What to look out for in the SPFL this weekend

From new faces and milestones to promotion bids and solid defences, here are six things to keep an eye on during the Scottish football weekend.

Following an extended period to recharge the batteries during the winter break, the Scottish football season is back in full swing once again.

There has already been plenty happening – from thrills and spills in the Scottish Cup to transfer dealings galore as managers look to boost their squads before next week’s deadline.

It’s already been a big start to the final weekend of action in January after St Mirren moved 11 points clear at the top of the Championship after beating fellow promotion challengers Dunfermline 2-1 at East End Park on Friday night.

Here are five more things to keep an eye on across the divisions…


Formidable: Rodgers has won 72 of his previous 99 matches in all competitions as Celtic manager since joining in the summer of 2016

Records have been tumbling since Brendan Rodgers arrived at Parkhead and on Saturday the Celtic boss will reach a significant landmark as he takes charge of the champions for the 100th time in a competitive match.

The Northern Irishman will be desperate to mark the milestone with a victory but it promises to be a tough afternoon for the Scottish Premiership leaders against a Hibernian side who have found their feet back in the top-flight upon their return this season.

On his latest return to the East End of Glasgow, Neil Lennon will be desperate to spoil the occasion for his opposite number Rodgers, who has been very complimentary of the former Celtic player and manager this week by claiming he would be a good choice for the next Scotland boss.

Fourth-placed Hibs have already taken points off Celtic twice in the league this season in successive 2-2 draws and ran them close in the League Cup semi-final, so the Hoops will have to be at their best to give their manager a performance and result that he can be proud of as he reaches the century mark.


Impregnable: Hearts fans have seen their side keep eight successive clean sheets – a run which started with a 1-0 home win over Motherwell last month

An intriguing contest is in prospect in Gorgie as Hearts and Motherwell, two of the in-form teams in the division, go head to head.

Both sides are adjacent in the top half of the table – sitting fifth and sixth respectively – and are yet to lose a game or concede a goal so far in 2018.

That could stay the same, of course, should the game end goalless but, the way the teams have been playing of late, a stalemate would be a long shot.

Craig Levein’s Jambos will be marginal favourites given their formidable run of late, as they look to extend their unbeaten league run to 11 games, and the fact they have won their last four home league matches against Motherwell without a conceding a goal.

Stephen Robinson’s Steelmen have begun the new year with back-to-back 2-0 victories at Fir Park and, despite missing some key players, will be confident of extending their good start in their first away trip of 2018 as they look to consolidate their place in the top six.

Winger Danny Amankwaa could make his Hearts debut and Kyle Lafferty is back from suspension, while Motherwell are without Alex Fisher – who drove all the way down to Yeovil on Friday to feature in the Glovers’ FA Cup tie against Manchester United – but Peter Hartley, whose announcement video was akin to that of United’s Alexis Sanchez revelation, is back from suspension having signed permamently from Blackpool this week.


More of the same: The Terrors will hope for a similar outcome to their last home game, when they thrashed bottom-club Brechin City 4-1 at Tannadice on January 2

After St Mirren’s charge at the top continued with a crucial away win at promotion rivals Dunfermline on Friday night, it only served as a further reminder that Dundee United cannot afford any more slip-ups like the disastrous 6-1 defeat at struggling Falkirk recently in the race for promotion in the Championship.

Since that thumping on January 6, the Terrors have responded well by keeping successive clean sheets – including earning a hard-earned point at Dunfermline – in a bid to keep the pressure on St Mirren, who they lost to at the tail end of December.

Next up on Saturday afternoon is a home clash against a Greenock Morton side who sit seventh in the table, so three points at Tannadice is a must in the first of two games in hand on St Mirren as they look to respond to the Buddies’ fine result.

Former Hearts boss Csaba Laszlo has repeatedly emphasised that taking United back to where they feel they belong – in the Scottish Premiership – is his sole focus since replacing Ray McKinnon in November.

If they are to achieve that, even via the play-off route, consistency in all areas will be key between now and the end of the season and games like this weekend’s shouldn’t present any problems.


Magnificent: McCall will be hoping the Somerset Park club can continue their excellent season so far

In Scottish League One, a fascinating battle is being played out at the top of the table in the race for the title between leaders Raith Rovers and second-placed Ayr United.

With just a point separating the sides, the Honest Men – who have played a game more but won the same number of matches (14) as Raith – make the trip to Hampden Park on Saturday to face a Queen’s Park side who are joint bottom of the 10-team pack with just 18 points from 22 games.

Apart from a disappointing home defeat to third-placed Arbroath, Ian McCall’s side have been going well and have the tantalising prospect of a visit from Rangers on the horizon in the Scottish Cup – should the Gers get past Fraserburgh in their re-arranged fourth-round tie.

