“Absolute hell” is how Birmingham Evening Mail reporter Lisa Smith described the unusual assignment of refereeing a junior football match.
She undertook the challenge as part of the newspaper’s “Respect the Ref” campaign.
The Trinity Mirror daily launched the campaign after the Birmingham County Football Association said it was struggling to recruit referees. It said there were increasing numbers of assaults on officials, particularly by parents at junior games.
The Mail commissioned a series of features on the issue and printed 5,000 “Respect the Ref” posters, which have been sent out to football clubs across the West Midlands.
The campaign was launched with a feature about a newly qualified female referee who began officiating at the age of just 14 and shortly afterwards was attacked by a parent at an under-12s match.
To find out about the issue at first hand, Evening Mail reporter Smith did a 10-week training programme which culminated with her refereeing a junior game.
She said: “I’m really into football anyway and I’m always criticising referees so I thought I would have a go myself. Being a woman I get a lot of stick from people who say I don’t know about football, so I thought with a few qualifications behind me I’d win a few arguments in the pub.
“My first game was a nightmare – it was absolute hell from the start.
Because you haven’t got two assistants, you have to get a parent or a coach to be a line judge for you and they are usually biased because they are from one of the sides.
“A couple of the players were getting a bit niggly so I stopped play to caution one of them. This bloke started shouting at me from the touchline, swearing and saying I was out of order.”
Smith said she did not plan to venture out with her whistle and notebook again. She said: “You’ve got to be a special kind of person to put up with that kind of abuse and not let it get to you.”
By Dominic Ponsford