Referee Reuben Simon: “What we will never do is try to pacify and bow down to you (Managers) because you’re angry.”

Many of you may know Reuben Simon (@Radical_Referee) from his no no-nonsense approach on social media, but as we sat down and spoke, in detail with the referee of 18 years, we got down to the real nitty gritty and the psychology of “The Bootiful Game”.  

Currently a Level 5 official which all Senior Referees return to when resigning from the Contributory / National List. Reuben has flirted at a higher band of football, ” I’m a Level 5 referee and I currently referee up to Combined Counties Premier, so that’s Step 4 sometimes. Previously I was a Contributory Level 3 Referee however I decided to come off the list a few years back. I’d served many years on the Contributory List first as an Assistant and then a Referee and from my viewpoint, analysing the rewards and the way the system is set up weren’t sufficient enough.” In addition to the fact there were also other reasons that influenced that decision. 

From Reuben’s playing days. Feltham, 1995.

We delved straight into why he took up one of, if not, the toughest gig in football, being a referee, “I didn’t!” he quipped.  “I used to play for Feltham Football Club in the Combined Counties Premier League, I played for Feltham for over ten years with just a brief period away at Viking Greenford.”  

But…was he any good?  

“I was very good in my opinion! But there are others who will no doubt have a different opinion just like in Refereeing. I was very good on the ball and in all honesty I could be perceived by some as not always giving it 100% in terms of tracking back and stuff like that.  

“The best manager I played under, was a guy called Martin Busby, ex QPR. I played under many managers but he was without doubt the best manager I played under. Funnily enough he was the best manager for me because some of my negatives he turned into positives. Some managers are only concerned with players getting back into position rather than the skill element, he was the first Manager I had who you did the whole of the Pre-season with the ball, I never understood why some Managers did cross country running for footballers now if you were training for a cross country tournament it would make sense. Some definitely perceived me as a luxury player but it’s all opinion! My view was if you retained possession you wouldn’t need to win it back.” 

Unfortunately Reuben suffered an injury in his late 20’s, which inevitably put pay to his career, “I suffered with a  serious haematoma injury on my thigh when I was 28 or 29 after I’d collided with the opposition Goalkeeper. I was out for six months and was giving the referee shall we say some advice from the touchline (I was out injured). A guy called Richard Seuke, a referee at the time and whose dad, Willie Seuke, was the Chairman of Feltham, said, “Well if you think you can do better, why don’t you give it a go?” It was one of those flippant comments that many referees quite rightly make to people who have got a lot to say for themselves with regard to referee decisions but, to his surprise I said, “Yeah! I’ll give it a go then!”  

“It just so happened there was a course starting a few weeks later. I did the eight-week course. I think it was the second lesson when it struck me that I’d played this game for so many years and there were so many laws I didn’t even know! It really surprised me but also intrigued me to want to learn more. I completed the course and, because I could now start to run but not do any contact because of the injury, as part of my rehabilitation I actually started refereeing. 

“I remember in the very first game that I did over at Feltham school for The Chiswick & District League. There was a poor challenge inside the box and remember thinking it’s a penalty then suddenly realising that all eyes where on me for the decision and of course blowing the whistle and giving the penalty. At that moment I thought, “Oh, I like this!” 

“Like many other people, I’m not afraid to give an opinion and the truth is it’s very nice when your opinion counts. I know many referees enjoy that element of the game specifically, especially  if you’re someone who’s not afraid of responsibility”.  Making the transition can be difficult for many, but we wanted to know how Reuben himself, treated officials during his time playing, and whether this effected the way he officiates now. 

“Absolutely. I do a talk with other referees, where I do a presentation called Psychological Warfare: Who’s Fooling Who? The way I treated referees was good in terms of courtesy, that’s something inbuilt within me as that is how I was raised. But I must be honest and say I would sometimes be a tad sly.  Because I played in central midfield a lot of the time I was usually very close to the referee. I would say things like, “Leave the referee alone lads! Alright, he’s got that one wrong but leave him alone! making sure the referee had heard me. 

“A lot of people would say there’s no harm in that. I knew as a player what I was doing: I was trying to create doubt in the referee’s mind. Now, the benefit of being a referee is the other way round: I know exactly what players tend to be thinking. That kind of comment is dissent, let’s be really clear about it, yet it’s an area of dissent where some people do not pick it up due to the underhand way it’s done.  