Ayr managed to get a valuable point against Raith a fortnight ago in their last league outing and, with Gary Locke’s side expected to beat fifth-placed Alloa Athletic away from home elsewhere on Saturday, know they need to get back to winning ways in the league to sustain their excellent pursuit of top spot in what is sure to be an exciting second half of the season.


Doom and gloom: Cowdenbeath has been a welcoming place for visiting teams in the fourth tier this season

Propping up the entire SPFL, it’s been another largely unforgettable season so far for all the wrong reasons for Cowdenbeath.

Rooted to the foot of League Two with just one league win to their name, things are looking bleak for Gary Bollan’s men, who face the prospect of being demoted having avoided a third successive relegation by winning a play-off against Lowland League champions East Kilbride last season.

But, despite having just nine points on the board from 19 games, all hope is not lost just yet, with the gap between themselves and Edinburgh City just six points as it stands and Cowdenbeath have a game in hand on them.

The Fife club, who were playing in the Championship as recently as 2014/15, had lost successive games before last weekend’s game at Stenhousemuir fell foul of the weather so have had extra time to prepare for the visit of seventh-placed Berwick Rangers on Saturday.

Cowdenbeath know they need to start picking up points from somewhere in a collision course for survival which is looking increasingly like it won’t be successful and, if it can be this weekend, they might just give themselves a glimmer of hope in the face of adversity.


The stage is ready: Ross County and Rangers are likely to continue to bed in several new signings when they meet in Dingwall in front of the Sky Sports cameras on Sunday

Keen to make an impression, there is likely to be a number of players still getting used to new team-mates and new surroundings when Rangers travel to Ross County in Sunday’s televised Premiership encounter.

Greg Docherty should make his debut for Graeme Murty’s side at the Global Energy Arena, just two days after the midfielder’s move from top-flight rivals Hamilton Accies.

He became the fifth new arrival in January for the Glasgow giants, following Sean Goss, Jamie Murphy, Jason Cummings and Russell Martin through the gates at Ibrox.

After their Scottish Cup tie at Highland League side Fraserburgh was postponed last weekend, the Gers roared back into action following the winter break with another impressive victory over Aberdeen in midweek – with all four of this month’s acquisitions playing a part.

Despite having to put up with a host of absentees, Murty will be hoping his promising new-look side continues to gel as they seek to maintain some kind of pressure on runaway leaders Celtic, who have an 11-point lead heading into the weekend, by beating bottom-club Ross County.

The Staggies have been one of the busier teams in the transfer market, with Owen Coyle bringing in former Liverpool striker David N’Gog, who he worked with at Bolton, as well as midfielder Greg Tansey on loan from Aberdeen, Inih Effiong from Woking and defender Harry Souttar on loan from Stoke City.

Although Tansey is doubtful with an injury, the trio of Effiong, Souttar and N’Gog look to set to make their home debuts as the Dingwall club – who have been on the road for six of their last nine games – hope to pull off a shock by ending a 10-game winless run back on their own patch against the Old Firm side who seem to be on the rise again.

Opinion: Alexis Sanchez can be the answer for Manchester United

It might have been against lowly opposition in Yeovil Town, but Alexis Sanchez has already shown he can make the ultimate difference for the Reds.

It might have only been against lowly Yeovil Town, but Alexis Sanchez showed on his Manchester United debut just what all the fuss has been about.

The chase to secure his signature went on for months and the discussion over what part he would play in Friday’s Emirates FA Cup fourth-round tie began almost from the moment his eagerly awaited arrival from Arsenal was announced on Monday evening.

The sense of anticipation at Huish Park reached fever pitch once the team news was revealed and Jose Mourinho understood the forward’s desperation to play, even though he has been short of match action recently, by including him in the starting line-up.

It didn’t take long for Alexis to make his mark and he was involved in all the good things United did, taking the game to Yeovil at times and seeing a lot of the ball.

The difficult surface at Huish Park often made the ball bounce awkwardly but the first Chilean to represent the Reds in a competitive match didn’t let that deter him, even if every touch wasn’t totally assured, and his close control was excellent at times.

It wasn’t a vintage performance by him or United, particularly in the first half, as he gave the ball away a few times and was on the receiving end of some heavy tackles – including an absolute cruncher from Yeovil’s Nathan Smith which saw the defender rightly booked.

Focus: All eyes were on the Chilean to see how he would perform on his United debut – and he didn’t disappoint the club’s supporters

Starting out wide on the left, the 29-year-old tried to influence proceedings as best he could and often drifted inside, exuding confidence with every touch and lifting the tempo.

