Refereeing at senior non-league level in ‘unhappy’ state – but do controversial decisions always even themselves out?

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I hesitate to say this – but refereeing at senior non-League level is an unhappy state. There is a sort of force-field around officials: we were all brought up to believe that the referee or umpire is right, even when he or she is wrong. But perhaps the debate needs a little more openness.

Eastbourne Borough’s level of the game has seen a whole generation of new officials, some of them on a relatively fast track, learning as they climb the ladder.

They are committed, they train and prepare thoroughly, they are observed and receive feedback. A midfielder can have an anonymous game, and a striker can miss the target – and be forgiven. But no referee can escape judgement – and yet they cannot even answer back!

It’s not by any means all the fault of the officials.

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Eastbourne Borough v Maidstone is far from the first game this season to feature more than one controversial refereeing decision | Picture: Lydia RedmanEastbourne Borough v Maidstone is far from the first game this season to feature more than one controversial refereeing decision | Picture: Lydia Redman
Eastbourne Borough v Maidstone is far from the first game this season to feature more than one controversial refereeing decision | Picture: Lydia Redman

One, they are under scrutiny as never before. In the past few seasons, the very top level of the game is viewed through the freeze-frame of VAR. A goal is not a goal until it has been cleared for a possible foul, a possible offside or a possible handball in the build-up. The outcome is arguably fairer, but the on-field officials are now only a part of the process. Spectators expect perfection, and – until, heaven forfend, the VAR technology filters down to National South – non-League referees are still taking all the blame.

Two, the balance has swung from the “referee’s word is final” to “the referee is fair game”. Is there too much of a sense of entitlement among the new generations of spectators? At Premier League level, where the football knowledge of some punters is in inverse proportion to the price of their seats, the poor guy with the whistle can be freely insulted and vilified from the safety of Row G. Perhaps we spectators further down the pyramid need to set a better example.

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Three – a tricky one – understanding the other point of view. Ref to manager to player, and vice versa. Many referees haven’t really played the game, or not since their Year 10 PE lessons. Should they at least be training with the nearest semi-pro club, and running seminars and discussions with managers and players? While it does happen now and again, it isn’t really a systematic process.

Four, the referees are at the mercy of players’ and managers’ improper pressure: verbal pressure, conmanship, simulation, and at worst on the verge of cheating. Not always, of course, and not all players. But it should not happen at all – no player would get away with it in cricket or Rugby Union. Maidstone United may have become, deservedly, the nation’s heroes through their magnificent FA Cup run. But on Saturday, their players were closer to earning a villains’ tag.

Throughout last Friday’s ninety minutes at Eastbourne Borough v Maidstone, there were frequent Stones attempts to win decisions. Stepping across your opponent and tumbling. Yelling a huge “Hey!” whenever your teammate was tackled. Those ploys often win a sort of reflex decision from the man with the whistle – and it really did seem that Rob Ablitt was put under serious pressure.

Eastbourne Borough managers have always, without exception, played it straight. From Wilson to Widdrington to Bloor, they always welded passion with fair play and respect. Adam Murray is no different, and in fairness neither was Mark Beard. It is actually in the club’s DNA, from Langney Sports to the present day. The Crabbs and Bakers and Austins rolled their sleeves up, they ran for each other, they were driven – but they didn’t cheat.

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Ironically, midway through Friday’s second half, home supporters were recalling the legendary “Darlington Game” – when a nine-man Borough, with midfielder Matt Smart in goal, withstood a Darlington siege to claim a 1-1 draw. Oh, and England captain John Terry was in the stands!

Let the record show, as they say, that Maidstone were the better side on the day – but only by a slight margin. And Murray was left wondering when some of these marginal decisions will start to swing Borough’s way.

I have watched almost every Eastbourne Borough game this season, from Welling to Weymouth and Taunton to Tonbridge. In the autumn, Mark Beard suffered his share of close calls. And in Murray’s three-month tenure in the hot seat, a quick scan through their results brings up a crucial six points lost to marginal refereeing decisions: Aveley (h) a 1-2 defeat to an offside goal and a soft penalty; Hampton (a) 0-1 to a faulty decision in stoppage time, leading directly to Hampton’s winner; 1-1 against Dover with a handball on the goalline to deny a winning goal. And now the Maidstone roadshow.

Who knows what Borough’s final run-in will bring: a dubious offside to beat Dartford, or a flimsy penalty to topple Truro? It all evens out, they say. If so, the Maidstone maelstrom will soon fade from Borough fans’ memories! No doubt at Dartford and Braintree, we will find something else to grouse about – but please, let the refereeing be uncontroversial!

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