Referee abuse and football go together like toast and marmalade, but the FA are trying to stop it from happening, because it makes matchdays less fun, gives football a bad name, and stops people from signing up to be referees — and you can’t play a competitive game of football without a referee.
In 2019, the FA brought in a ‘sin bin’ to cut down on dissent. Rugby fans know these well. You sit out of the game for ten minutes and then rejoin after you’ve had a long hard think about what you’ve done. It has a bigger impact in football because you’re taking out one of eleven players rather than one of fifteen, but pilots showed that nothing changes behaviour like a strong deterrent. Teams were suddenly regulating themselves as the thought of doing twice the amount of running prompted them to intervene when teammates started mouthing off at the ref.
The FAWNL knew that Leeds United’s visit to Barnsley was going to be a big one on Sunday. The Yorkshire rivals are contending for Division 1 North’s sole promotion spot. A win by the Whites would’ve put them on equal terms, while a home victory would put six points between them. In a twelve-team league with no play-offs or rewards for second place, every game is important; but this was one of the importantest and, with a local derby, you never quite know what you’ll get.
Last month, referee Zeyad Ahmed was running the line in a women’s Championship match between Southampton and Watford. He is part of PGMOL’s Select Group and regularly flags offsides in the second tier of the women’s pyramid. On Sunday, he was a man of experience selected to take charge of a game that was more likely than most to get out of hand.
The ball that Barnsley kicked off with was flatter than it should have been, but fortunately Ahmed wasn’t the only experienced head on the pitch. By two minutes past two, the referee had swapped the ball, as per the recommendation of Leeds United captain Olivia Smart. She’s got a strong track record for giving refs a helping hand, and there was no reason why they couldn’t all work together toward a good game of football.
Maybe the ball incident woke Ahmed up to the duty of interfering. Two minutes later, the mere force of Jess Rousseau skipping over her toes had taken the wind out of Katy Woodcock. It was nice for the ref to check if she was okay, but he waited until Leeds had won the ball back and were on the attack to blow his whistle, after Reds midfielder Nat Watson had opted not to kick the ball out amid cries from her own supporters. Smart was on hand to remind him that it was not a foul and Ahmed dropped the ball into Sarah Danby’s feet to restart play.
Rewatching on repeat and in slow motion, it’s quite hard to see whether Lucy Turner gets the slightest of touches on the ball as she brings down Autumn Housely as she was through on goal in the box, so it makes sense that without the luxury of a replay, the referee didn’t push the big red button. He definitely heard the cries of disbelief, though, and might have been distracted by his own private mental replays of the incident as Smart was challenging Emily Pierrepont for the ball. Seeing a red in a heap and the bench up in arms, Ahmed gave Barnsley a free kick. Smart’s protest was small before she trudged off, leaving Sarah Danby to tell him how fair her challenge had been.
I can’t hear what the ref and the players are saying to each other because the fourth tier of the women’s pyramid haven’t gone full Big Brother with their accountability just yet, but it looked like his dealing with dissent extended to ‘now, now’ and a waving away of complaints rather than an outright refusal or explanation. Few problems disappear when ignored and Leeds’ dissatisfaction only grew.
When Abi Housecroft sprinted after a ball to stop it going over the byline for a goal kick, the reaction of Leeds players tells you it might have been too late, but Ahmed’s assistant called a throw-in. There were eighty minutes left to play, the score was level, and Leeds still had possession but still, they were furious. Injustice is infectious — it clings like a fever and spreads just as fast.
At this point, if I’d ever had the balls to put on a black shirt and black shorts and tell people I’m in charge, I would’ve got the whole gang in a cluster and said, ‘look, lads, I am in charge, whether you like it or not. I might not get it right every second of this game but I’m not gonna stand for any more eye-rolling’.
If nothing else, in those moments, as a player you want your struggle to be acknowledged. Football players are like babies. If you ignore their cries they’ll only cry harder. It’s better to say, ‘no I WON’T meet your needs,’ than pretend you aren’t aware of the needs’ existence.
The club report gave no details, while the LUTV cameras were pointed the other way — but really, the details of some incident or other in the 39th minute are irrelevant. All we need to know is that something happened which caused a few people to shout and the referee to do nothing. The winter sun was hanging low in the sky. It was hard for anyone to see anything. Whatever went down put a fire in Leeds’ belly, but Danielle Whitham was sprinting for nothin’ because Charlotte Stuart had her arms around Laura Bartup’s waist, and it’s not easy playing a match-winning assist when someone’s got their arms around your waist.
The ref blew for a free kick, but Danby had more to say about it. A man on the bench was calling her name cautiously as she marched up to the referee, but this is the moment Ahmed has been trained for. Her explanation looked, if a little close to his face, reasonable. But it was in every part of her body, now, the irritation, and she couldn’t help wanting him to know it.
Ahmed had had enough. No more dissent, he said, pulling out the yellow card which sends Danby to the Bin of Sin. Half-time doesn’t wipe the sin away and she’s still in her big coat on the bench when Barnsley take the lead in the 49th minute. On the LUTV commentary this season, former Whites captain Bridie Hannon has always spoken proudly about United’s response to adversity. ‘We should see a reaction here,’ is her eternal promise.
The problem is, Leeds spent the whole of the first half reacting and it got them nowhere. I’d be too pissed off to bother. The game continued in the same vein — tackles flying in, penalties waved away, indignant cries erupting. Everyone ended the match with both legs intact but, crucially, everybody had stopped complaining.
Losing this game left Leeds six points short of the top spot, but next Sunday they’ve the opportunity to cheer themselves up with the magic of the FA Cup. They’ll fancy their chances away at tier five side West Didsbury & Chorlton Women.
Interim manager Simon Wood is clear on what needs to happen between now and then. “We need to respond in the right way,” he said. “We want to get through to the next round, we need to put some of the wrongs right. We need a positive response where everyone’s pulling in the same direction, and showing what we are as a team — not as individuals.” ⬢