The closest he came to scoring was a drilled low effort which he dragged wide and a free-kick from 25 yards which dipped comfortably into the midriff of Yeovil keeper Artur Krysiak.

A lot has been spoken about the need for United to kill off teams on the counter attack when in control, having failed to do so in many games recently – including the 2-2 draw at Leicester just before Christmas and last weekend’s 1-0 win at Burnley.

Although it was the ninth time this season the Reds have hit four in a match, United have often been profligate in the final third, choosing the wrong option or lacking the final ball and finish.

But Alexis already illustrated the difference he can make by having a hand in the first two of the Reds’ four goals, playing a simple pass through towards attacking spearhead Marcus Rashford who seized upon defensive certainty to score the decisive opener just before half-time before sliding the ball into Ander Herrera who finished off a swift breakaway with a clinical finish to make it 2-0.

In doing so, he showed that he can be the answer to the main problem and is what Mourinho has been looking for to complete the attacking part of his team.

The stage: The 9,500-capacity Huish Park was the setting for one of world football’s most talented players to shine on his first appearance in United’s famous no.7 shirt

Alexis also laid on other opportunities for his new team-mates, who have already spoken about how impressed they have been by how he has quickly settled into life at Old Trafford in his first week.

Mourinho has already spoken about his ability to occupy every attacking position in his team and his versatility, as well as his will to win and lack of frustration even when losing the ball, makes him an all-round player that can be the complete package.

Sanchez in fact lost the ball 31 times but his risk-taking and high-energy display was rewarded and his involvement in the game was key, demanding the ball at every opportunity. He may have only been on the field for 72 minutes before being replaced by Jesse Lingard but the former Barcelona man was the clear Man of the Match and the standout player for United.

It’s still early days, it was only against a struggling League Two club and he knows he can play even better but the signs are already positive and the travelling United fans will have made the long trip home from Somerset convinced that their new no.7 can be the missing piece to the puzzle in a bid to bring the big trophies back to the Theatre of Dreams.

From the humble surroundings of Huish Park, Alexis can look forward to his Premier League debut for the Reds on the grandest of stages as United face Tottenham on Wednesday night at Wembley – a venue at which he boasts a formidable record and scored on his last appearance in last season’s FA Cup final as Arsenal beat Chelsea to lift the trophy.

For Alexis, it was a great start to his United career and things can only get better from here on in. Tougher tests undoubtedly lie ahead but the experienced forward has already shown glimpses of the world-class talent that he is and will relish the challenge to prove that he can be the player to make the ultimate difference.

In the words of BBC pundit Alan Shearer, the Reds have got “one hell of a player” and, on the evidence of his successful three-and-a-half-year stint at Arsenal and his first 70-odd minutes in a United shirt, it’s difficult to disagree.

Lucy Oliver: Education will lead to increase in women referees

Top female official Lucy Oliver believes raising awareness of opportunities within refereeing and football will lead to more women becoming involved in the game.

Lucy Oliver at Sunderland College
Teaching: Lucy has lectured in sports management since 2008 and is currently Sports Development Officer at Sunderland College

LEADING female referee Lucy Oliver feels the number of women involved in refereeing will continue to grow if they are educated about the opportunities available to them.

The 26-year-old also believes that raising awareness of the roles within football as a whole and giving people a chance to take part is the best way forward.

Although women still represent only five per cent of 27,000 referees, female officials are on the rise.

Lucy, who has been refereeing for 12 years, helped run the FA fan zones at girls’ football festivals last year and their success led to more youngsters declaring an interest in taking up the whistle.

“I’ve seen people put their children on courses and say ‘you should do this’ and that referee stays as a referee for one season and then drops out,” she said.

“In the fan zones, girls come to us, get given red and yellow cards and pink whistles, run around and then parents approach the county FAs saying ‘my daughter really enjoyed that’ or ‘my son really enjoyed that, is there an opportunity for a course’.

“They have been unreal, the numbers that took up refereeing after that were really positive with courses put on as a direct result of those fan zones. They are being run again this year.

“It’s things like that for me – it’s about educating there are opportunities out there. You can’t force people to take the opportunities, they have to want to, but it’s going really well.”

Lucy Oliver at Suffolk FA Women recruitment event
Helping hand: Lucy has ran mini taster sessions for girls aged between five and 15 to learn the basics of refereeing with cards and whistles

Lucy is currently a Level 3 referee – one away from becoming a Football League assistant referee – but when she’s not in the middle herself, she is mentoring other aspiring officials as an FA Tutor since 2007.

And the Newcastle-based whistler relishes seeing other referees progress who she has offered advice and guidance to.

