Most footballers know what it’s like to be subjected to verbal abuse. After all, they get enough of it from fans in the stands (when stadiums are open) and whenever they dare to venture onto social media.
From faces foaming at the mouths to supporters spurting bile, players know up close and personal just how vile and unpleasant that experience can be.
Yet strangely, that first-hand suffering often doesn’t seem to translate to empathy for others in the same situation.
Despite football’s official laws on dissent, it’s long been overly tolerant, letting players skirt the boundaries of misconduct in ways impermissible in most other sports. (Rugby, for example, is often held up as a paragon of sporting respect from players towards officials.)
Football seems to go through cyclical crackdowns on players ‘surrounding referees’ or directing foul language at them, only for things revert to type not long after.
Teams swarming officials, players ranting at them from a foot away – these are still scenes witnessed all too often on football pitches.
Referees remain receptacles for the aggression and insults directed their way from players and managers practically each and every time you watch a match at any level of the game.
Which leads us to the case of English referee Darren Drysdale, the 50-year-old who is contemplating an enforced period on the sidelines after being disciplined for his actions in the recent League One game between Ipswich and Northampton.
Footage of the incriminating scene has already gone viral, but for those who have yet to witness it, it shows Drysdale squaring up to Ipswich midfielder Alan Judge when the player approaches him, furious at seeing an appeal for a 90th-minute penalty turned down.
Drysdale is then seen lowing his head towards Judge in menacing fashion before the pair are pulled apart by nearby players.
The indiscretion has seen Drysdale charged with misconduct by the FA, and he has been taken off duties for the game between Southend and Bolton this weekend. He will likely be out of action for even longer.
Drysdale has apologized, admitting he “did not maintain his composure.” Judge, to his credit, has said the incident is done and dusted and that Drysdale should not face punishment.
“Referees have a tough job to do and it was heat of the moment stuff that happens in football,” said the 32-year-old.
Heat of the moment or not, Drysdale was wrong to react the way he did. Referees are there to maintain order on the pitch, not incite unrest.
He is a seasoned official with more than 15 years’ experience, running the line in the FA Cup final in 2000 and refereeing crucial games in the League Two playoffs and the Championship. He will know he did wrong in the incident with Judge, whatever the abuse he received.
Yet the outpouring of support for Drysdale online is indicative of broader sympathy over why he snapped in the first place. Until we get robot referees, we are stuck with ones with human emotions, real people with feelings who can only take so much abuse and so many insults before they lash out.
If anything, it’s surprising we don’t witnesses scenes like the Drysdale versus Judge faceoff far more often.
Responding to Tuesday’s incident, some fans pointed to Italian refereeing icon Pierluigi Collina, often seen as the benchmark for football match officials. Collina was loved for his no-nonsense style, often giving as good as he got when it came to confrontations with players.
An army of cloned Collinas overseeing matches might sound like a nice idea, but do we really want games to descend into all-out warfare between players and referees? It’s often tough enough maintaining order between opposing teams, let alone dragging referees and second and third officials into the fray.
Instead of allowing things to boil over such as they did with Drysdale, the onus should be on footballers (and managers) to tone down their aggression and the blatant disdain so often shown to match officials.
Yes, referees can be annoying, and yes, some of them are guilty of making themselves the center of attention, relishing the limelight when it should be focused firmly on keeping the football flowing (there’s no need to name names as most fans will know who the culprits are). They can also make some staggering mistakes.
Most, though, will do so out of pure human error rather than any ill-will towards particular players or teams. Ironically, the addition of VAR has shown just how difficult it is to be a referee, when even super-slow-mo footage can cause a thousand different interpretations of what happened at any given moment.
The majority of officials do a decent job and go unnoticed, letting the football speak for itself. They don’t deserve the stick – often very personal in nature – that they will inevitably get from one side or the other each and every game.
We are in an age where much attention has been focused on the ongoing abuse footballers receive online. Quite rightly, many have called for more action from big-tech platforms which host the racist vitriol regularly hurled at some stars.
But referees are not impervious to that either. Premier League official Mike Dean recently took a break after revealing his family had been subjected to death threats from fans angry at some of his officiating.
According to studies, 22 percent of match officials in England said they experienced verbal abuse on a weekly basis.
The vitriol directed at referees, either openly from players on the pitch or through snide comments from managers, often serves to add fuel to that fire and feeds more ammunition to the online trolls.
Drysdale’s moment of madness was a rare incident in modern football, and most referees continue to conduct themselves with restraint even when faced with fury from players, managers and fans. But the sympathy bestowed on him highlights the need for referees to be granted their due respect.
After all, they are only human.
By Liam Tyler