In late January, young referee Ella Chandler appeared on BBC Breakfast to talk about the appalling abuse and violence she’s seen in grassroots football. It was an illuminating yet alarming interview that followed hot on the heels of the news that grassroots referees met with FA chief executive Martin Glenn to highlight the abuse that is all too prevalent in the game.

And so we also spoke to Ella – who plays and coaches cricket as well as coaching football – not only about her experiences in refereeing and what can be done about the problems blighting the grassroots, but also about how and why sport has such a positive influence on her life.

KUDOS: First of all – what made you want to become a referee in the first place?

Ella: I was always interested in refereeing, as a player myself I was never shy of challenging referees decisions and wanted to give it a try. I signed up to my local referees course and got stuck in from the get go. I was refereeing 2/3 times a week and was part of my County’s CORE group by my 2nd season refereeing.

There’s absolutely no justification for abusing any referee – can you tell us about some of your experiences? Is it frequent? And does the abuse come from parents, players or a bit of both?

I have a zero tolerance on foul and abusive language when I referee games, and this is always made clear in my pre-match talks. Unfortunately abuse still comes from all angles. I suppose you get used to parents shouting from the sidelines in junior football – although most of the time it has no positive impact on the game. Managers usually heighten the angst and their emotions can spill over, usually a stern word and they calm down.

I’ve been on an U12s game where the club assistant referee was abused from the sideline for an offside decision. I went over to deal with it and was told to ‘f**k off, you don’t know what you’re talking about either’ – this delightful parent was sent to the stands and reported to my County FA.

The turning point for me was in an U17 game – a 1st v 2nd title decider. I was appointed as a ‘strong’ referee. There’d been 89 minutes of free flowing football, when a bad tackle went in and caused a mass brawl to break out between players, manager and spectators. I witnessed managers hit players, players hit players and an influx of spectators sprint around 40m to get involved. I was questioned as to why I didn’t get involved and try and split it up. In my head I thought, ‘if I get involved in this and try and split this barbaric behaviour I won’t make it out unhurt’.

Once the fighting stopped, I proceeded to dismiss two players from both teams. Whilst cautioning another player, he told me to ‘f**k off ref’ and booted a holdall of water bottles in the dug outs. I was followed around the pitch by one of the managers, and when I turned to dismiss him he aggressively pointed in my face, told me I wasn’t doing my job and that I was a disgrace.

After the final whistle more fighting broke out. Unfortunately I had to stay and witness it all, because I knew I would have to write a report. The same aforementioned manager refused to give me his team sheet and left and I was reduced to tears in the changing room. I’m not an emotive person but those events really got to me, not only as a referee but a human being. To this day, I haven’t yet picked up a whistle since.

I know my story is in no way unique – so many referees receive unwarranted abuse each weekend they put on the kit. My only hope is that the FA can get behind us and try and stamp it out.

What do you think can and should be done to tackle it?

I am in full support of Silent Weekends and ‘respect barriers’ being in place. Unfortunately I think CFAs need to put in stronger bans for spectators/players/managers that abuse a referee. Too many culprits get away with a fine/ban which allows them to return to the sidelines too quickly, in my opinion. I have no tolerance for physical abuse to referees, and I believe players should receive bans for life in this instance.

As a referee, the process of reporting involves being challenged about your own comments – at my hearing I felt like I was being trialled just as much as the managers in question. If a referee reports abusive comments, they should be dealt with irrespective of any other business.

While abuse is obviously completely unacceptable, we know there can be a lot to gain from getting involved in refereeing. What are the positives in your experience?

Although we hear many reports of abuse in refereeing there are so many more positives that mean we still get up and don the black kit. I miss the buzz of arriving at a game, and having managers surprised that a female referee is officiating their game, and even more so the positive remarks after the game. I enjoy the player-referee relationships you can build, especially with ‘difficult’ players. The buzz you get when given a Cup final appointment is like no other. For many it is also a great way of maintaining fitness or staying involved in the game even if you cannot play any more.

You’re also a cricketer? Can you tell us about your cricketing?

YES! Cricket is my main sport, I play for Hampshire Women in the Women’s County Championship Division 1. We were National Champions this season, and I’m off to 10 Downing Street with the squad in a couple of weeks to collect medals. I am a top-order batter and off-spin bowler. I have been involved in England programmes from a young age and have aspirations of playing abroad this winter and at the elite level in the next few years.

And not content with refereeing and playing cricket – you’re also a coach in football and cricket?

Sport is very much a big part of my life. It’s a bit like refereeing, I want to give something back to the game. I coach in schools and clubs from the ages of 7-16. I find it really rewarding as you get to make a real impact on children’s lives. I enjoy making a difference to others through sport as I firmly believe sport can have such a positive impact in physical, emotional and psychological ways. I volunteered in Rwanda for 3 weeks educating young people on HIV awareness and coaching cricket there, my aim was to empower as many young females through the power of sport.

Back to refereeing – it would be great to see more female referees. Do you think the likes of Sian Massey-Ellis can help open the floodgates for more women to get involved in refereeing, or do you think there are perhaps some issues that hold women back?

Sian Massey-Ellis is such a positive role model for female referees. I think the work the senior referees do at their respective CFAs can be pretty thankless at times, though I have Paula Wyatt and Ffion Eade to thank at Hampshire FA. I think it’s a great hobby to get involved in as a female and you can also choose what leagues to be affiliated with, so you could just do women’s football if you wanted. I think women are probably put off by the negative press out there and the thought of having to referee adult men. However I would encourage anyone to do the course and see where it goes from there.

And finally – it would be a terrible shame for you to be forced out of refereeing. Do you think there’s a future for you in refereeing?

I do still believe there is a future for me in refereeing. Following my BBC interview I received so many nice messages from clubs that I had refereed before, and was approached by a Womens NL side to run the line for them. This year I’m going to focus on cricket, but I would love to get back on my county’s CORE programme and apply for promotion which was always my aspiration before.

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Thanks so much to Ella for taking the time to speak to us. It is clear the grassroots has much work to do to rid itself of abuse of officials, but it’s also apparent that sport needs more positive role models like Ella. We hope to see Ella back in the middle soon.

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