Reuben taking the name of a player.

“There was only ever one referee who picked it up when I did it to him – I was playing an away game for Feltham at Farnham Town – he booked me for it within three minutes. He didn’t mess around. He pulled me in and bang! There’s your yellow card. Of course I pleaded innocence: “What’s that for ref?” “That was dissent. If I hear you again you’re gone!”

That particular referee, whenever our paths crossed I never said another word again to him or made any underhand comments. Not one word! Every time I saw him I remembered him. “That Referee unwittingly helped with my Development as a Referee years later. What I remembered about him was the following: this is a referee that you don’t test. There was no doubt in my mind if I tested him he wouldn’t have hesitated to show me a second yellow and a red and I’d be gone. I learned a lot from that particular referee because as a player he was the one referee who always stood out for me and my memory of him was that this is a referee you cannot test.  

“One of the questions I always ask the guys I mentor is this: if you were listening into a conversation about you at a bar, would you want to hear (a) he’s a really nice fella, that ref, but he’s soft so it’s easy to influence him or (b) you can’t talk to that referee’s he’s arrogant and if you step over the line he will not hesitate to deal with the discipline and you will be gone (sent off)?  

“It’s the question I ask and everyone always chooses the second option. I want the players to know that when I referee it’s my game and I’m going to referee it so you get on with your game and I’ll get on with mine. 

“Of course no one wants to hear anyone say they’re arrogant. My point is: do you want the players to know you’re going to referee the game and you’re going to do it your way and you’re in control, irrespective of whether they agree or not, or do you want them to think that this referee’s nice, he’s soft? You can still be tough but nice and the point I’m making to the referees is: where are their priorities? If a manager or player calls you arrogant because he cannot bully you into talking when he wants, it doesn’t make you arrogant; it makes him arrogant for thinking he has the right to bully you into speaking when you’re not ready to speak. I cannot think of anything more arrogant than any individual thinking they can bully another individual into talking at a point when they’re not agreeing to engage.  

We’re both having this conversation this morning and we’re doing that because we’ve both agreed that this time suits us. You can’t bully me into when I’m ready to talk just as I can’t bully you! So we will both converse at a time when we both reach agreement.  

“Now we can flip that on its head. You can call a player over and the player may not want to come. The player doesn’t have to come because he’s a grown man but we have to be clear if he doesn’t come, what will happen? You show him a yellow card. What he chooses to do is entirely up to him. That’s my belief. What a player or manager chooses to do is entirely up to him. You, as a referee, take the appropriate action.  

“It’s never personal, even though players and managers sometimes think it is. It’s always a matter of fact. If, for example, you have a player who tends to get booked a lot, they’ve asked me in the bar afterwards, “Why do you always book me? I feel you’re against me.”

The question I’ve always asked them is: “Why would you think I’m against you when I don’t know you? All I’m doing is analysing your behaviour and actions.” Or is it: “Do you think I’m against you because you know you don’t behave in the appropriate manner?”  “The brighter ones – fair play to them – tend to say, “I haven’t thought of it that way before, ref. It’s my behaviour!” You have eleven players in your team. You have eight of those who haven’t had a yellow card but you have? I don’t know you and I don’t know them so why have you had the yellow card? I’m the one who opened my mouth and showed dissent. There you go! It was nothing to do with me but all to do with you.  

“I love it when I hear a commentator say: “He’s just got himself sent off” rather than: “The referee’s sent him off”. Absolutely! Nothing to do with the referee! I’ve never seen a referee thump someone in the face. I’ve never seen a referee show dissent. The player controls his own mouth.”  

Having spent many years as a Contributory Referee, Reuben explained some of the reasons why he chose to resign from the Contributory list”, “I’d done it for three years. I enjoyed my period there but, analysing the system and the way the system is, for me the rewards on offer couldn’t justify my time. A lot of people don’t understand that at contributory level – National League South/ Isthmian  Premier,  games – for no more than around £50, on  occasions a referee will leave his home, sometimes as early as 10:30, on a Saturday morning to meet up with his colleagues to travel together and you may not be home for eight o’clock. You do the sums with the hours and you analyse the way the game is in terms of the respect towards referees and then analyse are the financial rewards appropriate for the ref or not?  

