This blog is about the pleasure I get watching my children play sport. It also addresses some of the odd and obsessive behaviours of the parents and coaches I come across. In recent weeks, nasty and unpleasant behaviour has emerged. So, reluctantly, I come to write about my first experience of the sort of obnoxious behaviour that stigmatises junior football, features in local newspapers and was the target of the FA’s Respect campaign.
I dubbed the father of one of no.1 son’s teammates, Moaning Dad. Last month he had sounded off about the decision a boy made not to go in goal. Moaning is his default mode, but that was mean. This morning things got a lot worse.
The under 13 league fixture was very competitive, but edgy. The opponents were egged on by a large group of parents baying at their boys, with a coach calling every move from the opposite touchline. Early on the referee heard one of the opposition swearing at our player. The referee did something I’ve not seen before but longed to see done: he told the boy he had to go off. The boy swore at him and the referee calmly walked him across the field to his coach, whom he told to make a substitution. It was done undemonstratively – so much so I wondered if the boy was injured.
This, I believe, is exactly the sort of officiating junior football needs. The complicating factor was that the designated referee had failed to turn up and one of our coaches had taken the whistle. Added to this unusually assertive action was a penalty decision that set the other side’s parents against the referee.
In the second half, with the match balanced at 1-1 the swearing boy was allowed back on the pitch. He tangled with one of our players and kicks, punches were exchanged. As the referee rushed to separate the boys, Moaning Dad (for it was his son involved) strode onto the field, bellowing at his son to get stuck in, etc. Amidst the shouting, he was followed onto the pitch by I woman I guessed was the other boy’s mother. She screamed at Moaning Dad that he was a disgrace (fair point) and they spent five minutes hollering in each others’ faces.
As things calmed down, the coaches and referee quickly discussed abandoning the match, but decided to carry on. The referee got the boys together in the centre circle and laid down the law. The rest of the game was played, if not in good spirit, then without incident.
The club my sons play for has been a pioneer with the Respect agenda. In 2006, it attracted a lot of attention for adopting a ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach to inappropriate language and referee abuse. Other local clubs were encouraged (shamed?) to sign up. Trevor Brooking made a couple of visits to find out more and to recognise the initiative. The majority of coaches are attentive to the spirit of the commitment, but I have seen exceptions and sensed that the club is too big to keep a grip on the conduct of all of its teams, their players and parents.
Now, with Moaning Dad reported to the club, I wait to see whether it is prepared to back up its pristine policies and PR-friendly talk by walking the walk. If Moaning Dad is allowed to return to matches, it will have failed and I will be spending a lot less of my time on the touchline.