This column was going to be about the phenomenon of the fan-coach. You’ll see him at every football match you will ever attend, no matter what the level. He’s the one who seems to think he’s actually the manager and instructs the team from the stand and shouts at the referee. He’s usually on his own or with a single silent witness.
But this weekend, I realised how he fits into and sustains the culture of referee abuse that runs through the footballing body like an inflamed sciatic nerve.
The fan-coach always addresses his comments to the players, using their first name or nickname, even though he obviously doesn’t know them personally. He thinks they need his advice and appears not to understand that they can’t hear him, and even if they could, they would ignore him.
Fan-coach is the man who shouts “time, time”, whenever a player receives the ball in a bit of space. He’s the man who, after someone is dispossessed, tells that player: “Head up, Liam. Back in the game. Concentrate.” An accurate pass is greeted with “what a ball by the way, Stevie, son”. Simple clearances are met with “defended…different class, Davey, son, different class”. It’s embarrassing.
When there’s a tussle between two players, fan-coach calls for “strength!”. When it’s booted high and long towards his centre-half, fan-coach advises, “don’t let it bounce. No bounce.” And when he does let it bounce, fan-coach loses his temper stands up and claps his hands together. “Smez, Smez! No bounce, next time, son. C’mon!” But Smez is oblivious to any of this.
It goes on and on for 90 minutes, as he desperately tries to impress his views upon the players who in turn are utterly ignorant of him. But when the referee gives any decision, and I do mean any decision, against fan-coach’s side, it is greeted with an expletive and “referee, what the **** is that?”. Every decision made against his side is wrong and all of these decisions were easy to get right, according to him. Every red or yellow card is a “disgrace” and no fouls are committed by fan-coach’s side because “he never touched him”. Fan-coach can’t believe the ref is so incompetent again, same as last week and the week before that.
I witnessed all of this last weekend in lower-league Scottish football, jotting down notes all the while. My neighbour spotted me writing and we had a laugh about the bloke. He just rolled his eyes and told me about the Under-8s game he’d been at that morning where one of the father’s had been shouting abuse at the youngsters and berating the referee (who was only young himself), telling him he was wrong all the time. Basically he was acting like he was on the sidelines of a Champions League game and not at some kick-around for wee boys. You see these people the length and breadth of the land.
Then on Wednesday, I was talking to a games teacher who told me that he took rugby and soccer for boys aged 11 – 18 and would referee the games at a local school.
“It’s often the same lads who play in both the soccer and rugby teams. When they’re playing rugby they always respect every decision and never argue. They even call me sir. But when they’re playing football, it’s the exact opposite. They appeal for everything, try and cheat at every opportunity and are always giving it the whole ‘I never touched him, ref’ when it was clear he kicked him, not least because the lad has got stud marks down his calf, y’know? And they’re not afraid to get in your face if they think there’s a chance of a penalty. It’s like they turn into different boys to the ones I referee and coach for rugby. There has to be a reason for that, it’s a really weird one.”
That evening I watched the Real Madrid v Juventus game and witnessed Gianluigi Buffon’s appalling behaviour towards referee Michael Oliver. Subsequently, Oliver and his wife have been subjected to abuse, death threats and have had to have police protection. Disgusting.
Then this Saturday I was at my local club, Spartans, to watch them win the Lowland League title – get in! – and once again, in the crowd of 781 was at least one vocal fan-coach near to me, shouting at players, telling the referee he was wrong all the time and feeling very justified in peppering his language with swearing and insults.
A young well-behaved lad sat with his dad next to the fan-coach. He was about eight or nine and kept looking at this man with that heartbreaking, wide-eyed look of a child witnessing something they don’t understand, but are frightened by. He whispered something in his dad’s ear and pushed up close to him, clearly to get away from the shouty-sweary weird man. His dad glanced at the bloke and put his arm around his boy, as a kind of psychic protection. It was very touching. A little later, they got up and moved to another seat some distance away. But the fan-coach was so selfishly wrapped up in the game, making tense, jerky movements, his neck muscles like ropes, as he kicked and headed every ball, he didn’t even notice.
And as I sat there witnessing this, a whole picture formed clearly in my mind. The angry dad abusing an under-8s referee, the teacher being berated by footballing kids, Buffon’s appalling behaviour, the fan-coach at every game, all of them locked together in a symbiotic relationship, each feeding the other via a circular disrespect and entitlement culture. All of them feeling this was absolutely the right way to behave at a football match; normal, even. None for a second owning a grain of self-awareness. And then I realised that’s what this column would really be about: abuse of officials.
Abuse of officials is so endemic to the game, from the lowest of the low, all the way up to the highest of the high. The dislike and sometimes downright disgust of officials is then amplified and perpetuated by press and media who know there’s an audience for it, that has also been inculcated into this contempt culture since an early age.
This is compounded by the fact managers know they can lay their own and their teams’ inadequacies off on the officials too, so are happy to join in the slaughter, along with phone-in callers for whom the referee has “ruined” the game and who claim “all we want is consistency”, unaware that it is both a dreadful cliche and also an impossibly ridiculous demand.
But it’s not right. And it’s not OK. None of it is. Oliver made a perfectly reasonable decision on Wednesday. Buffon behaved not just disgracefully, not just despicably, but immorally and to feel justified in doing so, as he clearly does, he is only further flooding the whole body politic of the game with another intravenous injection of this particular brand of puke-inducing poison, and it will soak all the way down through every level, leaving an indelible stain as it goes, encouraging entitlement and self-importance and ending up with those under-8s being bullied by a competitive dad. All of it is part of the same self-perpetuating abuse culture. I saw it all last week: the whole concept laid out in one week’s football.
I realised, sitting in my red plastic seat at Ainslie Park, that this is how football both creates and sustains an omnipresent culture of rudeness at best, abusive bullying at worst. It is why football players and fans so often lack humanity and compassion when it comes to referees and their assistants. Even more galling, they can be 100% wrong, as was Buffon, but no-one ever says sorry to a referee. No-one ever apologises for their bad behaviour toward officials.
In football, it seems, the referee is forever a w*nker, even though it is the accusers who might more accurately own that insult. It is football’s most despicable inheritance.