The cultural stigmatisation of referees is still relevant today

In one of the most memorable and moving passages in Your Show – the new novel by Ashley Hickson-Lovence based on the life of Uriah Rennie – the Premier League’s first black referee is scrolling through a selection of internet comments and press coverage on some of his recent performances. “Too big for his Fila-sponsored boots.” “In my picture book dictionary under ‘showy referee’.” “The penny never dropped that the match wasn’t about him.” “A Malteser Sellotaped to a bag of marshmallows.”

On it goes, for pages and pages. Your Show is a remarkable book: highly stylised, written in the second person and – although based on extensive interviews with the man himself – largely imagined. Yet the most affecting parts of the novel are the stuff we know happened. The title of the book derives from an announcement made over the public address system at Deepdale as the officials emerge from the tunnel during a match between Preston and Crystal Palace: “Enjoy the second half of the Uriah Rennie Show.”

This, perhaps, was the most tenacious of the accusations levelled at Rennie during his 15-year career in English league football: that he somehow wanted to be seen, that he craved the spotlight, craved attention.

“Uriah Rennie likes to make history,” Paul Jewell said after his Wigan side lost at Arsenal in 2006.

“He’s arrogant in the way he behaves,” was the verdict of Dave Jones after a Wolves defeat by Bolton two years earlier. “As for talking to him afterwards, you can’t get a word in with him. He’s probably too busy putting lip salve on.”

Reading all this back now, years later, it feels impossible to divorce this sort of criticism from Rennie’s unique status as the first (and still only) black referee in English top-flight football. In a way, it was a focus that revealed more about the gaze and preconception of the onlooker than it did about Rennie. While he has been retired for more than a decade, the cultural stigmatisation of referees still feels deeply relevant, particularly when English football is facing up to a chronic shortage in experienced officials.

On Wednesday, Kevin Friend became the fourth Premier League referee to announce his retirement over the summer, following Mike Dean, Jon Moss and Martin Atkinson. The four of them had amassed a combined 63 years of Premier League experience and took charge of 95 games last season.

Their departures leave the world’s most-watched league in something of a bind: while Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) is undertaking a reform of refereeing in English football, promoting and nurturing younger officials, the deficit of experience at the top level means it may have no choice but to throw some of those less experienced referees into big games. On Saturday PGMOL announced Mike Riley will be stepping down as English referees’ chief at the end of the coming season. Riley has been its managing director for 13 years.

All of which is simply part of a broader tableau, one afflicting the entirety of English football from the elite to the grassroots.

It is estimated 10,000 referees have left the game in the past five years, many as a result of abuse and victimisation. A study by the University of Portsmouth found 93% of referees in English football have experienced abuse in their job, compared with just half of referees in the Netherlands. In the 2019-20 season – a season curtailed by the pandemic – the FA recorded 77 incidents of physical assault on a referee.

At the top level, the levels of remuneration and protection are higher, but so are the levels of scrutiny and disparagement. That Rennie remains the only black referee to have officiated in the Premier League is an indictment not just of PGMOL but of the entire culture of English football, a purpose-built hostile environment that so many officials of talent and potential have simply found intolerable.

English football is not unique in its vitriolic fixation on referees. But much of their treatment in this country – the granular search for fault, the personal abuse, the pantomime vilification, the frequent imputations of bias and corruption – seems to spring from very particular trends in society.

This is not a new process. The systematic erosion by the political and media class of this country’s institutions – from parliament to the judiciary to the BBC to the education system – springs from a common popular impulse: that there is no such thing as impartial authority, that authority itself is to be suspected, that the very concept of impartiality is akin to deceit.

So the National Trust isn’t simply rewriting a few brochures to better reflect this country’s colonial past: it’s surrendering to a woke agenda. The three high court judges who ruled the government should consult parliament before enacting Brexit weren’t simply judging a case on the merits of the arguments and evidence presented: they were enemies of the people.

And the referee who awarded a penalty against your team isn’t simply a human being making a call in real time under the highest pressure: they’re biased, they’re being paid off and their integrity needs to be demolished in microscopic detail, often by former referees in the media.

This is, in its most basic sense, a form of mass immaturity, and there are no easy fixes. In the short term you can enact respect agendas, toughen disciplinary penalties, train more referees, import referees from other leagues, compensate them better for the indignities they undergo.

But the wider issue requires a full-scale rewiring, a re-examination of our obligations to each other as fans and people: a football issue that – as ever – has its roots in the world beyond.