“Refereeing’s enjoyable but, I make no apologies for saying that referees should be rewarded for what they do. They do something the vast majority of football people don’t want to do. A Referee can go and do a game locally, be out of their house by 2:15, back home by 5:15 and get £40. Or they can get £50, be out all day and not be fully appreciated. A lot of people are unaware of this. 

 “If referees were fully appreciated on all occasions, the viewpoint would probably be different. Let’s face it most of us know the refereeing numbers are tumbling and could fall of a cliff if there is not radical change– there’s no question about that – and there are lots of things that need to be put in place in order for those numbers to stop tumbling. First of all the only way you’re going to stop those numbers from tumbling is by fully appreciating referees.  

“When I say fully appreciating and Respecting them I mean fully appreciating them at the point when a decision is made that you really  don’t like. That’s the bit that’s never said enough. Not at the point when you agree with the decision and you think that they’re a good referee; it’s at the point when you don’t agree with them. That’s where the message has to be clear. We had a Respect Campaign that was supposed to start in 2008. Prior to that Respect Campaign I did an interview with The Non League Paper, making it clear my view was the managers are to blame for the way player behave” 

“A few months later when the Respect Campaign was launched it did not hit the mark. That campaign should have been specifically about how referees are treated. Not the whole game but specifically about referees. The headline should have been: Respect the referee especially at the time when you strongly disagree with the decision. I heard people within the FA talking about respect is as a two-way thing and that Referees had to earn respect. Managers were listening to this stuff and what they were really hearing was you only Respect the Referee if you agree with his decision”.  If I tell you that respect is a two-way thing – which it is – what’s the thing you’re thinking?”  

Editor: “They have to have respect for you and you should respect them.”  

“Which would indicate that we’re on a level footing. Now this bit will be controversial to many! When a referee goes onto the field of play he is not equal to the players at that moment in time. He’s equal as a human being but he is not equal to the players. It is perverse, that viewpoint. It’s a bit like going into a courtroom and thinking you’re equal to the Judge. You’re not equal to that judge at that moment in time. The judge is the person who is going to make the decisions so we’re not talking a level playing field here.  

“It has to be clear: when a referee, referees a football match, he is not there to show mutual respect in terms of having a debate about a decision. What came across and was clear is that there are a lot of managers believing that respect is a referee having to answer a question of theirs at the moment they demand it. That is the perception of a lot of managers and we both know you’ve had interviews with managers who’ve said: “That referee won’t speak to me!”  

“When a manager tells you that, what he’s really saying is: “That referee won’t let me bully him into speaking to me at a point when he’s not ready to.” That is how I interpret that statement because I do not know one single referee – and I know many referees – who will not speak to a manager who behaves correctly at all times, who is polite and who accepts fully that it’s the referee who decides when he’s ready to speak to him.  

“It is very rare that a manager comes into a dressing room with politeness and simply asks a genuine question. There are some very good managers but it’s perhaps only 10% of the time, I would argue, that a manager comes into the dressing room to ask a genuine question. For example: “Why did you send my player off?” “He punched someone in the gut blind side.” “Thank you referee!” and he’s off. Usually the manager wants to come back at you and that’s not a question; what the manager’s saying is “I don’t agree with you”. If you don’t agree, at least ask the referee politely if you can come into the changing room in fifteen minutes and have a conversation with him about why you don’t agree with his decisions.  

“How many managers do you think do that? Zero!”  

Editor: “Usually testosterone’s flying around when you’re on the pitch and things do get heated at times but there’s a borderline and anything over that becomes abuse.”  

“Let me be really clear about what you’ve just said there Craig. Everyone’s different. People tolerate different things so it’s interesting what you’ve just said there. Things get heated and what you implied there – whether you realised or not – it’s almost part of the game, isn’t it Craig?” 

Editor: “It becomes acceptable. It’s the norm but that’s not right.”  

“Let’s make it really clear: it’s not part of the game. The message to all of the guys I’m mentoring is: if you get any managers who are rude to you at any stage of the game and he asks you at the end of the match if he can have a word, my advice is to them is: no you can’t. I won’t be speaking to you because I’m not happy with the way you spoke to me earlier but the next time I see you we can have a chat, if I’m happy with the way you speak to me. The message is clear: unless you speak to me in a way I like, we won’t be having a conversation.  

