Guest Writer

We welcome back guest writer David Bateman, former teacher at Ripley St Thomas School (now Academy) in Lancaster, to continue his reflections on refereeing football and rugby.

'Hey ref!' or 'Excuse me, sir'? by David Bateman - Part 2

Even as a novice, I learned quite quickly that rugby referees were given respect from the outset. It was quite a humbling experience to arrive at a club, and be met by officials who had no doubt given many years’ service to their club and to rugby in general, who immediately called me ‘Sir’. The trick for a rugby referee was not to lose that respect. In those days, there was no specific training for new referees; we were recommended to read a book called 'Why the Whistle Went', which had been published some 20 years earlier! I attended monthly meetings in Manchester on a Tuesday night, and soon learned that appearance was regarded as half the battle. Turn up at the club looking smart - blazer and tie. Make sure your kit is clean and pressed. White shorts. Socks to match your shirt. (We had to provide our own self-coloured shirts, and buy Society badges to sew on.) Boots clean and polished, and, to cap it all, for reasons which nobody seemed to be able to explain, boot laces had to be white. I was refereeing a society match most Saturday afternoons, usually following a match at school in the morning, which meant keeping on top of the laundry and boot polishing!

Progress as a referee depended a great deal on receiving reports from assessors. Teams were not involved in giving any sort of feedback, and assessors, who were usually linked to a particular club, were rather thin on the ground, so reports were not that frequent. Some assessors were very good, and offered very practical advice on things like positioning, signals and communications. Others were less helpful, especially if their home club had lost. I once received a rather negative report from an assessor whose son was playing - and ended up on the losing side. But I did make some progress, even if rather slowly - I still have the programme from a match in my eighth season as a referee, where I was described as 'one of the Society's up and coming referees'. Manchester Society at that time had a number of top-class referees - Peter Hughes and Alan Welsby were on the international panel - soon to be followed by David Leslie and Colin High. I learned a lot from watching men like these. So the standard was high, and competition was quite fierce. I did get to the grading which literally meant I could take charge of any club game in the country at a time before leagues were introduced, so most games were still, at least nominally, friendlies. In the North West, I refereed first team games at Vale of Lune, Preston Grasshoppers, Fylde, Broughton Park, Manchester and Sale - all leading clubs at the time. I went on a number of exchange trips, to Cornwall, London, the Midlands, Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders.

But the introduction of leagues brought rapid changes. My first game in the Northern Merit Table, which was a forerunner of the leagues we now have, was a relegation decider - I won't name the clubs, but the official who rang me to confirm the game, ended by saying - "You do realise that this is an important game for us - if we lose, we will go out of the Merit Table and that will cost us quite a lot of money". That was the first indication of the sort of pressures that league rugby would bring. The second was being told that all referees on my grade had to be prepared to travel the length and breadth of the country to referee league matches. Apart from the very top leagues, most leagues were regional, to save on travelling expenses for the clubs. But for some reason, it was decided that referees should move out of their 'home' areas. So, I found myself travelling many miles south on the M6 to referee a relatively minor league game - and probably crossing a referee travelling an equal number of miles in the opposite direction to come to the Vale of Lune or Preston. The clubs also found it a bit frustrating - I remember a friend from the Vale of Lune telling me that they had recently had referees from Plymouth, Birmingham, Hull and Nottingham - which had implications for expenses and accommodation; and they missed the Manchester Society referees with whom they had developed a good relationship over many years.

This happened at a time in my school career when I couldn't afford to give more time to refereeing. The message was clear - anyone who could not make themselves available every week to travel long distances shouldn't expect to keep their grading. Once again, availability became more important than ability. I decided to 'down grade' - and joined the Furness Society, a much smaller society which covered a small number of Cumbrian clubs, most of which played in very local leagues. Although results were still important, the pressure to maintain a high grading was off. Sadly, a small society like Furness couldn't survive in the new league structure, and eventually became part of the much bigger Cumbria Society. By that time, I felt I'd 'been there, done that' as far as refereeing was concerned, and was quite content to concentrate on school matches. Until Vale of Lune stalwart Fred Swarbrick (who played for the North West in a famous victory over the unbeaten touring All-Blacks at Workington in 1972) contacted me to ask if I was interested in joining a local referees' association which would only operate in north Lancashire, officiating at matches in the lower divisions of the North West Intermediate Leagues. Hitherto, many of these games had been refereed by volunteers from the home club - not ideal in a league situation, so this was an attempt to provide neutral referees. I was very pleased to take this on - it kept me involved with the game, and I had far more choice over which matches I could do. I met up with a number of old friends - players who I had refereed in first teams years ago, who were now the 'old heads' in the various 4th and 5th teams. I still referee with this association, as well as helping out at school during the autumn term, and occasionally doing mid-week fixtures at the Universities for Manchester Society. And now we've got sponsored kit - and no more white laces!

