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BOBBY MADLEY: “Stop Blaming the Premier League!”

It’s getting boring now. It has been for a while. If there was one thing I could guarantee when I went to deliver presentations to any group of referees across the country it would be a question at the end of “Why do you let players speak to you like s**t and let them get away with it?” I will address this question later on, not for the last time in my life I’m sure, however first I want to dispel this myth that Match of the Day (MOTD for easier purposes) has caused the increase of abuse in grassroots football. At no stage will I state that what is seen on TV has zero influence at all, nor am I going to say that what happens in the PL is perfect, however the ease of which people shift the blame from themselves and from society to the 110×70 bit of grass they see on TV is getting rather monotonous. 

As a kid I soaked up every bit of football I could on TV. Games were not only shown on pay per view channels, they were often on BBC and ITV as well. I also vividly remember watching my beloved Huddersfield Town at Leeds Road in the late 80s and early 90s and hearing the language of those adults around me. With the smell of cigarette smoke and the superb meat and ‘tatie pies from the glorious old East Stand terrace in my nostrils I was taught from a very early age by my dad that this is just normal at football matches and not to be offended by it. I don’t ever remember being offended but as a Scotsman from working class Glasgow I certainly remember my dad giving Eoin Hand’s blue and white striped team a piece of his mind when necessary as well as questioning the parentage of most of the visiting officials. 


These were the days when you went to play football at the park and returned home muddy but happy when the streetlights were on. At the park I scored goals of the season, won the FA Cup and World Cup on many occasions and was transformed into my favourite idols. I tried to score goals like I saw these people score on MOTD, I copied their goal celebrations, I tried and failed at their little flicks and skills. What I didn’t do was practice how to shout at a referee. In fact in all my years playing both in the park and at Ossett Sporting Boys, then Ossett Town, I never saw a teammate shout at a referee because they were copying what they saw on MOTD. No child does that. Kids will copy and emulate what they see on TV but why on earth would any child avoid copying a silky stepover or a cheeky panenka penalty and instead focus on abusing a referee?? Out of interest, how many kids were sent off for head butting someone having seen Zidane do this? I can’t imagine there were many at all, if any, yet this was seen by billions worldwide!


As for parents, again this is nonsense. No adult watches MOTD or a live Super Sunday game, sees a professional player, a fellow adult, shouting at a referee and thinks “I’m going to try that at my game next Saturday” or even less likely, “when I’m watching my 8 year old son next week I’m going to copy that player!” Come on!!!! For a start, MOTD shows only a selected few minutes of a game and very rarely do they ever show such situations where a referee is shouted at. I can think of maybe three situations last season which were not good viewing, three out of 380 games. As for live matches, the vast majority of the times a player is seen using language is when a major decision has gone against them. The cameramen know exactly at that point to capture the frustration of that player and we get a nice full head shot of them, at which point the referee has not waited around to take on board his advice, he is now 40m up the field concentrating on the next decision. It makes great TV to show this ‘passion’ from players, that’s why the camera lingers on them! 


“It’s left to us at grassroots to deal with the problem”. This is another comment I’m often on the receiving end of. Again I disagree. I have continued to referee grassroots football throughout my career and if not refereeing one, I’d often take a walk to my local park and watch some games at that level. The language I heard from players to referees was at times appalling and yet only once in all these games did I see a player dismissed. Now I have a very high tolerance level and I’m prepared to give as much back to players at times which usually results in a smile from both parties. Occasionally the player oversteps the mark and this falls into cautionable territory, it’s just too obvious to ignore and so punishment is handed out. To feel insulted, offended or abused by a player would take a lot for me to reach that level. A cheat is something I’m not and so that would severely test my tolerance level but I’ve never been called it on a field and so I don’t know if I would react with a red, I’d like to think I would. I respect that every referee is different. Each referee has their own idea of what is and what is not acceptable and will deal with that in their own way. I should not be expected to lower my tolerance level however just because others think mine is too high, especially when the same referees do not send off a player on a Sunday morning every time they are sworn at. 
I did say I would touch on the way this is dealt with in the Premier League and here it is. Having refereed at every level of the game from grassroots to international football I can genuinely say that as a referee I was respected more by players and managers in the Premier League than at any other level of the game.

The pre and post match relationships with managers was always a healthy one and when conducting club visits to present to players the new laws for the coming season the players would sit respectfully and listen, often asking sensible and well thought out questions. The sight of a manager ripping a referee to pieces post match has become something of a norm. However, let’s puts some perspective to that. Managers MUST conduct a post match interview within 20 minutes of the game finishing. Often they have just had time to speak to players before having a microphone thrust under their noses to discuss a potentially game changing decision. Most of the time they have not had time to look at this before being asked to discuss it. The managers cannot see the referee until a minimum of 30 minutes after the final whistle. The amount of times a manager has come to me for an explanation and then said that had they have had that explanation before they went in front of a camera they would have saved themselves a quid or two is pretty big. I feel sorry for managers in this sense. Often they leave the refs room with a handshake and a thanks for the explanation, they don’t always agree but it is in my experience always amicable. 

Now to the players. Let’s take the game of poker for example. When playing poker at home with friends I’d like you to picture the scene. TV or low music in the background, a kitchen table, beers, a bit of banter and a few quid in the middle of the table to make it interesting. You get knocked out and go home empty handed and it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. You lost £20 but a good night was had by all. Now picture that same sport on TV. No beers, no laughter, no background music, half a million dollars in the middle of the table. Players sit with sunglasses on inside. This is a very different image to that in your mate’s kitchen and yet it’s the same sport, the same rules. Why? Because it’s their careers at stake. When a hobby becomes a job it takes on a new emotion. It matters! The pressure increases a thousand fold and people react differently. PL referees have to understand this to be successful at that level.

A wrong decision doesn’t cost a team £20, it costs them potentially millions. The sooner that we stop comparing PL football to grassroots football the better. They are worlds apart, just like professional and social poker, the same rules/laws, but very different emotionally. This is not an attempt to excuse any player from shouting at a referee, it is an attempt however to get you to understand that empathy and understanding of frustration is the main tool required to referee and more importantly to control a Premier League football game. This isn’t a hobby for anyone on the pitch, it’s a livelihood and that brings with it natural emotions that sometimes spill over. 

I started this blog with ‘this is getting boring now’…and I’m thinking it again. I’ve written too much and I apologise, indeed even Tolstoy himself by now would be thinking it was being dragged out!My main point is that as a father myself, I took my little girl to Ewood Park to watch Huddersfield away at Blackburn. She was 6. She questioned me why people were swearing at the referee and I replied “that’s what fans do.” In one sentence I realised I had taught my child that society says it’s acceptable to swear at that person just because of the kit they wear. Of course I corrected this but what about those parents who don’t correct that? A child witnessing their mum or dad swearing at a referee every week is far more likely to have an impact on their own behaviour than seeing a five second clip of this on MOTD. We need to look at ourselves instead of blaming others. 

As a final thought…these kids who are watching their heroes and copying them…if this is the case, why then do I constantly hear “it’s not the kids, it’s the parents that are the problem”. Maybe, just maybe, these children are being educated by their own parents at the side of their own pitches from a very early age to believe that abusing that referee is an ok thing to do! If the PL was the issue then the kids would be just as big an issue as the parents they and we hear week in week out!!

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