This article was first published today in our bespoke Sports newsletter The Fixture. You can sign up in seconds to receive it straight to your inbox every weekday here.  

The venue was Butlin's in Skegness, the event a grassroots football tournament. It was a strange weekend full of never-before-seen spectacles for The Fixture – and that was just the people we encountered at the breakfast buffet. Just how seriously football is taken at these particular youth football festivals seems to depend on whether your team believes it might have a chance of reaching the grand finale which is played at the English Football Association's St George's Park headquarters. And that means teams with bigger, faster and better players than you have ever seen before at this age group. It means watching kids who are just about to sign for Leeds United, Newcastle United or Sunderland run rings around your own boys. It means disqualification for a team that have fielded a boy who played the previous weekend for Doncaster Rovers' Academy. It also means matches refereed by English FA officials – men in black who expect dad coaches to be linesmen.

There is a skill involved in managing to avoid being thrust into this most undesirable of roles. It was uncanny the number of times fellow coaches could be seen scurrying towards the toilet or rooting around in a bag for some undefined item when it was time to sort out who was running the line. A referee heading in your direction with an outstretched flag proffered towards you is a moment for lost-on-safari-style panic. Faced with stroking the tiger's chin or bolting at top speed, The Fixture chose the former option. After a few – apparently soothing – words from the referee about only giving throw-ins and offsides and him taking care of the rest the whistle blew to signal the start of the first half. Our opponents moved the ball with the unfettered slickness of Jimmy Dean's comb. This particular Durham outfit was a feeder team to English Premier League clubs and they were playing at man's pace but too quick for this man. Often that would mean the ball moved faster than yours truly and I'd be standing 10 or 15 yards behind the play desperately attempting to catch up. There was a sense of heightening stress, followed by sweat breaking out on one's brow as a trot turned into a gallop. I'm pretty sure the second goal was offside but I didn't flag. VAR would certainly have been taking a look as the right winger strayed a hairline in front of our left back – but I couldn't be certain.


Every once in a while, I would have to remind myself that I wasn't simply watching a game but was an actual organic part of it. With a heavy contingent of the opposing team's supporters flanking the far touchline I'd asked not to run it for the second half and so there was confusion as I wandered into the half that was supposed to be reserved for the lino on the opposite side of the pitch. Confusion reigned briefly and suddenly I was beginning to understand just how tricky the role of a football match official can be. Of course, as a parent coach of long-standing, this wasn't the first time I had been in this position but it was a timely reminder following weeks of high-profile officiating and VAR mistakes all over Scotland and England that the job isn't easy.

Every year, new reports are published which reflect that levels of abuse are on the rise and more referees are walking away from the game. It's a crisis that appears to have no end aside from parents and supporters getting a grip on reality – and where football is concerned there is little chance of that happening without reforms.

I'll probably bite my tongue the next time a referee makes a howler but, for how long that lasts I'm not sure, because while my experience was humbling it came at the grassroots level of the sport. Unlike the modern day professionals, I hadn't been trained for my role, did not offer myself up to do it and did not get paid for it. Furthermore, I didn't have multiple cameras pointing on decisions that could help me out along the way.