Picture the scene: tensions are high, it’s approaching the end of a close game between two local rivals, and the referee is the centre of all attention.

He has given a free-kick, which the number ten purposefully stands over, ready to strike at goal for a last-gasp equaliser.

The crowd watch on in silence as he takes four strides backwards, before running up, planting his left foot next to the dead ball, and whipping a shot past the goalkeeper, who stands motionless on his line.

Home supporters, whose side were a goal behind up until this point, erupt with jubilation, while those on the opposite side of the field are dejected.

Most are stood in stunned silence – except one.

“That was your fault ref. That’s disgraceful. It was never a foul – you’ve cost us again,” comes the angry shout.

Normal enough, you might think. But this is not the Premier League, the Champions League or indeed any professional, senior game, where money matters and emotions have spilt over in the heat of the moment.

This is a junior game, perhaps under 11s, played out thousands of times every weekend across the country, in almost every sports centre or local park.

The players ages range from primary school to lower secondary school, and the ‘supporters’ are not fans, but their parents or relatives.

The referee – caught in the middle of a controversial decision – is not a professional, but a 14-year-old, and is being barraged, bullied even, by a spectator roughly three times their age.

As the abusive shouts towards the young person in black continue, the other parents perhaps squirm and look away. In some cases, they might join in, caught up and carried away with what is meant to be an hour of fun on a Saturday morning for their child.

It is a sad, yet familiar tale for the referee: vilification at 14; dropped out by 16.

It is often the parents who are the issue, too, not the players, making at least one high-profile academy team in this country ban parents from watching games, to avoid unnecessary distraction.

The FA is desperate for more people to take on the job of officiating youth football matches, with the annual drop-out rate as high as 80% for some areas in more than one year this last decade.

The common discourse – perpetuated by top-level managers who moan about the standards in the Premier League despite the likes of Michael Oliver and Martin Atkinson being among the best in the world – is that referees are the bad guys; a convenient excuse or a distraction from a poor performance.

When referees make good decisions, no one seems to notice; as soon as they make nothing more than an innocent mistake, thousands queue up to bombard them with abuse.

The recent trial of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) during FA Cup matches has shown that slip-ups will still happen, and controversy will still occur, but referees need all the help they can get.

An additional pair of eyes, with a replay to hand, should make the glaring errors, at least, less of a problem.

VAR, already introduced in Serie A and the Bundesliga, reduces mistakes, and therefore the stigma around referees. It will not be present at youth games, of course, but a change in attitude from the top is required.

For far too long, football has accepted the culture of blaming the officials. In the long-term, the future of the game depends on changing that.

With referee numbers dwindling, any tool that could potentially change opinions from the top down should be embraced.


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