A culture of fear and violence has engulfed grass-roots football with referees concerned somebody will be killed on the pitch, an i investigation has found.

With refereeing and the behaviour of players and coaches at the top the game under an intense spotlight, i interviewed people from across the country at the pyramid’s bottom to find out if the actions of Premier League stars influence player behaviour and is making life harder for referees.

This season alone, Jürgen Klopp was handed only a one-game ban for screaming in the face of assistant referee Gary Beswick, Bruno Fernandes pushing a linesman went unpunished while the Football Association is pushing for an extended ban for Aleksandar Mitrovic after he shoved referee Chris Kavanagh.

An i investigation found that:

  • A brutal assault that left a player with a broken nose and his teeth knocked out went unpunished
  • A referee fled a match leaving his assistant’s flags behind, afraid he would be beaten up by players
  • A female referee was assaulted by a 15-year-old boy
  • An amateur league chairman has revealed they cannot get official referees for 65 per cent of matches
  • Assaults, threatening behaviour, intimidation and racism are occurring in grass-roots football “every weekend”
  • Players, coaches and referees are afraid to speak publicly in case they face revenge attacks on the pitch, while league organisers are concerned county FAs will take action against them if they speak out
  • The FA has told i it is doing “everything we can to stamp out this behaviour from our game”

One grass-roots league chairman, who asked not to be named, claims that while the FA has overall authority over the game in England grass-roots football is virtually forgotten about.

The FA delegates responsibility for overseeing the thousands of grass-roots leagues across the country to the 51 county associations, but those involved say their ability to deal with disciplinary cases is abysmal and the system is dysfunctional.

Grass-roots football is propped up by mainly unpaid volunteers who paint a picture of a sport, the most popular in the country, that is out of control and forcing teenagers and referees away from the game.

“The drop-off rate of kids going into adult football is massive,” says Lee Warren, who has been involved in amateur football for decades as a player, coach, referee, and for five years club secretary of Brentwood Youth. “It starts at 14 and 15 then it’s almost like a vertical drop.”

The FA maintains that the number of players has grown at that age over the last five years but those on the ground see things differently, and it took a recruitment drive two years ago to halt the dwindling number of referees.

The FA insists that referee numbers are increasing but Andy Ambler, the FA’s director of professional game relations, admitted there are “challenges around general retention of referees”.

Steve Earl, an official of nearly 30 years, fears young refereeing hopefuls are being driven away from the game. “They’re so short of referees wherever you go they just don’t last,” he says. “You see the way they get treated, you understand. The sad thing is the young ones who come in, none of the young ones I’ve trained or met or spoken to or mentored, none of them stay.”

Is it any wonder when weekend league pitches have become a place where people can commit serious violent crime without punishment? With football pitches existing in this strange no-man’s land, where people expect football authorities to deal with matters while county FAs often expect them to be reported to the police.

In one serious case, a player was head-butted and had his nose broken and teeth knocked out, but the referee did not take action after failing to see it. When two independent witnesses reported the assault to the county FA, the organisation said it first had to get a response from the attacker’s club then later said it was unable to take action as too much time had elapsed.

“It’s out of control and we can’t get it back. People think they can do exactly what they want”

The alleged aggressor was able to continue playing while the man who was assaulted has given up, i was told.
One person who deals with disciplinary matters for a league shared with ia report they collate monthly, which included six serious incidents. They said it was indicative of what they deal with every month.

When a referee gave a foul against a player the player shouted, “F**k off you c**t, I’ll break your legs,” and the abusive behaviour was so awful the official considered abandoning the game, the report states. The official was so afraid for his safety that after the game he left his assistant’s flags behind.

Another referee had a yellow card slapped out of their hand by a player who warned, “I’ll find where you live.” In another game, a referee was told a player would have “done something about that” if they were not on the football pitch.

One player reports being called a “dirty foreigner” and that an opposition player said, “F**k off back home to where you came from.” Players are reported to frequently yell “c**t” at each other and match officials, while i was told of another case where a 15-year-old player shouted at an opposition coach of Asian descent, “Shut up Rishi Sunak.”

The FA insists that only 0.01 per cent of the 850,000 grass-roots matches every year include a reported incident of assault. But many on the ground say it is going unreported and that statistic certainly does not stack up with the 33 per cent of grass-roots referees who told a BBC survey they had been physically abused.

