IT’S accepted that refereeing is the hardest job in football.
Ask any fan, Sunday league player or professional manager and they will say the same: “Oh, I could never do that.”
I’ve been a referee for five years after falling out of love with playing Sunday league football myself.
I was tired of standing on the sidelines on cold winter mornings not getting a game, so I took up the whistle and haven’t looked back since.
Yet there have been times where I have been left so low by the abuse and hatred from spectators, players and managers that I’ve considered giving up and turning my back on the game I love completely.
So it hardly surprises me that former Premier League referee Mark Halsey has said that the pressure on top-flight officials could lead to one of them committing suicide.
Halsey, who retired at the end of last season, says that more needs to be done to support his former colleagues.
However, the abuse exists at every level, not just the top.
Refereeing a five-a-side tournament at university, I was subjected to foul racist abuse and told I’d have my legs broken.
My dad was told by a manager I dismissed that he’d be the next to be beaten up after the manager had finished with me.
After stepping in to help out on a non-league game at the last minute, one team’s website was littered with abuse for my performance with angry Facebook statuses popping up calling me a cheat, among other less savoury insults.
A coach at a Premier League academy gave me a few choice words at the end of a game, where I refused to award his side a penalty, none of which are fit for print and many got intensely personal.
Every aspect of my character – from my weight to my accent – have all been scrutinised by players and managers, all because abusing the referee is seen as part of amateur football.
Yet every Sunday morning, I get up whatever the weather to put myself back in the middle of it all.
It’s not about money or being the centre of attention – a frequent complaint levelled at referees – it’s about the love for football.
Sadly, there have already been instances of referees trying to take their own lives. In 2011, a German top flight referee attempted to take his own life before a game.
Luckily, he was found and saved by his assistants in his hotel room.
The Football Association brought in the Respect campaign in 2008 in response to concerns at deteriorating behaviour at all levels of football and statistics point to an improvement across the game.
The Football Association of Wales introduced a similar initiative – Protecting the Image of the Game – in May 2012 to improve working relationships between players and officials.
John Mann, chairman of North East Wales Football Association believes, that respect is the key to better relationships with match officials. He said: “It’s all about respect. If they (referees) have the respect and referee how they should, the players tend to respond.
“Generally our association is good. There is the odd occasion of abuse but normally the standard is good.
“We’ve had issues in the past that are dealt with and we have a strong Referees Association which tends to police themselves, so there’s a good relationship there.
“The easy target is the referee because it’s never the club’s fault is it?”
Brian Purcell, 74, from Connah’s Quay, who has been a referee for 38 years and is still taking the whistle in the Deeside Sunday Football League, thinks that standards are improving despite increased pressure.
He said: “I’ve been refereeing 38 years and in my experiences, I’ve found that attitudes have improved.
“If you’re honest, players respect it. You can’t lie your way out of it.
“My issue is these pundits passing remarks about referees, which young kids are picking up on. I’d like to see them sit down and see whether they’d pass the exam.
“As a result, there’s too much pressure being put on by people expecting referees to referee in a regimented style, consistently.
“We’re only human. We do miss things and if a referee makes a mistake we have to stand by it.
“Most local leagues do look after their referees and I’m very pleased with the changes in attitudes towards referees.”
But Keith Hale, secretary of Wrexham Sunday Football League, said his league is suffering as a result of a lack of respect towards referees.
He said: “Clubs don’t respect referees. I don’t think they give referees respect and we’re suffering because of it.
“We feel as a league that clubs’ attitudes are turning referees away.
“I always ask clubs if a referee didn’t turn up, how many would step in and do it and 99 per cent of them say they wouldn’t.
“I don’t think the professional game helps and it’s turning into an issue in society.
“As a league we’re trying our best but it’s a society issue.”
Wayne Gresty is a referee and also the manager of Chester City Ladies FC. He said players tend to stay calmer towards referees in the women’s game.
He said: “The girls do get frustrated but they just get on with it and on with the game.
“Last season we didn’t get a single booking for moaning or anything like that but I think in the men’s game they can go over the top.
“I’ve not had any trouble when I’ve refereed in Chester. I’ve read it’s bad in places but the Chester area hasn’t been too bad when I’ve been out.”
Football is blighted by the fact that it is a game of opinions and everybody thinks that they know best.
Increased TV coverage and social media have given armchair fans and pundits another way to vent their spleens about match officials and as much as I agree with Mark Halsey’s support for men in black, the intensity of analysis will only increase until they replace us refs with robots.