Who would be a football referee? Go to any match at any level of the game these days and the anger seems to be worse than it has ever been. It is a rare Premier League fixture that does not pass without a manager being sent to the stands for berating the officials, a player blaming the man in black for his own team’s shortcomings, or the crowd shouting at the ref, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ Or worse.
On park pitches, for the referee, things are far more intimidating. At least in the Premier League, managers restrict their outrage to kicking water bottles. At grassroots, referees are not just sworn at; they’re routinely kicked, punched and headbutted. More than a hundred serious physical assaults were reported last year. Every weekend, there are refs dashing to their cars at the final whistle or locking themselves in the changing room.
Things have got so bad that 3,000 grassroots referees a season are said to be hanging up their whistles. Given there are only 27,000 registered officials in the country, this is not so much a drip, drip decline, as a haemorrhage. At this rate, within a decade there won’t be any refs left. And, without refs, you can’t have organised football.
There has always been some abuse of referees. Over the past couple of years, the level of assault has sharply increased. It may be coincidence, but attacks seem to have spiked at a time of growing anti-Establishment political surges. The gathering assumption that there is some sort of organised conspiracy seems to have percolated down to the park pitch. And the ref has become the symbol of authority on which to unload revolutionary zeal. The sadness is, the park ref is just a bloke from round the corner, no more a representative of the Establishment than the players he is failing to corral.
It was, then, wonderfully refreshing the other day to happen across a referee who appeared to love every minute of running a game on a park pitch in north London. As if being a referee did not make her enough of a target for unrestricted abuse, Jawahir Noble is also female, black and a Muslim. And she doesn’t officiate at children’s matches. She takes charge of full-on, men’s eleven-a-side matches in London’s amateur leagues.
‘The best thing,’ she said, when I asked her what was her favourite aspect of being a ref, ‘is the look on the players’ faces when they realise they’ve got me.’
When I saw her in action, she seemed mighty vulnerable. Only 5ft 5in, trotting out in a headscarf to take control of
22 sizeable blokes. But she was good, very good. Within a minute of the game starting, she confronted any in-built prejudice about women not understanding the offside rule. She clearly knew it very well. Unlike some of the players.
‘That always makes me laugh,’ she said. ‘These players turn up on a Sunday morning and I reckon at least half of them haven’t a clue about the laws of the game. But that doesn’t stop them telling me I’m wrong.’
It soon became clear it’s a foolhardy individual who challenges Jawahir. She was quick, efficient and stood little in the way of backchat. As she moved round the pitch, constantly keeping up with play, her decision-making clear, bold and speedily delivered, it was pretty obvious she knew what she was doing.
Not that her morning’s work passed without incident. As the game progressed and passions rose, she gave a decision which several players contested. One of them stood over her, poking her in the chest, telling her in the most direct language that she had got it wrong. The opposition captain, spotting the deliberate intent to intimidate, intervened and, during a push-me-pull-you scrum, told his opponent that he should treat this ref with a bit more respect.
His angry opponent said, ‘It’s you who’s not treating her with respect, mate. Me, I’m treating her exactly as I’d treat any other ref. That’s what you call proper respect.’
There really was no reply to that.