“It’s actually created competition for me,” she admitted. “Some people that I have done referees courses for seven or eight years ago are now the same level as me.

“Some might see that as negative competition but I think it’s brilliant. There’s a guy down in Surrey whose course I delivered and I love following him, I love seeing that he’s now a level 3 too and he’s working on the Conference South and Ryman Premier.

“There’s nothing greater than watching people succeed in something you are passionate about as well because you want them to do well.

“People do drop out but refereeing is a bit like Marmite – it’s for you or it’s not for you, there’s no in between. I love seeing people do really well and it’s great to see referees coming through.”

Retaining referees at grassroots level has often proved difficult in years gone by, with officials dropping out amid abuse and harassment.

Lucy works as an ambassador to run a support network called Pink Whistle, which has created magazines to celebrate the successes of women as a minority group within the game.

She is a firm believer that having such a support structure in place to boost the morale of officials can never be understated.

“If you think of a player, you’ve got your teammates. If you think of a coach, you’ve got your players but in refereeing, sometimes you’re at a game on your own,” she said.

“Most county FAs have mentor and coaching schemes and the FA have recently released a new scheme called the Centre of Refereeing Excellences within county FAs and nationally.

“The three coaches I’ve had along the way have been instrumental in keeping me in refereeing. Sometimes you just want to ask a question or I’ll lean on my friends and colleagues after a game.

“It’s really important but it’s a social element – you are part of one refereeing team, but you’re just no all at the same place at the same time on the same day.”

Lucy Oliver career profile (2)

Lucy, who is married to Premier League referee Michael Oliver, comes from a football family and first took up the whistle in 2004 just after her 14th birthday.

“I got involved through my dad who used to run a football team for my brother called Solent United down in Portsmouth,” she explained.

“I went down every Sunday with him and one day they were short of an assistant referee, he asked me if I would run the line and I just so happened that the person refereeing, his dad was one of the FA Tutors, saw me and asked if I wanted to take part in the course.

“I started the course the following Thursday, there wasn’t really any thinking time and there’s been a slope into it ever since. I’ve never looked back.”

Since then, Lucy has enjoyed some memorable experiences, not least representing the FA in Japan and Botswana – something which makes her appreciate the state of the game in England.

She said: “I was really fortunate to have Ian Thompson as my mentor, then Football League referee Andy Davies and most recently at Level 3 with Russell Tiffin who is a Football League assessor.

“I see what they give me and I want to make sure I can give back too because they inspire and motivated me to go up the levels.

“When I refereed in Japan it was amazing. Delivering refereeing education in Botswana, it was a real eye opener.

“We take for granted and sometimes moan about the state of local grassroots facilities but delivering a session on refereeing when you’ve got goats walking across the pitch because there is a shared use of the pitch, it’s madness.”

Female referees for 2015 Women's FA Cup Final
Historic: Amy Fearn (second left) led out a team of all-female officials for the first ever Women’s FA Cup Final at the national stadium last year

Like in 2011, Lucy was the fourth official for the Women’s FA Cup Final – this time at Wembley – and, although she could not pick one career highlight, being awarded her Three Lions badge at the showpiece five years ago is one moment that stands out.

She added: “I get paid to do something I love and it enables me to see some amazing stadiums, visit some countries I never would have, gives me a motivation to keep fit and healthy and I don’t think I can pinpoint one thing.

“My proudest moment was being awarded my Three Lions badge at the Women’s FA Cup Final in 2011 because, aside from a Fifa badge, it’s the biggest national accolade.

“Knowing I’ve got the Three Lions on my chest is probably the same feeling some people get when they represent their country. For me that was a very special moment.”

Lucy has ambitions to one day reach the Football League and Women’s Fifa list but at the moment she is looking to end the campaign strongly and recharge her batteries ahead of next season.

“Everyone’s got dreams and I’ll always work hard and if those dreams become a reality then, you know, you’ll find me somewhere on cloud nine but I can only do my best,” she added.

“It’s one step at a time for me at the moment and I want to focus on finishing this season on a high and take a few weeks out to rest and get over the backlog of games that are ruining my calves at the moment.

“Then it’s fitness testing time again come June so, you know, take a few weeks out, recover, fitness tests and then it’s ready to go again.

“It’s just about making sure that when that first game happens in the first weekend in August this year I’m ready and raring to go.”

Although she doesn’t see herself as a role model, Lucy continues to work tirelessly to set a shining example for young officials and hopes that more women can follow in her footsteps.

Mark Halsey: Video technology is right for referees and football

Former elite referees Mark Halsey and Keith Hackett believe a video replay system is the right way forward for football to assist referees.

