Are referees in junior football such an endangered species that they should be protected at all times or is there ever a ‘right’ time to challenge them?
At the outset of my journey as a coach of my son’s junior football team, I made the conscious decision to never say anything negative to the referee.
I'm absolutely of the view that as they are getting fewer in number and we are lucky to get the referees that we do, the last thing they need is me acting out some Match of the Day fantasy on the sidelines.
However, I was recently involved in a match where through a complete lack of control from the referee, our game was heading towards a situation where someone was likely to get hurt by a bad tackle or a fight was going to break out.
So once again, I was faced with a personal dilemma about what to do for the best. Was there a responsibility that fell upon me?
In fact can it, or should it ever be the responsibility of the coach to ensure that the referee is doing their job in such a way that it protects the safety of players?
On this one occasion I took the view that, yes, the responsibility did fall on me and I challenged the referee as a result, but this was very counter intuitive and something I wasn't comfortable in doing.
The performance of the referee in our game though was compromising the safety of the players to such an extent I felt I had no choice. The referee exercised no control or authority throughout the game leading to increasingly poor tackles and physical challenges and it was evident that there was a high risk of someone getting hurt.
With no punishment for fouls, the standard of tackles became increasingly poor and there were players kicking out in retaliation leading to confrontation between players which also went unpunished.
I felt I had to act and so for the first time ever I challenged the referee during the match, but I tried to do this in a polite and constructive manner.
I found a way to ask the referee if they felt it was right that they hadn't seen a foul in the game as they were yet to award a free kick and that the standard of tackling and physical challenges was going downhill quickly as a result?
They'd failed to impose themselves and exercise any control on the game at all.
The referee was obviously disappointed that I'd done this, but their response was that they tightened up and began to award free kicks for obvious fouls that previously had gone unpunished. I felt on balance afterwards that I'd done the right thing, but clearly people will have different views.
At no point have I ever considered it the right thing to do to challenge a referee about a judgement call because I want my team to win. I'm still approaching junior football in such a way that the result is secondary to me. I want our games to be played in the right way and for everyone to go home safely afterwards.
People will make mistakes and referees will get things wrong for a greater proportion of the time than we would like, I absolutely accept that, but when player safety is put at risk through referee’s performance do we have a responsibility to try and do something about that?
I take the view that, yes, we do have a responsibility to try and protect players at all times and if that involves challenging a referee over their inability to protect players and control the game and provide safety then ultimately that is still the right thing to do.