I met Dave Allison when we both refereeing at the same venue, Calder Vale Sports Club, probably in the late 1970's. Before the game, there was a knock on the changing room door, and a rather grumpy official from the home side asked Dave, "How much d'you want?" He paid Dave his fee, and left. I told Dave I'd get my expenses after the game, when I went to the bar and had a chat with the players. I was quite surprised when he told me that they wouldn't expect to see him after the game, so they paid him beforehand. When we talked about some of the other differences, Dave invited me to a meeting of the Lancaster and Morecambe Football Referees’ Society to look at the differences between the games and what we could learn from each other. I thought that we, in rugby, could make much more use of the touch-judges, as soccer did with linesmen. The soccer refs were quite envious of our '10 yard' rule (usually for dealing with dissent). We also looked at the way referees were trained and developed. Football seemed to have a much better training regime and progression route, with proficiency tests, than the rather haphazard rugby model. At that time, rugby union wasn't using replacements, whereas soccer had had substitutes for a number of years. These days, of course, rugby teams can use replacements tactically, and no longer just for injury, as indeed they can in soccer. The advantage rule in rugby goes back to the days when captains had to appeal to the referee for an infringement; otherwise they would carry on playing. Because territory is so important in rugby, the modern advantage law allows play to carry on for a considerable time until the referee deems that there is no advantage, whereas in soccer an advantage needs to be fairly instant.

It was an interesting discussion, and it might be revealing to look at whether there are still the same the differences in the modern game. Rugby Union has embraced the development of touch-judges - who are now called 'Assistant Referees'. Training for rugby referees has improved beyond recognition. There are now entry level courses, for absolute beginners, and much more focussed further training. Clubs in lower divisions are invited to send in reports on a referee's performance, rather like the old Sunday League I remember. Referees, particularly as they progress, have coaches and mentors, as well as regular assessments which follow set criteria. At the higher league level, the referee is in radio contact with the assistants and his coach/mentor/assessor. Rugby has also embraced television technology in the top games, which not only helps to rule out doubt, but also helps officials to spot and deal with off-the-ball unseen incidents. A far cry from the days when, even at senior games, my touch judges were usually a volunteer from each club, often a club official who would tuck his trousers into his socks - but keep his coat and hat on!  I know that soccer is developing goal-line technology, which, in my opinion at least, can only be a good thing; whether the technology can be extended to other parts of the game remains to be seen. Will there eventually be a solution to age old controversies about off-side?

As a rugby referee, I have only ever been paid travelling expenses, whereas I know that soccer referees earn a fee according to the grade of the game. The rugby union has started to employ full-time referees - not very many, I know, but an acknowledgement that the games is no longer fully amateur. I don't know what soccer referees who referee in the Premier League are paid, but I am sure it's only a fraction of what even the mediocre players are paid. Could this be something to do with the way referees are regarded by the players? A couple of years ago, I refereed a student rugby match when the soccer team were also at home. The soccer referee watched the end of my game, and wanted to know why the attitude of the players to the referee was so different. We had a long, but inconclusive, discussion, because I don't think I really know the answer - is it just tradition, a left-over from the amateur days when players accepted that, without a ref there would be no game? Will the development of the professional game and leagues change the attitude of rugby players to the officials? When I go to watch my 10-year old grandson play football, I'm impressed by all that the FA is trying to encourage at that level, especially respect for the referees, and for the players on both sides. When does that change, and why? I don't know the answer - what I do know is that, even though league points, relegation and promotion are at stake even in the Intermediate League Division 5, I still find the traditional values of rugby on wet and windy Saturday afternoons out on one of the back pitches refereeing teams like the Vale Vikings; I hope that this will continue, and I also hope that there are plenty of soccer referees out there who enjoy their game as much as I do mine.

Photo: Refereeing Vale of Lune Vikings v Blackburn 3rd XV at The Vale of Lune RUFC 2014

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