Keith Hackett and Mark Halsey at the National Football Museum
Working together: Mark Halsey (left) and Keith Hackett are key forces behind You Are The Ref, a media channel helping everyone involved in football to understand about refereeing

FORMER Premier League referee Mark Halsey believes it’s time for video technology to be introduced into football – but only for the big calls.

The retired whistler, 54, thinks anything that enhances a referee’s decision-making can only be good for the game.

After 14 years in the top-flight, Halsey hung up his whistle in the summer of 2013 – the season before goal-line technology first appeared in the Premier League.

And he feels its success is proof that camera assistance can aid officials at the highest level, where money is the biggest talker.

“We’ve seen how fantastic goal-line technology has been – there’ve been no arguments, complaints or interferences,” said Halsey, from Bolton, Greater Manchester.

“So, for me, anything that helps referees with decision making has to be the right way forward.

“I think it’s such a massive business now, not a sport anymore. If you look next season it’s not a good time to be relegated from the Premier League with the new TV deal.

“As far as technology is concerned, it has to come in now for all the big decisions just like in rugby and cricket particularly.”

LISTEN: Click on the play button below to hear Mark’s thoughts on technology

A number of managers, such as Rotherham’s Neil Warnock and Reading boss Brian McDermott, have expressed their desire to have two appeals per game – one in each half – to challenge contentious refereeing decisions.

But Halsey is an advocate of a fifth official observing screens from afar, in a similar way to the Television Match Official in rugby.

“I think it needs an ex-referee who has been at the top level sitting upstairs or somewhere in the stadium, almost separate from the game, looking at multiple screens to help the referee with decisions when he needs it,” he explained.

“All a referee has to do is when the game stops, if there’s a penalty, offside, red card, a goal that’s been chalked off, then you can look at them straight away.

“There’s an ongoing trial that Fifa have approved so let’s hope it’s successful.”

TIMELINE: The history of match officials

Click on the image below to view the timeline and use the arrow on the right hand side to navigate through the slides

Timeline of the history of match officials

Many people who disapprove of technology argue it will cost in the region of £10 million and potentially disrupt the rhythm of matches.

However, Halsey feels it can be used during natural breaks in play and pointed to the recent incident-packed Premier League game between Chelsea and Tottenham to explain how it could work.

“It’s not going to stop the flow of a game. If you look when there’s a big decision and players are not happy, it takes forever for play to get restarted – up to three or four minutes sometimes,” he said.

“If you look at the hassle Mark Clattenburg had to deal with, within seconds technology could tell us the right decision for all of those incidents.

“If you look at the touchline fracas involving Rose and Willian, Clattenburg could just stop it there, go upstairs, ask the referee whose watching the monitors and say ‘is there any other disciplinary action I need to take on any other player’.

“They would then come back immediately and say Dembele has to be sent off for violent conduct for what he did to Costa. It’s simple – he would be off and play would be restarted.”

Mark Halsey in Premier League action
Familiar face: Halsey refereed 280 Premier League games and was in charge of the 2007 Community Shield and 2008 League Cup Final at Wembley

Hertfordshire-born Halsey officiated many high-profile games during a career spanning 24 years, five of which were spent on the Fifa list of international referees.

And he admitted he would have benefitted massively from referring to technology when in the middle himself.

“Obviously there’s been lots of times when I got decisions wrong and I’d have loved to have gone upstairs and said ‘listen just check this out for me, have I got this right or wrong?’ when the game has stopped and they would come back almost instantly with an answer,” he commented.

“It would’ve been great to have that in place when I was refereeing – I’d have found it very useful.”

Referee Jon Moss testing goal-line technology
Few and far between: Goal-line technology is still only used in the Premier League, Ligue 1, Bundesliga and Serie A among domestic European leagues

Whilst the Premier League still reaps the benefits of Hawk-Eye, goal-line technology is still not present in the Football League or other leagues throughout Europe, such as Spain’s La Liga.

As far as Halsey is concerned, League Two is just as important and he believes, given the amount of money pumped into the game, technology should be rolled out across the other divisions.

“For me, if it comes into the Premier League, then it should come into the Championship, League One and League Two,” he insisted.

“But then how far do you go down because the National League is professional nowadays – why not bring it in for them? There’s enough money in football for goal-line and video technology to be introduced throughout the professional game.”

INTERACTIVE: See what fans think about video technology from the results of our survey by clicking on the image below

Video technology survey results pie chart

Like Halsey, Keith Hackett is a former top-flight and Fifa referee who ‘100 per cent’ supports the introduction of video technology.

A two-year trial is currently being conducted in the Netherlands, who were represented at a conference Hackett chaired in Lisbon last month on the ‘Future of Football’.

