Wednesday, 17 November 2021

When sports coaches go bad

No posts for ages and then and usually long and serious one today! In my last post, almost a couple of months ago now, I wrote about my experiences at a youth rugby tournament where a game went horribly wrong due to the referee probably being pissed. Very recently I went to a youth football game which went wrong because the referee was probably a cheat, I use word referee under caveat as the real referee didn’t actually show up, instead we got a very unsuitable stand in.

So, it's 09.30 on a Saturday morning and I’m stood with a group of other parents in a public park in another part of Surrey waiting for my son’s under-10s match to kick off when we’re informed the neutral referee (suitable referee to use the official terminology) hasn’t showed up. As it’s an away fixture the opposition are supposed to arrange the referee, and up steps the opposition coach to do the job. Big mistake! The same rule I apply to youth rugby tournaments applies to all other forms of youth sport, if you don’t have a neutral referee there is a much higher risk of irregular officiating.

Now, it might be the opposition coach, let’s call him ‘Mr 0’, thought he had the skills to referee a football match, but in my opinion it quickly became clear he couldn't act as a neutral referee in a match where he was de facto not neutral, besides as the sole coach of the opposition under 10s team, he had an entirely different, important and highly partisan job to be doing at the same time.

The game starts and every few minutes he makes what I’d describe as ‘coaching interventions’, basically he’s decided he doesn’t like the way something is being done, so he stops the game to offer guidance. It is true that ‘suitable referees' do give instructions to players, they may ask them to retake a throw in, or halt a play or some other thing, but this was persistent, frequent and erratic disruption and it was mainly to the detriment of my son’s team. Referees usually facilitate games, this was the complete opposite, he refused to allow the game to flow, especially when my son’s team were in possession, finding a succession of reasons to break momentum. We often have teenage referees at youth matches and I find they are a million times more competent than what I witnessed on this particular morning.

Mr 0’s actions obviously started to cause a bit of disgruntlement amongst visiting parents on the sides, I imagine the home parents didn’t find it a bundle of laughs, but at least they were getting what upside there was from the shitshow. It didn’t take him too long to realise his erratic behaviour had been noticed, so during one interruption he loudly enunciated ‘both teams are doing it’, more for the benefit of spectators than players. Unfortunately, he didn’t go on to explain why one side in particular was bearing the brunt.

I think referees, and coaches for that matter, do a difficult job. I’ve never openly challenged a referee or coach doing their work and I’ve certainly never been abusive. I’m certainly not above criticising or discussing mistakes though, I believe in fair comment. Constructive criticism is a valuable part of my day job and there are times I’ve been subject to harsh criticism, during my days in local politics there were times when it went well beyond that. However, the level of what I’d politely call ‘gamesmanship’ from Mr 0 certainly irked me and there was an incident in the first half which, for me personally, tipped into brazen cheating.

A player from my son’s team committed a foul on an opposition player just inside his own half, close in to the touchline. It was pretty much in front of where I was standing, so I have no complaints about it. It wasn’t a serious foul and the opposition player retained possession and was actually in a position to make a break, Mr 0 made a reasonable decision and called ‘play on’ and ‘advantage’. The opposition players worked the ball down to my son’s goal (he was in goal), putting together a decent attacking move that had the defenders on the back foot. It was a good example of the advantage law in action. As it happened my son’s team did eventually deal with the attack, regained possession via a goal kick and began working their way out from their own area.

At this point Mr 0 blew up again, to the seeming surprise of both sides, and whilst I don’t recollect the precise words, he said something acknowledging that advantage had been played but he’d now changed his mind and wanted to give the freekick too. I could see the confusion from both sets of players, they had all done what he said, and I'm not sure they understood he was reversing his earlier decision given the time he'd allowed for the advantage to play out and more crucially he had allowed play to restart. He took the ball off my son’s team and he marched back to the spot of the foul, close to the intersection of the halfway and touch line. The freekick itself was a nothing event, it was too far away to threaten the goal and the team dealt with it comfortably, the advantage played was the genuinely advantageous outcome for the opposition. The freekick was just cheating for the sake of it; a filthy trick to play on ten-year old kids.   

