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Andy Ambler on the vital role of grassroots referees in England

Tuesday 14 Feb 2023

The FA’s Director of Professional Game Relations, Andy Ambler, speaks to about the vital role of grassroots referees in England, the challenges we face, and steps being taken to support our match officials.

Q: Hello Andy, how important is the role of the referee in our game?

AA: They are absolutely vital, and we don’t have a game without the refereeing community. Over the course of the year, hundreds of thousands of matches are played across England, from grassroots to elite level, and the importance of our referees should never be underestimated or taken for granted. Furthermore, referees are people who simply love the game and want to be a part of it, just like any player or coach, and every one of them deserves our respect.

Q: How many referees do we have in England?

AA: We have over 28,000 referees in England, which is 1,000 more than we had last year. In terms of recruitment, we are doing well, which is really pleasing to see. We have referees of all ages whose commitment to the national game is unquestionable and many who have dedicated their lives to making sure matches go ahead across the football pyramid.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that referees face?

AA: First and foremost, we are on the same team as the referees, and we want to do everything we can to support them so that they can enjoy every match that they officiate. However, we are realistic, and we know that we face some challenges around behaviour of players, coaches and fans towards referees. We see, hear and recognise the issues that our referee community faces, and I can personally assure you that we will do everything we can to give them the support they need. In particular around anti-social behaviour in our game, which is completely unacceptable, and we are determined to tackle it. We also face some other challenges around general retention of referees and growing the inclusivity of our referee community – both of which are core areas for our strategic planning going forward.

Q: How do you support referees that are verbally abused or physically assaulted?

AA: Football is our national game, and can often reflect wider society in many good and positive ways, but also sometimes in not so good ways. Thankfully assaults on grassroots referees are very rare, with only 0.01% in approximately 850,000 matches played each season, however, our view is that one incident is one too many. It’s simply not acceptable and we won’t stand for it, so we want to help shift the culture of our game away from this behaviour. We take all allegations of anti-social or abusive behaviour towards referees very seriously and we will investigate incidents. Reporting incidents is a vital step in our process to take appropriate action against any perpetrators, and we always encourage our referees to tell us if they have experienced this sort of behaviour. We can then provide them with support, guidance and advice during that process. 

Q: Are there any other interventions planned to combat bad behaviours towards referees?

AA: We are very clear that behaviour towards referees at all levels needs to improve, and we are currently exploring some interesting ways to do this. We’ve already implemented a number of interventions across the game, including sin bins in the grassroots game, which was brought in in 2019 and has worked really well. We are also exploring the opportunity to trial bodycams for selected grassroots referees, and we’ll be able to confirm more details on this in due course. We’ll always continue to push the boundaries in this area if we think it could benefit our referees. This season we launched our new Enough is Enough campaign, making it clear that action will be taken against anyone whose behaviour is unacceptable, and we are looking forward to launching our new three-year Referee Strategy in the coming months. This will be the biggest and most comprehensive referee strategy that we’ve ever had and will focus on the environment referees operate in, inclusivity and the opportunity for all our referees to develop and be the best that they can be, with the overall aim to improve the experience for all our referees.

Q: What are the punishments for physical contact or assault against a grassroots match official?

AA: From the 2021/22 season, regulations around offences against grassroots match officials were increased. The sanctioning guidelines for assault on a match official that causes serious injury is set at a minimum of 10 years suspension. Assaulting anyone, in any walk of life, is completely unacceptable and these actions will have real life consequences, including criminal prosecutions where appropriate.  

Q: Is the behaviour of players and coaches towards match officials in the professional game being replicated in the grassroots game?

AA: Everyone in football has a role to play in how they behave towards referees and match officials, from the elite level to grassroots. We don’t want to lose the unique passion that we have in our game, but it must be channelled in the right way. Everyone must take responsibility and be accountable for their own actions, and being on a football pitch makes this no different. We need to make sure our top players and managers understand their responsibility as role models in this area.

Q: What is your message to the football community in how they behave towards referees?

AA: My message is simply, if you love football, help us to protect it. That means whether you are playing, coaching or watching a game, look after it. Protect it and encourage your teammates and fellow fans to do the same. We have some of the best referees in the world across our football pyramid, let’s look after them, let’s be proud of them, and let’s truly value the vital role they play for us.

Q: What are the benefits of taking up refereeing?

AA: There are so many. Firstly, the vast majority of our referee’s love refereeing, and they love the role they play in making matches possible every weekend. The feedback that we receive shows that so many find it really fulfilling and enjoyable, which is great to see. It also gives you valuable life skills, such as improving your leadership, decision making, people management, building confidence and generally keeping fit. But we have to be mindful that some referees have difficult experiences, so we must ensure we support them as best as possible.

Q: Is the future bright for referees in England?

AA: Yes, we believe the future is bright, but it won’t be without its challenges along the way, and we are prepared to take those head on. We know first-hand how much people love the experience of refereeing and they are our priority, alongside encouraging more people to get involved. We have around 28,000 active referees in England, and we are on track to exceed 30,000 by the end of the season, which is fantastic. My message to anyone who is interested in refereeing, would be to go for it. You can check out our online learning module which will give you a basic understanding of the laws of the game and refereeing in the first instance. And if you want to go further and obtain referee qualifications, there are face-to-face sessions available around the country through County FAs, available to anybody with an interest. You’ll join a great community of referees, be a key part of the matchday experience, and learn lots of new skills along the way. 


By FA Staff