“Since Covid it’s been really bad,” Warren, whose club has more than 400 players aged four to 18, says. “The local league we play in is an affluent area, Brentwood is lovely, nice, middle class. I’ve seen two emails they’ve sent out about concerns about deterioration in behaviour – not just on the pitch but off the pitch as well. It’s widespread.

“It’s out of control and we can’t get it back under control. People think they can do exactly what they want. I never used to believe in the idea that they do what they see on the telly, but it’s so true.”

Dave Bradshaw was brutally assaulted after sending off a player last October. The attacker, Tyler Rasburn, broke four of Bradshaw’s ribs, his nose and collarbone and dislocated his shoulder. Rasburn has been suspended for 10 years.

“The attack’s left me feeling really paranoid,” Bradshaw told i. “I’ve got cameras outside my flat, watching the front door, the back door, everywhere. It’s not good for my mental health.

“Why not fix this problem now before something goes horribly wrong? Why not fix it now before it’s too late, before somebody dies?”

Bradshaw believes the issue mainly affects male football. “This doesn’t happen in rugby, it doesn’t happen in cricket. It doesn’t happen in the women’s game, either. When I ref women’s football, I might get the odd comment, but they apologise afterwards. It’s a male thing, and it’s really getting out of hand.”

“I was physically abused by an under-16. I’ve still got a bruise to show for it”

Lucy Clark, the world’s first transgender referee, told i that transphobic abuse in men’s football left her feeling suicidal and that she now only referees women. “The men’s game is miles behind the women’s game in terms of inclusivity,” she said.

Dele Sotimirin believes people “pay money to abuse you” in grass-roots. “I’m not saying it’s right. That’s what they do. You have to have the right mindset and skillset to overcome that,” he told In The Middle, an award-winning documentary following grass-roots referees. “I’ve been spat at, it’s disgusting. It’s one of the most degrading things a person can do. I’d rather a player punch me in the mouth than spit at me, it’s so degrading. I’ve had people try to attack me.”

Cassandra McKoy suffered physical abuse while officiating. “Thirteen years of refereeing I think my worst encounter was last summer, I was physically abused by a player and that player was a youth, an under-16 player and I found it quite daunting,” McKoy said. “That’s the worse I’ve ever encountered – I’ve still got a bruise to show for it.”

Elle Kaplitz was so badly abused for being a female official that she once left the pitch. “I did a men’s charity tournament once and they called me every name under the sun, and said I don’t belong here, I belong in the kitchen, all stuff like this,” she said. “I walked out of the tournament. It’s the only time I’ve ever walked out.

“Two or three years ago I was at a game, I was in the middle and the crowd started chanting ‘the referee’s a lesbian’ all of this, just because I didn’t give a foul. Then they started saying I was sleeping with the players.”

The FA insists it has toughened its rulebook, including longer suspensions for assaults on officials, and that its refereeing department now makes contact with assault victims when made aware and provides support.

Body camera trials have also started this year, although it has taken years of campaigning by organisations such as charity Ref Support UK and individuals including Warren, who is adamant that not enough has been done to stop bad behaviour to protect county FA revenues.

Extensive analysis of county FA accounts by i found they were collectively making more than £8m per year from fining amateur footballers for yellow and red cards.

“It’s all about revenue,” he said. “The money being raised from fines, the FA will do nothing to allow their grip to be loosened on it.”

Even when action is taken against players for serious assaults by county FAs, players will sign up with “fake names”, Warren says, to continue playing. In some cases, a league chairman says, entire teams have folded due to fines for awful behaviour but re-formed soon afterwards under a different name.

Warren insists adults are to blame for the abuse in children’s football. “Children are actually not that bothered what the result is,” he said. “There are exceptions to the rule, but on the whole they just want to play. And it’s the adults and the coaches that make this competitive side of it so front and centre. But the kids mimic everything they see.”

But can elite footballers and managers really carry the can for the behaviour of adults?

“I don’t personally think that’s the case, but we’re angrier, we’re more tired, I think cocaine use is causing issues.”

An FA spokesperson told i: “We have over 29,000 referees in England, and they are the lifeblood of our game. We understand the challenges that some of them face, and we have been very clear that all forms of abuse, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable.

“While it is only a small minority of people who behave badly to referees, this is still too many, and we will continue to do everything we can to stamp out this behaviour from our game.

“Through stronger sanctions, leading innovations and a new three-year refereeing strategy coming soon, we are determined to tackle this issue and build a safer and more inclusive environment for our match officials to have happy and fulfilling long term experiences as referees.”

Warren, however, is less optimistic. “Football’s in big trouble. I don’t see how it can recover from this.”

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