Abuse of referees has long been a major stain on grassroots football – and indeed other sports – but from next season a pair of local FAs are to introduce new initiatives to combat the problem.

Every week, thousands of referees up and down the country to oversee grassroots matches. They do it for their love of football – and often for little financial return and a risk to their own safety. While many encounter no serious problems, others – inexcusably – face verbal or even physical abuse by players and spectators. We recently spoke to Ella Chandler, a young referee who – for now at least – has hung up her whistle due to the abuse and violence to which she’s been exposed. Ella shone a light on the grim realities faced by many referees, and particularly young referees who could be seen as soft targets by grown men who really ought to know better.

Purple Shirt Campaign

In a bid to combat abuse and support young referees, officials under the age of 18 in West Riding will be provided with a free purple shirt from West Riding County FA to wear on match days when officiating in the Huddersfield Junior Football League in the 2019/20 season.

This season, the West Riding FA have seen a 16% rise in reported cases of abuse against U18 referees from spectators and a 9% increase from players. Four in five young refs claim they have faced verbal abuse and nationally, while a staggering 80% of young referees walk away from the game within two years.

The purple shirts will serve as a visual reminder to players and supporters that the referee is under 18 years of age and is entitled to be respected. Clubs in the local leagues will be provided with posters and other digital resources to promote the campaign.

Mark Haywood, WRCFA Referee Development Officer said:

We are committed to developing all of our referees and this is an important step for those first entering the game. Players and spectators must understand that young match officials are on a learning curve – and wearing a Purple Shirt is not only a reminder of this, but also an opportunity to support and encourage them.

See The Shirt

The Worcestershire FA have announced their own initiative to support new referees in the early stages of their career.

Aimed at supporting new, up and coming referees in Worcestershire, the #SeeTheShirt initiative will see green shirts introduced for all trainee referees under the age of 18 from the 2019/20 season. Trainee referees aged 18+ will have the option of wearing a green shirt or a standard black shirt.

Like the Purple Shirt campaign, the purpose of #SeeTheShirt is to remind everyone that the referee is young and learning, with the majority of trainee referees aged under 18 and still subject to children’s safeguarding legislation – and should therefore be protected, encouraged and treated with the utmost respect.

Ollie Williams, Worcestershire FA Referee Development Manager, said:

Over 35% of our current registered referees in Worcestershire are under the age of 18. It is vitally important that they are supported and allowed to do their job so that we can retain them.

We have to understand that referees will make mistakes just like the young players they are refereeing – this is all part of their development and I would ask that managers, coaches, parents and spectators respect this. If anyone has an issue with a new referee, they should contact the County FA directly and not undertake any discussions with the referee.

The idea of the green shirt is to help identify those new referees – who are likely to be under the age of 18 – and ensure they are supported, as well as making managers, coaches, parents and spectators think twice about making abusive or insulting comments. The shirt will hopefully act as a trigger to players, coaches and spectators not to make the remark that may be in their head as they understand the likely safeguarding connotations of doing so.

It is a sorry state of affairs that such campaigns are necessary, but necessary they are – and both the West Riding and Worcestershire Football Associations should be applauded for taking these measures.

Abuse of officials isn’t solely a football issue, and similar problems have arisen in rugby and hockey. It would be heartening to see similar campaigns and initiatives rolled out right across the board, in any sport where abuse of officials is a problem. No referee should be subjected to any kind of abuse or hostility from players or spectators, least of all under 18s, and it’s great to see positive action being taken to protect our young referees. Let’s hope this is just the start.

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