During the event, Gijs De Jong, of the Royal Netherlands FA, outlined how the video review system had developed and is used by Dutch referees – which convinced Hackett of its capabilities.

“We’ve known for a long time that referees need all the help they can get with making decisions,” said the 71-year-old, the ex-head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, which controls Premier League officials.

“The presentation was fascinating and only highlighted that it should be introduced without delay. When I refereed there were three cameras in stadiums but there’s over 20 now and it’s impossible for officials to compete with them.”

Keith Hackett in action in April 1986
Roles: Hackett, who refereed the 1981 FA Cup Final, has also been a referees’ assessor and ambassador before becoming You Are The Ref director in 2014

Sheffield-based Hackett, whose 34-year career ended in 1994, thinks we won’t see video replays in the English top-flight until 2020 and criticised Fifa’s reasons for delaying its introduction.

“We have to wait for the trials to be completed but it’s ridiculous that Fifa are waiting to launch it at the 2018 World Cup so it’s used in their tournaments first.

“Therefore we’re going to have to wait another three or four seasons. For me, a fifth official looking at a monitor in a broadcast truck shouldn’t need rigorous testing – it’s the only way.

“I accept it needs to be phased in and there should be no limits to how it’s used but it doesn’t have to be a complicated process. The format, for me, doesn’t matter as long as the right decisions are come to in the end.”

With the International Football Association Board approving trials in Italy from next season, video technology appears to be one step closer but it remains to be seen whether it will drive up refereeing standards that many feel are too inconsistent.

What referees think of video technology

Welsh football club receive Facebook support from grassroots Respect sign

The image of the sign shared by an amateur football club has received over two million views and even caught the eye of a former England cricketer.

Camrose FC Respect sign
Noticing the notice: The sign, which kindly warns visiting teams about their conduct at games, has received over two million views on social media

A PICTURE of a ‘Respect’ sign shared by a Welsh football club to prevent abuse has been seen by millions of people on Facebook.

The image of the sign, designed to give parents a gentle reminder that grassroots football isn’t the World Cup, has captured the imagination with more than 40,000 likes, 3,000 comments and 2.5 million views.

The message was so powerful that it even grabbed the attention of former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan.

Camrose FC Facebook post with sign
Far reaching: The five-step notice has been seen across the UK with Michael Vaughan sharing the image to 322,000 people who follow his Facebook page

Camrose FC, an amateur club in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, has been ‘astounded’ by the response to the sign they position at their pitch entrance – and club secretary Dave Howarth believes it has had a positive effect.

“Our first team manager spoke to someone at a match one day who said they’d seen a sign to keep parents in order so we held a committee meeting and decided to make our own to remind people it’s only a game,” he said.

“When we first uploaded it, everyone commented that it was a good idea and I think it’s had an effect as it adds humour by saying it’s not the World Cup and tells people what grassroots football is all about.

“It’s a relatively new concept but it’s simple and resounds with everyone. We have 20 football teams and everyone is astonished it’s all over the internet and came from us because we’re only a rural club in Wales.

“We haven’t had it up long as we had no junior football over the winter because of flooding so for it to go viral so quickly is even more phenomenal.”

Haughton Green JFC post on Facebook
Going global: Haughton Green JFC’s post featuring the sign received thousands of responses and generated interest from as far as Australia

The image was also shared by Haughton Green Juniors FC in Denton, Greater Manchester, who are looking to install a similar sign themselves next season.

“I spotted someone had shared their Facebook post and I liked the ethics of it because it says it how it is and everybody agrees with it,” said club secretary Vicki Williams.

“You get some parents and coaches who think it’s a Premier League game, shout at their kids and charge up and down the touchline.

“It’s non-competitive yet some people go over the top. There’s a humorous element to the sign but it’s conveying a serious message.

“Referees get some stick too – we may not always respect the decisions but they’re in charge. In our league they’re quite young but it’s a learning curve for them.”

On the up: Alex has officiated several junior cup finals and open age games in seven years as a referee and is currently being assessed for promotion to county level
On the up: Alex has officiated junior cup finals and open age games in seven years as a referee and is currently being assessed for promotion to county level

Another supporter of the sign is junior football referee Alex Byrom, who ‘agrees wholeheartedly’ with its principles and thinks all clubs should have one on display.

“It should be mandatory for every amateur club, no matter what age group,” said the Derbyshire-based official.

“It provides a simple list of rules for everyone involved to follow – I would add to it anyone found to be shouting abuse in a negative manner on or off the pitch shall be removed.”

Alex, who has previously experienced abuse himself, is calling for a better example to be set at professional level to help combat abuse and harassment of referees.