“There’s another thing a lot of managers don’t understand: the referee doesn’t have to speak to anyone, just as a manager doesn’t have to. He’s a grown man. Why would a referee want to have a conversation with someone who’s rude? Would you invite them into your house and have a conversation with them if they were rude? Why would you invite a rude man into your dressing room?  

“This is the message that the FA Should be sending out in a crystal clear manner to all managers rather than – as it is at the moment – trying to pacify people who are upset about decisions. What we’re going to see, I predict over the course of the next ten years as social media gets even bigger and referees communicate amongst each other even more, we’re going to hit a tipping point where referees are not tolerating it period, why? Because they’re getting wiser. They’ll be thinking: I’m not going to tolerate this nonsense! I’m not speaking to you,  but he’s the nice polite one so he can come in and we’ll have a chat as adults. You’ll have two options: you either correct your behaviour and be polite so we’ll invite you in and discuss why we gave certain decisions during the game that you genuinely don’t understand or we just won’t speak to you.  

“What we will never do is try to pacify you and bow down to you because you’re angry. It’s as ridiculous as pacifying a child that misbehaves and giving them a reward. Why would you give a child that misbehaves a reward? When I have these conversations one on one with the sensible managers their ears prick up and they say: “Well, I never thought about it like that but to be fair Reuben you’re bang on the money”.  

“One of the people I speak with is  Pete Augustine – a fantastic fella – who’s Coach Developer for Surrey County FA , we have some very open conversations. One of the things that astonishes me is the fact that this thought process is not a common thought process. This stuff should in my view be 90% of what’s going out to referees and yes Managers as well, funnily enough, the actual laws of the game, the perceived right or wrong decision of which many are subjective, should be a small part. If you correct the behaviour of players and managers, refereeing becomes a lot easier.”  

“The benches, like a naughty child, will behave in the manner in which they feel they’ll get away with. If the benches know they have a referee who, the minute they open their mouth in relation to a Referees decision is going to be immediately challenged and advised the next time they say anything it’s disciplinary action. It’s then a choice of either behaving correctly or being sent to the stands.  

“One of the things I find a tad irritating is when certain individuals within the FA bang on to Senior Referees about having empathy for the game. What that translates to in my opinion is pacifying managers who are misbehaving. It’s not for the referee to calm him down. It’s not for me to calm a grown man down; it’s for the grown man to calm himself down. If a grown man who is not a toddler of two can’t control himself, whatever happens, happens! If that means he goes to the stand then he goes to the stand.  

“What we won’t have, of course, is referees ever being rude but I believe referees should be matter of fact and send people to the stands. You will see when you watch games in Europe the referees are far more matter of fact. There’s none of this pacifying nonsense that irritates me. They see what the issue is then deal with it. The player or manager will either comply or the player or manager will not finish the ninety minutes. It really is that simple. Until we get that culture absolutely drummed into the game we’re going to carry on haemorrhaging referees because a lot of inexperienced referees who drop out of the game altogether simply can’t cope with the abuse.  

“We train young people to referee and it frustrates you. You train them to referee and you mentor them, they have a bad experience and it’s “I’m not doing this anymore”. Can we blame them? I can’t blame them. Who do we blame? We have to blame the players. We have to blame the managers and we have to say to the authorities be Radical in implementing a culture change. The only way we correct it is in a hard line approach. A clear approach where we turn round and we say we’re not having it. End of story. Whoever doesn’t comply will get disciplinary after disciplinary and, if it drives them out of the game, so be it. If they’ve any modicum of intelligence within them they will realise that if they do this, that will happen and there is no benefit to them.  

“The reason these players and managers behave the way they do at times is – you hit the nail on the head earlier – because it gets a bit passionate. That’s the go to viewpoint and the culture within football so that’s how they behave. Quite correctly they think half the time they’ll get away with it. They think: “If I put pressure on this referee, maybe this one might be one of the 20% that caves in. That’s why they do it. They believe there may be a benefit.  

“The thing that’s quite interesting is referees from Level 4 upwards tend to do the complete opposite of what the manager’s trying to achieve. They just don’t realise they’re causing themselves a problem! Strong characters do not give in to bullies and that is why you hear from managers a lot of the time that “that referee won’t speak to me”. The question the managers must always ask themselves – and I always ask this same question very straightforwardly to those managers – is “Why?”  