This was too much for one of the other parents, I will call him ‘D’. D complained loudly to Mr 0 about why we couldn’t have a real referee (I don’t remember the exact words, but D just wanted an improvement in what was a shocking performance). As I’ve already made clear, I personally wouldn’t have done this, but it wasn’t abusive and for me the benefit of the doubt for Mr 0 had gone out the window with that last sleazy trick. I think it was highly improper to reverse an advantage after it had been played out, but it was actually against the laws of the game to do so after play had restarted. 

Mr 0 marched over to the respect line, the rope set back from the touchline behind which spectators stand. He got right up into D’s face; snarling, aggressive and threatening, and accusing him of setting a bad example. There was no hint of irony about who was actually setting the bad example. I was worried it might escalate so I walked over to the D and encouraged him to move away further behind the respect line.

The shithouse behaviour seemed to taper off a little in the second half, unfortunately a lot of the damage had already been done. My son’s team ended up losing 3-0. I have no complaints about the goals, they were all fair, and the players on the other team behaved impeccably. How much Mr 0’s gamesmanship contributed to the loss is debatable. I don't believe it was a fair game, my son’s team never really got into the match, the erratic and disruptive officiating absolutely played a part in that. Being kids they’ve no real frame of reference for dealing with this kind of thing, how do you coach for a cheating pseudo-referee who shouldn’t be there in the first place? Perhaps there is a life lesson for them about some of the dubious characters you meet in the real world?

At the end of the match I noticed D and Mr 0 had further words, but I was too far away to hear them. D was following some of the kids off the pitch in the direction of a neighbouring play area they’d made a dash for. His route took him within about 20 metres of where Mr 0 was packing up. I was at the other end of the pitch taking a more circuitous route, but I could see they were well apart from each other and by the time I made it round to the play area D was already there and seemed unperturbed about whatever had been said.

As we walking back to the car my son said to me ‘that referee was an idiot’, and all I could say back to him without using stronger language I might use in front of an adult was ‘yes he was an idiot, but he wasn’t really the referee’. I had to explain to my son that you still need to be respectful even if the referee isn’t a real referee, but just some idiot who got themselves into a situation they couldn’t cope with because they were trying to be helpful.

After much thought about it over the subsequent weekend I raised an official complaint via the club about Mr 0’s behaviour. I am immensely grateful for the hard work coaches and referees do, but there are serious safeguarding responsibilities involved. Mr 0 may have had good intentions; he may have felt he was doing the right thing but the way he behaved was totally wrong. I’ve made it clear to my son’s coach on the day that I don’t hold him responsible, he acted in good faith and couldn’t have foreseen Mr 0’s behaviour. Some people might think I should just let it slide, but one thing I’ve learned is when everybody lets poor behaviour slide it only ever gets worse.

The FA have the ‘Respect’ agenda, which I think is a good thing, but I’m not entirely sure how deep and consistent it is in practice. If my days in local politics taught me anything it is that authorities are much better at signalling their virtues than owning them. I genuinely believe in the concept of safeguarding; I entrust the safety of my children to certain people like sports coaches and referees, drama club teachers, guide/scout leaders, school teachers etc. Maybe I am overreacting? Maybe this is just some bloke being a bit of dick, someone overwhelmed by what they’ve taken on, or maybe someone for whom the desire to win overrode the need for personal integrity? But my honest opinion is there’s a little red flag in there i.e. the narcissistic need to constantly disrupt a children’s football match and the explosive response to people criticising cheating, and organisations can be very good at ignoring such red flags if allowed to.

It's only been a few days, so I haven’t heard anything yet. I know I have more to write about this, but as always it is finding the time.

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