‘Refereeing can be a very lonely place’ says former National League North official

Kelvin Sarsfield was a referee at National League North level

Former National League North referee Kelvin Sarsfield says being an official can be a ‘very lonely place’.

Towards the end of 2020, chief executive of Ref Support UK, Martin Cassidy says there was a ‘massive rise in mental health support requests.’

Sarsfield, 39, is now taking charge of grassroots football in Burnley and spoke about the differences between refereeing in the National League North.

“At National League, what I would class as abuse does increase quite a bit,” says Sarsfield, who was also an assistant referee in the National League Premier Division.

“Players question your decisions constantly as we’ve come to accept in football but the actual level of personal abuse the further I’ve gone up the pyramid, I wouldn’t say I received it a lot.

FA has launched a campaign to help grassroots referees (credit: Ben Stewart)

“Down at grassroots when I was starting off, I once sent a player off who was a substitute who screamed at the top of his voice ‘You’re just a f*****g c**t referee. I would say it (personal abuse) is more prevalent at grassroots level or Sunday League football.

“It’s a very lonely place and it was right at the start of my refereeing career. You’re all on your own.

“I was lucky with the fact that I was 23 and a bit older than a younger referee but it wasn’t nice going up to a grown man and asking him to leave the venue because of the abuse that had been directed at me.”

Research conducted by the University of Portsmouth found that three in five referees in England experienced verbal or physical abuse every couple of games.

The research – published in a book called ‘Referees, Match Officials & Abuse’ – found 93.7 per cent of match officials they interviewed said they have experienced verbal abuse. This is significantly higher than other sports such as rugby (53.7 per cent).

Sarsfield, who is based in Burnley, believes the FA is trying to combat abuse – but more needs to be done:

“I do think they are trying slowly (to put measures in place to prevent abuse). The FA have just released a mental health aspect and they are promoting that on Facebook.

“We’ve got some really fabulous support groups, there’s one called ‘Ref Support’ which offer an unbelievable service but I do think sometimes the punishment for abuse at grassroots level doesn’t fit the crime.

“I went to an appeal for a manager being sent off for pushing a 14-year-old child and as a support mechanism for this child I wasn’t allowed to speak, so it all had to be the child’s word.

“It wasn’t a child like environment whatsoever, it was very formal, very scary for a 14-year-old to be in that situation.

“The coach in question was found guilty and was given a six-week suspension which coincided with the summer break. “The FA couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy with how it was handled.”