While clampers and estate agents may have rougher reputations, at least they don’t have to do their jobs for an audience of millions. The perennial question when it comes to referees is why anyone would want to do it?
As flecks of spittle spray across your face from the mouth of a ranting of centre-half denied a throw-in, it must be hard not to wonder if you’ve chosen the right path in life.
“When you’re a child, everybody wants to be a professional footballer,” says Mark Clattenburg, the former Premier League referee who will officiate at the CONIFA World Football Cup this summer.
“You realise that not everyone can make it. I took up refereeing as a hobby, and I progressed through and, all of a sudden, I was thrust into the professional game, and it became a job.”
Clattenburg spent 13 seasons refereeing some of the best players in the world. On the pitch he had to handle tender souls like Wayne Rooney, Lee Bowyer, Lee Cattermole and John Terry throughout his Premier League career, and he also criss-crossed the planet for crucial World Cup qualifiers and Champions League blockbusters.
“I got to go to some amazing places. Would I have ever played in the Champions League final? Never. But to actually referee it, that was just unreal.”
Through his travels in the game, the Durham native as reffed every sort of character. Professional footballers, like us mere mortals, come in all different shapes and sizes, at least as far as personalities go, and some were easier to manage on the pitch than others.
“You have people like Vincent Kompany, who is an absolute legend.”
“I sent him off playing for Belgium against Israel, and the next time I seen him the first thing he says is ‘Mark, you made the right decision.'”
And, even in the cauldron of Premier League clash, the City captain would exude a zen-like calm.
“I remember making a mistake before half-time in a game once, and he was waiting for me at the start of the second-half to say “Mark, even the best referees in the world make mistakes.” You can’t argue with that.”
Others who stood out were the late Newcastle and Leeds hero Gary Speed:
“I really respected him, he was such a gentleman. When I first started refereeing, even if I made a mistake he wouldn’t criticise me. If you had a good game he would come up at the end of the game and say so. He’d encourage you without criticism.”
“When you’re a young referee you need that support.”
There was the other side of the coin though.
“You’d have the opposite with Craig Bellamy, who’d just abuse you constantly. When you’re a young referee that didn’t help because you always had negative feelings in your head after it.”
However, the Geordie never experienced the kind of abuse referees once dealt with – David Elleray’s micced-up match between Millwall and Arsenal springs to mind.
“With modern players you don’t see them being as aggressive towards referees as in the past. You get plenty of frustration and the odd outburst, but not the angry stuff you would’ve seen before.”
“At least I never got it when I was a referee at the very top.”
“When I first started I got more, probably because I was young and they were wanting to try you out. But when you get a bit more experience, it became a lot less pressurised from the players.”
Today. it’s media stick that’s more vitiriolic according to the 2016 Champions League final ref, especially on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
“When I first started there was no social media. It’s given people a speaking part.”
“Everybody has a platform now and they can hide behind a keyboard and abuse you all day.”
“I use social media now as I have to for media work, but referees didn’t have social media accounts when I was in the league. It has it’s benefits of course, but sometimes it’s used in the wrong way.”
There is slightly less saliva involved with online tirades at least.