After a long career in the media spotlight of Premiership football, one would imagine that spending a quiet Sunday morning watching your son play a junior game in the park would be the perfect antidote to the intense pressure of the professional game. This is not the case, however, for former internationals Chris Sutton and Graeme Souness, who have both, in the past week, made headlines for using foul language to abuse referees at junior games involving their sons.
It is not just ex-professionals who are causing trouble on the touchline. The situation has become so severe across the country that the Football Association has just launched an initiative, part of its Respect campaign, aimed at improving behaviour among parents and coaches.
One would expect things to be different in the more genteel world of Jewish children’s and youth football, but not according to managers and referees involved in the game. They claim to have witnessed shocking instances of abusive language from parents and children alike, which has had the effect of turning some young Jewish players away from the game.
Barry Warren, the manager of the Brady Maccabi under-15 side, feels that, in his experience, Jewish teams and their followers behave far worse than their non-Jewish counterparts. “We play in the Watford Friendly League which has Jewish and non-Jewish teams competing in it,” he says. “The bad behaviour seems to come from Jewish kids and parents, a million times more so than from the non-Jewish ones.”
Warren recalls one instance when a game was nearly abandoned following a verbal attack from a fellow coach. “There was no referee available for this particular match so I had to do it myself. The abuse the coach of the opposing team was giving me was so severe I had to stop the game, go over to him and tell him to stop. It was beyond belief. He was accusing me of cheating. I wouldn’t mind, but we were losing the game anyway.”
He feels that the bad example being set by parents is influencing the behaviour of their children. “I’ve seen some terrible, truly shocking, examples. I’m quite a big feller — about 6ft 1in. But I’ve had 14-and 15-year-old boys squaring up to me calling me the ‘c’ word and the ‘f’ word. These are kids at Jewish schools — they turn into Jekylls on the pitch.”
Warren is sure that the example of Premiership footballers and that of their own parents is causing standards of behaviour to plummet. “I get kids kicking the ball away 50 yards when a decision goes against them. They do it because the see professionals do it on TV. Another 14-year-old confronted me literally face-to-face on the pitch. If it was one of my kids I’d have shlepped him off. It is very frustrating. Sometimes the parents apologise for their children at the end of the game, but not always.”
At the youngest level, it tends to be the parents rather than the children who cause the trouble. Mark Rose, the manager of Highgate and Muswell Hill under-nine A team, playing in the Maccabi Primary League, admits to getting over-heated himself occasionally during games. However, in some matches, he says he has witnessed examples of outrageous behaviour. “I’ve had a few run-ins, although eight out of 10 games go off without incident. But there can be a lot of shouting and there are times when it’s not done in the best taste. For example, last weekend my son was on the floor following a tackle and another dad shouted out: ‘You should have kicked him harder; he’s only acting.’ This was in the under-nines division.”
He adds that there are some simple measures which can help ease the problem. “On the whole, I think the only people who should be allowed to stand anywhere near the pitch are the managers. It doesn’t help when you have a parent shouting out something completely different to the manager and then having a go at their own kid for doing this wrong and that wrong. You do get the odd couple of kids who are put under too much pressure from the parents and this puts them off.”
His worries are reflected at the highest level of the game. FA spokesman Matt Phillips says that, according to the organisation’s own research, some 7,000 children have admitted to being put off playing the game following bullying behaviour from the touchline. He adds that the FA loses 7,000 referees a year as well (although they are being replaced).
This has been the spur for the Respect campaign, highlighted in a short film starring actor Ray Winstone, which was released last week. Phillips says: “The film is to support a new module called the Respect for Parents Guide. There are times in youth football when parents get carried away with the emotions of the game and forget it’s children’s football as opposed to the Premier League. Since the Respect campaign was rolled out, discipline figures in terms of red and yellow cards have gone down in 45 out of 50 of our areas.”
Laurence Thome, a qualified referee, as well as the chairman of the Maccabi Primary League, agrees with Phillips that the situation can be brought under control by the application of the rules, plus a little common sense from parents, coaches and officials.
“Some parents are becoming quite vocal these days. It’s down to managers to handle it, and if that doesn’t happen, it’s up to the referees to sort it out. With the younger age groups, it tends to be the parents shouting and with the older ones, it’s the kids. Parents certainly can put their kids off the game sometimes, but if it’s nipped in the bud it should be fine, especially with the new rulings from the FA.”
Louise Dorling, the general secretary of the AJY league also thinks the Respect initiative can help, but adds that not all teams have got the message. “There is some ignorance, to be honest. Some teams are just not interested. My personal opinion is that the initiative is useful and promotes the right qualities. If only the professional game was like that. Some people say that if the pro game can’t follow these rules, there’s no hope for the youngsters. I’d turn it around. I’d like to think that if the youngsters can do things the right way it can make its way up the ladder.”
In the meantime, it would help if professionals and ex-professionals set the right example. Former Liverpool and Tottenham striker Ronnie Rosenthal, while having some sympathy with his ex-manager Graeme Souness, says he tries not get over-excited while watching his two sons, one of whom plays Jewish youth football. “If your son is hurt I can see why you might be angry. I don’t get too excited though and generally, the behaviour I see is OK. There is always some involvement from parents, whether Jewish or not. It’s natural for parents to get excited — sometimes to the extent that it’s too much. Parents complain about decisions but they should understand that the referee doesn’t do it on purpose.”