As the new grassroots football season kicks off, our Head of Referee Operations Peter Elsworth and Head of Technical Referee Development Daniel Meeson give their thoughts on the coming season and what’s new in the world of grassroots refereeing.
After a long wait, the new season is finally underway and it has been great to see grassroots referees getting back onto the pitch and doing what they do best. The last 18 months have been unprecedented, and the refereeing community has shown great resilience as we’ve moved in and out of lockdown. We appreciate this has been a testing time for grassroots referees up and down the country and we would like to place on record our thanks to everyone involved, from match officials to volunteers, for their continued dedication and commitment in helping to keep the game going during this period.
Our Refereeing Department has also been through some change over recent months as we bid farewell to former Head of Refereeing Neale Barry who retired after 16 years. Neale led the department through a period of immense change, making a significant contribution to the development and growth of refereeing and he leaves us with a clear direction of travel which we are determined to push forward.
Central to this is a real drive to develop the experience that people can have within the game further through officiating. Match officials play a crucial role in creating a safe and inclusive environment for all participants in football and we are working very closely with the 50 County Football Associations (County FAs) to recruit, retain, support and develop the referee workforce to service the game and give them the best experience possible. Without them, matches simply can’t happen.
We want everyone involved in officiating at grassroots level to feel valued and part of something bigger, rather than just being someone in a black shirt in the middle of a pitch. Closely linked to this is the retention of all referees which is crucial. We recognise there is still work to be done in terms of tackling abuse and this remains a priority as part of our wider Respect campaign. All participants, from players and coaches to spectators, have a part to play in making sure the referee has a positive experience.
To be absolutely clear, we are fully committed to supporting any referee who is victim to any form of abuse or assault and anyone who has a negative experience, whether that’s on or off the field, should speak to their County FA who will provide the necessary support. We’ve also recently launched a Mental Health Champions Scheme for grassroots referees. The scheme is the first of its kind for grassroots match officials in any sport and aims to create an open environment so that referees and everyone involved in the referee community can talk openly about mental health and be supported. We are currently piloting this across 19 County FAs and look forward to rolling this out further nationally during the course of this year.
We are also pleased to confirm that the regulations around offences against match officials have been strengthened and increased from this season. This has resulted in physical contact against them being treated more firmly and panel guidance changed to encourage gravitation toward the higher end of sanction for physical contact or attempted physical contact. The upper end of the current range has now increased to two years (from 182 days) and the recommended entry point has been set to 182 days, prior to consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors. In addition to this, those serving a ban must complete a mandatory education course before returning to the game. This has never happened before and is something we see as a positive step forward, along with recent new guidelines published by the Sentencing Council which we, along with the Referees’ Association welcome, providing a higher level of protection to grassroots match officials in relation to sentencing for common assault and related offences.
The future of refereeing is an exciting one, as our national sport continues to grow in popularity. Our Premier League and WSL referees of tomorrow are coming through from our Centre of Refereeing Excellence (FA CORE); an emerging and exciting refereeing structure that aims to provide an identified number of referees at a variety of levels with quality training, education and development opportunities. FA CORE is for those referees who are demonstrating that they have the clear ‘potential’ and ‘opportunity’ to progress in refereeing regardless of which part of the country they are from, their gender or their age and a perfect example of our collaborative relationship with our colleagues in the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) to unlock potential and build for the future.
For younger referees, the game can provide invaluable life skills, improving confidence, leadership and discipline. It is a world where you learn about how to deal with decision making in a pressurised environment. It's how to manage lots of people simultaneously. It's about building rapport with people from different communities and backgrounds. Let’s not forget, referees take the lead on the day of a match from the moment they turn up at a ground to the post-match reporting requirements afterwards. These are skills that manifest themselves in leadership and are very beneficial in day to day life, as well as on the pitch.
You don’t need to have your sights set on the top to get involved though. If anyone is thinking of giving refereeing a go, you can check out our online learning module which will give you a basic understanding of the Laws of the game and refereeing. If you want to go further and gain referee qualifications, there are face-to-face sessions available around the country through County FAs, available to anybody with an interest. Details on how to book yourself onto one of our referee courses can be found on the relevant County FA website [full list here].
We would encourage anyone with an interest in the game, no matter what your background or ability, to discover more about refereeing. You’ll experience the joys of being in a sporting environment and develop a skillset that will be invaluable throughout your life. What many of our referees often tell us though, is perhaps the most valuable benefit is actually the friendships you can make and the community you build as a referee.
Why not start your journey now.