Referees are human beings with emotions and contrary to common belief their reaction to situations can be swayed by the environment around them and what they see. If what they see looks bad then it usually is and the unavoidable rush of emotion usually leads to them feeling that they must identify someone who is culpable for causing an unpleasant outcome. I believe this is a human reaction and as a human being before being a referee you can look to follow an intrinsic gut feeling and end up losing sight of the incident in the more subjective way you’d look at a regular incident where the game carries on so swiftly.
The impact thereafter a serious incident on a football pitch can be incredibly difficult from a mental perspective for a referee. I believe that this is due to the fact that all referees know that fundamentally, the safety of all players on the pitch rests with them. This is why I believe that supporting referees, particularly gauging their mental health state, after serious incidents within their games is extremely important. For a referee in that situation to share their feelings with a trusted person around refereeing on the game can help them unload the weight of responsibility that they feel.
Former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher spoke of his own difficulties having officiated a game between Manchester United and Coventry City at Old Trafford where Coventry player David Busst had his career ended by a serious tackle. “Without doubt it was the worst moment of my football life” said Gallagher. “It hurt me so badly (mentally) that I could not go back to Old Trafford for two years having (initially) asked to never go back again. It took a long long time to get that (incident) out of my mind. My boss almost had to trick me to get me to go back (to Old Trafford). On the Friday (before the game on Saturday). I said to the driver taking me to the ground “what is the last time we can set off to arrive in time for the quarter to two teamsheet exchange” because I couldn’t bare to be there any earlier”. Gallagher shared that story when talking about an incident which happened in the Premier League fixture between Everton and Tottenham Hotspurs, refereed by Martin Atkinson, which resulted in a serious injury to Everton’s Andre Gomes. Gallagher said “I just hope Martin Atkinson gets the support network he deserves because people will say it wasn’t a red card – they may well be right – but if you’re in that situation at that time I can fully understand why Atkinson took the action he did. I defy any person refereeing at that level and to be involved in that situation to put their hand up and say ‘I’d have done it differently.”
In my own refereeing career, I’ve witnessed extremely violent conflict and that is one of the reasons for setting up The Third Team, because of the way I felt afterwards. For any referee the most difficult thing is to deal with is a mass confrontation, particularly if you are on your own, because you’ve only got one set of eyes on something that could involve 22 players and numerous officials from both clubs. When an incident has a severe violent ramification such as an assault where the police become involved it can be very difficult. You have to work alongside the Police to give as much information as possible. I think that adrenaline got me through that moment but after the match and for a few days afterwards actually, I was badly affected by it. It wasn’t easy for me to brush it off.
I really felt for Atkinson in his game between Everton & Tottenham when he was dealing with that serious situation. His instincts were the same as my own and I dare say many other officials watching in the moment. After the game I think also about how he will reflect, possibly in an intrusive way with regards to his thought process. He may be trying to relax and refocus ahead of future games but when a serious incident has happened, as wrote earlier in the piece, he may feel responsibility but it may also give him unpleasant flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of the incident which, clearly, isn’t usual for regular games.
Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team