Alan Biggs: Younger and fitter - witness a new breed of referees

Alan Biggs
Alan Biggs
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Some words you might not recognise, as spoken by a football manager. And you WILL blink so don’t miss them!

Here they are. . .

“Standards of refereeing have improved dramatically over the last five years or so. The refs are younger, fitter and more approachable.”

Well, it’s not Jose Mourinho talking, as you’ll have guessed by now. Or any Premier League or Football League manager come to that.

But these words are actually more important than that. Because they come from the place where match officials are trying to work up to that level.

The author is Ian Whitehorne, manager in three spells of Sheffield FC, the oldest club in the world. Some things don’t change much even across 157 years. There always has been and always will be conflict around a pitch. But these are certainly new words to this column’s ears.

“There’s more communication as well – you can have a bit of a chat afterwards,” says Ian, who recently handed over the reins to Mick Wadsworth.

“We had a ref come into the dressing room after a game recently to apologise to all the players about a penalty he’d wrongly awarded.

“We lost 1-0 but what can you say after that? I admired him for it. We moved on.”

Whitehorne also believes younger people are getting into officiating “because they see it as a career path” and that in turn means referees are fitter.

So it’s all good news up to now then. But don’t hold your breath too long because there’s one big thing that also has to change – the way officials are treated. It’s a slow process in spite of the impact of an FA Respect campaign that is now receding in memory.

Whitehorne, for one, thinks managers and coaches at all levels should learn from his own mistakes. “Intimidation doesn’t work and it’s human nature that it doesn’t,” he says. “Refs will remember for the next game – so I went on a charm offensive and it worked much better!”

James Hope-Gill, former chief executive of the Sheffield and Hallamshire FA, raises an equally good point when he claims tolerance of verbal abuse by Premier League referees – and in some cases a lenient approach to discipline by the FA – compromises the control of grassroots officials. And it’s there that the problem is more deep-rooted and has to be eradicated.

“We would have referees not report the abuse they received,” said Hope-Gill. “And in my time, looking after some 120,000 players across the region, we would have between 10 and 20 assaults a year.

“Why can’t we be more like rugby in terms of respect for officials? That’s what I campaigned for – but I was one voice among many thousands.”

Fascinating stuff. And if you want more, you can see my filmed interviews with Whitehorne and Hope-Gill at you-are-the-ref.com