The 20-year-old added: “I think Premier League and Football League referees need to be told to give a red card more often for dissent and similar offences – the more red and yellow cards given the quicker they’ll realise it won’t be tolerated.

“I think more should be done at professional level to make them more aware that they’re role models for kids because they copy them so, if that improves, we might see a significant drop in abuse towards referees from players, coaches and parents.”

According to the FA, 60 per cent of referees experience verbal abuse at least once every two games and over 19 per cent have endured physical abuse.

From his own experiences, Alex feels the level of abuse and harassment has dropped since he first took up the whistle but admits it will always be inevitable.

“At the beginning it was definitely on the rise although over the last two years it’s probably gone down a bit, particularly in open age football,” he said.

“There’s still lots to be done in youth football but it’s going in the right direction with more clubs becoming Charter Standard so respect has to be there.

“But spectators are going to shout for a decision the referee may not see, it’s human nature, so I don’t think you can stop abuse entirely.”

Tammy Snape speaks to Tintwistle team during training
Award-winning: Tammy won the 2014 Community Coach of the Year award and took part in a live FA Cup draw with former Manchester United and Everton defender Phil Neville

Tammy Snape has won several awards as a youth coach but has also experienced the other side having taken a refereeing course.

She has a positive outlook towards referees and thinks the problems they face stem from the sidelines, which creates an intimidating environment for players as well as officials.

“I think the FA’s training now is geared up to respect referees so I don’t believe a lot of the abuse comes from coaches but from parents,” she said.

“They’ve come to watch little Johnny play and don’t understand the rules. They’ve just come to enjoy the game and it can often lead to them becoming very agitated.

“It’s lovely for parents to watch their children but they often get overexcited and shouting can lead to shy children backing off and not wanting to participate.

“It’s the same for referees and I believe parents should be much further away than the Respect barriers allow because they’re too close to the pitch.”

LISTEN:  Click on the play button below to hear Tintwistle Athletic coach Tammy Snape and Glossop Juniors Under 7s manager Jon Matthews discuss where abuse of referees manifests from and how it can be prevented.

Paul Abbott, a senior county referee who has been officiating for nine years, agrees parents can be the main instigators of abuse and it can put people off becoming referees.

“I tend to referee Under 15s and 16s but I’ve seen younger referees who’ve asked me to watch them and, unfortunately the way some people behave, referees who are 15 years old are intimidated by some language,” he said.

“I think a lot of people are put off, particularly at junior age. The Respect campaign hasn’t worked in my eyes because we’re still seeing abuse frequently.

“To prevent it, it must come from managers. They have to knuckle down and tell parents and their players to cut it out because they won’t otherwise.”

The number of referees has risen from 12,000 to 27,000 since 2008 but between 6,000 and 7,000 referees are leaving every year, the FA report.

Laurence Jones, the FA’s Head of League and Club Services, is confident the Respect campaign – launched in 2008 to address unacceptable behaviour – has been successful to an extent but accepts they cannot rest on their laurels.

He said: “We don’t want incidents of abuse in football – there’s no place for it. To put it in context, there’s around 1.2 million fixtures that come under the FA’s jurisdiction.

“The number of extreme incidents is very minimal, less than one per cent, which is a significant drop since the Respect programme so it’s clearly working.

“But let’s work on the basis one is not acceptable so there’s no room for complacency and the FA remains vigilant.

“There has to be a constant review of how we support clubs and leagues because they’re ran by fantastic volunteers and there shouldn’t be an unacceptable environment for young people.”

Despite the increased uptake, 20 per cent of grassroots games are still played without a qualified referee – and, although positive steps are being taken to reduce abuse, retaining officials is proving harder than ever.

Vote in our poll to have your say on your own experiences of grassroots football:

Lucy Oliver: Premier League will see a future female referee

Leading female referee Lucy Oliver believes the perception of women officiating in the men’s game is different to the reality and we will see a female Premier League referee in the future.

Lucy Oliver at Sunderland College
Support: Lucy has mentored aspiring referees as an FA Tutor for almost a decade and lectured in sports management since 2008

TOP female referee Lucy Oliver believes there will be a woman refereeing in the Premier League one day.

But she is convinced it will only happen when someone is good enough.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll see one,” the Newcastle-based official insisted.

“Sian Massey-Ellis has assisted in the Premier League for some years now so it can be achieved.

“We’ve got some fantastic girls coming through. There’s competition out there so, to be one of 16 or 17 operating on the elite league, it’s not something that’s going to be achieved overnight.

“When? You know, when they meet the fitness, laws of the game and the assessment requirements.”

