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Kent County Football Association referee development officer Nick Dunn writes open letter after another weekend of abuse towards match officials

The Kent FA have highlighted another weekend of abuse towards their match officials - including one who was punched in the face.

An open letter from KCFA referee development officer Nick Dunn has called for action after seeing a huge decline in officials this season, losing almost a quarter of affiliated match officials since 2020/21, creating a severe shortage.

Referee Nick Dunn (centre) has called for change after another weekend of abuse towards officials
Referee Nick Dunn (centre) has called for change after another weekend of abuse towards officials

“The mistreatment of referees, the abuse they receive and the behaviour of participants within the game towards match officials are having a detrimental impact on our retention levels,” said Mr Dunn, who also highlighted a disturbing number of incidents.

Following games this weekend, he said two trainee referees have quit after receiving abuse and two grassroots referees have also decided to leave the game because of verbal abuse. One referee was followed back to the changing room and “confronted by an aggressive manager and verbally attacked.”

There was physical violence too, with an experienced Football League official, operating on a local-league fixture to gain fitness, being punched in the face. Another referee received social media threats.

Mr Dunn said: “This is not acceptable. It is a weekly occurrence, and only builds to the catalogue of similar stories we have had in recent seasons; referees being hospitalised, an under-18 referee being physically punched by an adult player.”

Many grassroots leagues are now under way for the 2021/22 season but many games are taking place without officials. The previous season closed with 1,634 affiliated match officials - the most the county had ever had - but that number has shrunk dramatically to 1,247 - 200 of which are new trainee referees. The net result is around 8,000 games which take place across the season without a referee.

Mr Dunn said: “Why is this? Covid will have naturally impacted us, as it will have done with other voluntary roles and commitments. However, it would be a naive statement if this was attributed as the sole reason.”

He firmly believes that abuse is having an impact and his open letter calls for change.

He wrote: “How long will it be before a referee becomes severely injured, incapacitated, or perhaps worse? Strong, possibly; a reality in the current environment, absolutely.

“Whilst the conduct and behaviour of the minority is not the sole reason for this shortage of referees, it is a fundamental one.

“Why would these referees who are human, who have families to go home to, who give up their time for minimal recompense, who love the game just as much as players, managers, coaches, spectators, club officials, who simply want to give something back, possibly want to continue sparing hours of their weekend when all they receive is grief?

“This is no advert to prospective referees looking to complete a qualification, nor is it one that will retain the limited numbers we currently have.

“Football is a passionate game; believe it or not our referees understand this too. They draw on their experiences both from within football and life, to try and manage a positive environment at the weekend.”

Last year the Kent Youth League threatened to stop play if abuse of officials continued.

Mr Dunn, who is in his early 30s and from Sholden, near Deal, is himself an active official and has been promoted to the Football League’s list of assistant referees this season.

He continued: “We, as referees, make honest decisions; yes, we make mistakes, just like players, coaches and managers do. This is football. This is life.

“A decision will go against your team during a game, during the season, and may not be one you expect. But understand this, and trust me, that nobody is more disappointed at making an incorrect decision than a referee.”

A quarter of the Kent FA referees are under the age of 18 and wear yellow armbands to identify themselves. The county FA have a zero tolerance approach to anyone abusing their young officials and any participant found guilty of doing so is reported into The FA’s Safeguarding Department, as well as being dealt with in-line with FA Regulations by the Discipline Team.

Mr Dunn continued: “We have a zero-tolerance approach to any misconduct towards any of our referees and ask that all participants and stakeholders support in addressing this.

“For most clubs, teams and players who support our referees; please keep doing what you do! It is only fair to say that we have thousands of games taking place each month, where everyone has a positive experience. Hopefully this continues and helps everyone enjoy the game at the weekend.

“To be fully transparent, referees are also held accountable for their conduct when it comes to how they engage, speak and act. We fully investigate any accusation raised by a club/stakeholder, albeit they are rare.

“Referees who happen to make a ‘footballing’ decision and perhaps do get something incorrect, are unfortunate but this is part of the game.

“Quite simply, WE MUST CHANGE how we behave. Those who abuse referees (either with low-level verbal dissent or through the extreme physical assaults), to those who do respect match officials and ensure a safe environment for us all.

"OUR GAME NEEDS TO CHANGE. We have a collective responsibility to protect the image of our beautiful game, and we must challenge and eradicate poor participant behaviour.

“Quite simply, if you cannot act with respect, act with decorum and act within the spirit of the game to a fellow human-being then stay at home.

“Please consider how you engage with referees. We are not asking for preferential treatment, but simply treat us respectfully and as a human-being. Please think about any comments you make during or after the game, and that if you are lucky enough to have a referee for your game, for your son or daughter’s game, then they have given up their time.

"We are not perfect, and will not get everything correct, nor please everyone all the time, this is not possible, but they will work hard and have absolutely no interest on who wins or loses.

“Just because you do not agree with a decision, does not give license to be abusive...how is screaming, shouting and being abusive ever going to help?

“It is time for action. Over the coming weeks and months, it is likely that our local games will not have referees. Teams will need to agree on someone to referee that game themselves and, whilst this is not ideal, we continue to work tirelessly to address this matter and hopefully the situation will improve.

“If you are lucky enough to get a referee this weekend, then perhaps engage with them with positive comments and take an interest in their day.”

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