“Some human beings need a different approach. Your approach might not suit that particular individual. He might think you’re being aggressive. You might think you’re being firm. He might think you’re being rude. If a referee won’t speak to you, you must always ask yourself that question “Why?” and adjust your behaviour. The referee doesn’t have to adjust his behaviour for you because you’re the one seeking a conversation with him. If he was seeking a conversation with you then you could argue that he has to adjust his behaviour, if we’re talking about after the game.  

“The manager must bend to the referee’s will if he wants to engage in a conversation after the game. That has to be the clear message and it’s not. We have this nonsense of mutual respect… Respect is not trying to bully someone into speaking to you when they don’t want to speak to you. Respect is speaking to someone in such a manner that they’re happy to engage with you at a time when they’re happy to engage with you.”  

@RadicalReferee has over 500 followers on Twitter, and is not afraid of voicing his opinions, “I’ve always been outspoken. I was told when I was a Level 6 referee that you won’t get to Level 5, Reuben! You’ve got too many opinions. You’ve got to keep your opinions to yourself.  

“It is my view that the best referees are the referees with the strongest characters and who have an absolute belief in themselves.  

Reuben shaking hands with a manager after a game.

“This is where there is a big problem as well. If that is the case – and people are in agreement that that’s the case – and we have a culture right at the top where they won’t even let the Premier’s “elite list” come out and speak, it doesn’t make any sense. Really strong characters are never afraid to speak and my encouragement to the powers that be is to trust the guys at the top. The ones who want to come out and speak, to defend themselves when they’re getting unfairly criticised, allow them to come out and speak. When you’ve had strong characters – I think of the likes of Mark Clattenberg – Howard Webb and currently Mike Dean I find it astonishing that the PGMOL did / do not appear to trust them enough to come out on camera and give interviews after a game if they wished.  

“The other thing we must remember is the referee can set the parameters of what he will and won’t accept in an interview and if a particular person who interviews that referee asks him a question he doesn’t like, that referee doesn’t have to answer it. If we get someone at an interview who tries to tuck a referee up – there’s a lot of distrust out there with reporters – we have to have channels where we expose that reporter so that everyone knows that particular reporter never gets an interview again. He can’t come to the party!  

Editor: I completely agree. We conducted an interview with Danny Guest, an Evo-Stik referee, and he invited us along to one of his games. He permitted us access into the changing room plus interviews after the game and we asked him about a couple of decisions that the benches commented about after the game. He was open and honest about what he said. It’s nice to hear but he’s the 0.1% who would say something after a game.  

“There you go. There are powers that be who frown upon referees saying stuff, which is absolutely absurd in my opinion. You trust them enough to take control of games of football that result in thousands of pounds going on one team or the other but you don’t trust them enough to string a sentence together. Frankly, it beggars belief.  

“My challenge and my encouragement to the people at the top is to trust the referees to come out and speak. If you don’t trust them enough, give them media training. But make it clear that only the referees who come out and talk are the ones who choose to come out and talk. Only the reporters who are pro-referee will get the interviews. The non-pro-referee reporters can frankly speak to themselves. Obviously these views we are discussing today are 100% my own, however  I must say that when Martin Cassidy the CEO of Ref Support approached me to be their BAME Ambassador the thing that convinced me to come on board was we shared the same vision that Referees should not have to be silenced.  

“Lets publicly congratulate Referees when they play advantages that result in goals and soon it will become  the norm that we celebrate these things as well. Referees, generally speaking, are very fair-minded people and that’s why they referee. They’re quite happy to be the adjudicator, to make decisions in a fair, honest and just way, give decisions as they see fit, irrespective of peoples’ views and whether it’s popular or not, and we have to celebrate this. We have to celebrate the good stuff.  

“Because referees are fair-minded people, they’ll answer the odd question as to what were their thoughts on not giving that penalty or what were their thoughts on an incident if they get asked other questions that are positive as well. If it’s aimed at trying to highlight a perceived error, why should a referee speak to you?  

“Why should he?” 

 A huge thank you first to Reuben for his extensive time for this in-depth chat, and once again to our superb and fantastic transcriber Ellie Dalglish who worked for hours at very short notice – it is very much appreciated. 

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