Lucy Oliver career profile (2)

The sight of female officials at a football match is increasingly common yet still raises eyebrows, particularly in the men’s game where many think they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Lucy currently runs the line in the National League North after being promoted to Level 3 last season – two away from officiating at elite level.

But the 26-year-old, who has been refereeing for 12 years, thinks people’s perception of officiating male football as a woman is far different from the reality.

“For me, as far as the players are concerned, my reality has always been that they don’t care if I’m fat, thin, tall, short, male or female, they want someone that’s going to referee games to the best of their abilities,” she said.

“As soon as you blow that whistle you are not ‘she’ or ‘he’ you are ‘ref’. That’s just the role you fit within and it’s what you’ve got to do.”

LISTEN: Click on the play button below to hear Lucy’s thoughts on her media consumption

The talking point of women taking charge of men’s matches at a professional level has received more attention in recent times – ever since a high-profile sexism scandal erupted in 2011.

Sian Massey-Ellis was caught up in the middle of a media storm after Sky Sports pundits Richard Keys and Andy Gray were sacked for claiming she didn’t know the offside rule.

Lucy was a victim of discrimination herself in 2014 after being told by Northumberland County FA’s vice-president John Cummings, who was subsequently dismissed, that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’.

However, she firmly believes it doesn’t matter as a match official should be judged on their ability – not their gender.

“I think the fitness and laws of the game tests and promotion criteria are there for a reason,” said Lucy, who has been married to Premier League whistler Michael Oliver for a year.

“If you’re good enough and meet the criteria then you should do it. If you don’t meet the criteria for whatever reason then no you shouldn’t [officiate in the men’s game].

“If you’re not up to scratch then they will remove you from lists, so I think all the time you meet those requirements, I don’t think there’s a debate to be had.”

Despite the aforementioned incidents, the profile of female refereeing is growing all the time.

It reached a high point a year ago when Amy Fearn led a team of women officials for the first Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley, where Lucy will end her season as fourth official for this year’s showpiece on May 14.

But across the sporting world, it appears stereotypical attitudes towards females still exist, with controversial comments recently by Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone that women drivers would ‘not be taken seriously’ adding fuel to the fire.

LISTEN: Click on the play button below to hear Lucy’s thoughts on her first men’s game

Lucy, nevertheless, feels the current state of football is ‘in a positive place’ and only people themselves can alter their outlook of female officials.

“When you look at the growth of the women’s game and the Women’s Super League, the numbers of females and males participating in the game, everything’s doing really well. People won’t like a referee for X, Y or Z – you can’t control that,” she said.

“People will always have perceptions – it’s not up to us to change that. They need to want to change that themselves. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that needs world domination.”

The Football Association’s ‘fan zones’ at girls’ football festivals last year proved a massive hit with refereeing courses held as a direct result of hundreds of females aged 14 and above declaring an interest in refereeing – notably in the North East, where Lucy is based.

But the national uptake remains low, with women currently representing only five per cent of 26,000 referees registered with the FA.

Lucy Oliver at Suffolk FA Women's Recruitment Event
Helping hand: Lucy runs mini taster sessions for young girls to learn the basics of refereeing, using red cards and pink whistles

Lucy carried out ‘a fascinating project’ about the number of women referees for her Masters dissertation and is confident the landscape is becoming more of a level playing field with men.

“I think the number of women referees will continue to grow,” she suggested.

“I think a lot of it is about understanding the opportunities out there, not just for males but for females too, and understanding that if you want to be involved in football you don’t just have to play or coach – you can referee, there are media, medical and administration roles among others.”

Even though she referees at least one game every week throughout a typical season, Lucy believes there is always something to learn from every match and no such thing is perfection.

She said: “I guess it varies per person but I’ll always watch the highlights of the northern league and Evo-Stik teams I referee on Twitter because there’s stuff there I can learn about.

“I like going to watch non-league football because it’s relevant to me. It wouldn’t be worthwhile for me to try to learn how to referee a Football League game or how to learn a Premier League game because I’m not at that level.

“I think you get out what you put in but I don’t think there is such a thing as the perfect referee. I don’t think there’s such a thing as the perfect player either.”

Lucy Oliver pull quote

There are only five female Football League officials on the list of 345 referees and assistants this season but, although Lucy harbours ambitions to join them, she is keeping her feet firmly on the ground.

“Everyone’s got dreams. I’ll always work hard and if those dreams become a reality then you’ll find me somewhere on cloud nine but I can only do my best and it’s one step at a time for me at the moment,” she added.

Although she doesn’t see herself as a role model, Lucy continues to work tirelessly to set a shining example for young male and female officials to overcome fear and act as a reminder that gender is not a barrier to progress in refereeing.

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