Referees deserve respect

Talking Grassroots with Phil Hodgson of League Express

It’s coming to something when referees and league administrators fall out.

That, however, is what seems to have happened with the Huddersfield Referees’ Society and the Yorkshire Junior League – although I can’t be entirely sure, as no one’s really talking.

They’re tweeting, though – or at least they were at the referees’ end of things. The Huddersfield refs issued a statement last week, on Twitter, stating that they will not send anyone under the age of 18 to officiate at fixtures in the Yorkshire Junior League. Why? Well, in a nutshell, one of their younger members dismissed a coach at a recent Under 10s game – and the society is far from happy at the punishment handed out to that coach by the YJL, which as far as I can gather amounted to nothing more than instructions to complete a positive coaching course.

The society reckons that’s not tough enough and, judging by its Twitter feed, has had enough of promises by the YJL to improve behaviour at too many clubs, whether that involves players, coaches, administrators or parents.

So the Huddersfield referees and the YJL are at stand-off (so far as I can see, neither appear to want to talk to the media).

Whatever the precise details of the impasse, the Rugby Football League is working hard to resolve the situation, both in the particular and with regard to the broader aspect.

There is concern in Rugby League – and, indeed, in all sports – that the abuse of match officials is getting worse. The RFL’s Director of Participation and Development Marc Lovering says that it’s deteriorated since the Covid-19 lockdowns – and that’s hard to credit, although the initial view was that folk had become frustrated after kicking their heels for over a year.

In my opinion it’s high time there was a real crackdown on referee abuse. I’ve written the same thing often enough over the years, and maybe too much leniency (at club and league level) has allowed a cancer to grow and, potentially fatally, take root.

I recall a conversation quite a few years ago with a very senior figure at one major league who said that he didn’t think players should be sent off or suspended for swearing at referees. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and strongly disagreed, but he remained insistent. His league, to be fair, didn’t share his view – not judging by the sanctions imposed on errant players, anyway – but his stance did display a mindset.

My own approach, at club level, was to tell players that they would be entirely on their own if they ever found themselves on the carpet for dissent. The fact that a referee had (possibly) made a mistake didn’t come into it. And they found, on the comparatively rare occasions that they were on the carpet, that I wasn’t just saying it. They really were on their own.

The stance should be straightforwardly simple. All match officials should, as part of the Rugby League family, be given a sincerely warm welcome by both teams at any game, and shown proper respect (which, in fairness, should be returned, but that’s by-the-by).

Everyone should be able to chew the fat in a civilised way after the match, with everyone bearing in mind that every single person involved in a game (players, referee, coaches and, yes, administrators) has made mistakes that day. The mantra I’ve always put forward is that the only person who never makes a mistake is the person who never does anything, which when you think about it is true. And we should all bear in mind that whether you think a referee has got any particular decision wrong often depends on which team you’re involved with.

Lovering and his colleagues are facilitating a meeting at the end of the season. It can’t come soon enough.

And while the Huddersfield Society’s approach might be seen as almost bordering on the petulant in that they’ve been happy to tweet, but not explain further, I can see where they’re coming from if I turn the issue on its head. It’s a few years ago when, in a lower league game involving my club’s second team, I was getting more and more complaints from our players that they were copping a few shots that would normally be penalised, and that the referee was on first-name terms with their opponents. It got to the stage where I asked our player-coach whether what our lads were telling me was true, in which case I‘d have to inform the referee that if he didn’t offer our players protection I’d have to protect them myself by taking them off the pitch.

It didn’t come to that, happily, but we weren’t far off. Maybe the Huddersfield Referees Society feels that it’s in a similar position.

A reality in all this is that much bother can be avoided if a referee possesses that almost indefinable quality – man-management.

One of the best I’ve ever come across is Tony Martin, of Oldham, who you really can talk to, and who has often been given the `tougher’ games at amateur level by appointments officers.

Tony’s name cropped up in a story sent to me by my old friend Roger Halstead, who was for many years the Oldham Evening Chronicle’s Rugby League correspondent, regarding a reunion held by Fitton Hill.

Fitton Hill’s big moment of glory came when they won the very prestigious Oldham ARL’s Standard Cup, which used to attract many thousands to its Good Friday Final at Watersheddings, in the 1980s. And who was a key figure in that triumph? None other than Tony Martin, whose conversion of a late try secured a one-point win in a game in which he had already landed a penalty and a field goal. He was also described as a player who never took a backwards step.

It had never occurred to me that Tony had played the game. Perhaps typically of the bloke, he’s never mentioned it. On reflection, though, it’s no surprise. He is very much a player’s referee, with an understanding and empathy that can only be bolstered by having been a player himself. It’s not absolutely essential (I can think of many excellent whistlers who have never driven the ball in or made a tackle) but I do think it helps. Tony, who was unable to make the reunion because he was on a charity bike ride (typical of the bloke, again) reckons that his happiest days in Rugby League were when he was playing for Fitton Hill, which is saying something. But plenty of people (me included) know exactly what he means.

And I’ll bet that most of the players who will be taking part in next Sunday’s Women’s finals at Headingley will say, when they’re in their dotage, much the same thing. Leeds Rhinos face St Helens in the Grand Final, and Featherstone Rovers take on Huddersfield Giants at noon in the Plate decider. Don’t miss out. And, to those players, don’t miss out on the new Women’s Amateur Rugby League season, which is set to start later this month with some sixteen teams.

Finally, the RFL’s regular Friday statement to clubs found its way to me on Saturday (for some reason I’m no longer receiving it direct). The thorny subject of Membership Fees for players is still on the agenda and the issue of charging players who sign on for a club on the day of a game, therefore ensuring that a match can go ahead, is being addressed in the next couple of weeks. Another major hurdle to bypass, I think, and I hope it can be resolved.

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