day” for him.
Refereeing is as much about being thick-skinned as knowing the rules of the game inside-out. Being fit is only half the battle.
Deller said: “When you start it’s [the abuse] a shock. As is the constant running!
“Obviously now, there’s nothing I haven’t heard before. I could go to a pub on a Friday night and any abuse I could get would not be any worse than what I get at a game on the weekend.”
Beat me up
In football, they say you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper – the same could be said for the men in black.
Referees are verbally and physically abused, and are often depicted as ruining the game.
Out on the pitch it’s generally a one-way conversation, that sees players continually direct anger and frustration at them, during what ends up being a soul-destroying 90 minutes.
Patrick Shanahan, 48, has been refereeing for 25 years and says the abuse has become worse since he first started, with him almost quitting earlier in the season after another unpleasant incident.
Shanahan said: “This season I had a game where a player was abusing me all game.
“It got to the end of the game and he took his shirt off and threatened to beat me up, and at that point going home I was thinking to myself ‘what’s the point’?”
Thankfully, help is at hand, with many referee associations and online discussion boards providing vital support to any official receiving unfair treatment during a game.
Deller said: “When I was assaulted the referees association sent me a letter asking do I need anything, any support, any counselling, anything like that.
“You are on your own out there, but that’s only for 90 minutes. The board do their upmost to assist you in advance and afterwards to help you cope best.”
Even Iain Blanchard, the Football Association’s national head of referee development, admitted “The level of abuse is appalling” and has since introduced the FA’s Respect initiative to help raise the awareness of the issue.
Yet former referee, Keith Hackett, believes abuse is a key ingredient for a referee’s education if he wishes to cut it at the top.
Hackett said: “It hardens you up. You have to be able to take it.
“And you learn to take it in the lower leagues and parks. I used to love going back there when I was a top official. Just to test myself. See if I was mentally strong enough.”
Understanding the rules
Despite the support and some wishful thinking – “touch wood it won’t get too serious” – Deller says the severity of abuse will not go away from grassroots football until the players start understanding the rules.
“The main problem is the lack of knowledge players have. In the Premier League they will know the laws. At this level they don’t, and they think it’s the referee getting it all wrong,” Deller said.
“That to me is the main obstacle where, because they don’t know the laws, they’re blaming everyone else. Yes, we make the odd mistake, but we still deserve respect,” he added.
Referees don’t claim to be perfect, but neither do they want to be seen as an anger-management punch bag in need of a new pair of spectacles.
Last year a documentary called Les Arbitres – The Referees – was released, offering football fans an insider’s look at the world of professional football referees.
It was filmed during Euro 2008 and has many poignant moments, none more so than in a clip involving Swiss referee Massimo Busacca and Greece’s Angelos Basinas.
The game ends and Greece have lost 2-0 to Sweden. Basinas isn’t happy and wants Busacca to know about it. You don’t hear what he says to the referee, but you do hear loud and clear Busacca’s confession: “I’m not God. We also make mistakes.”
Deller says he always spends a few moments in silence to “get in the right frame of mind” before heading out onto the pitch. He believes a referee must block out any negativity to focus on making the right decisions.
“It would be a bit surreal if there wasn’t any (abuse). But you can’t worry about that. If someone complains and starts shouting at you because they think you made the wrong decision – which you may have – you can’t worry.
“If you call a wrong decision, move on and make sure you call the others right. Never let a wrong split-second moment ruin you.”
Deller’s game finishes 4-0 to Aveley Northend. The rain has stopped as the officials lead the players off the pitch.
No tempers flared, no tantrums were thrown at the referee. Just handshakes, some tired legs and a few smiles.
By Dean Walsh