What’s inside a referee’s kitbag? If I Hadn’t Seen Such Riches has asked me, a humble referee in Frankfurt’s dog-end amateur and youth leagues, to reveal all, intrigued by the enormity of what they’ve seen being carried in and out of the match officials’ changing room at Wadham Lodge. After all, we only need a whistle, two socks, a pair of shorts and a shirt, right? And a pair of specs, ha ha.
I could claim that it’s a trade secret and refuse to answer this question, just as magicians won’t reveal how they fox us with optical illusions for fear of being ostracised by their fellow professionals. But referees are no magicians. In general, we are much less interesting than that.
We are conformist, Law-abiding, anal retentives. And that is why we carry more than just a whistle, some black cladding, and a spare visual aid.
Let me first tell you about the recurring dreams that I have as a referee. Often they revolve around me being late for a game, not being able to find a pitch and, worst of all, showing up for the game without a whistle.
A ref without a whistle is like a church without its bells.
It’s our means to cry for attention. In spite of the old adage that the best referee is the one you don’t notice, we want to be a part of the action just as much as any player out on the field. A quiet match with no bookings or controversial outside calls? Yeah, lovely. But bloody boring.
So I have six whistles in my kit bag. Just in case. Just in case of what? It’s not like they have batteries that will run out. They don’t even have peas in them any more that might accidentally get blown out and lost in the mud when I vigorously call back play for an ankle-tap.
Whistles simply never stop working, unless you feed one through a shredder or swallow them whole (or have one rammed down your throat by a hulking centre-back called Harry. It’s always Harry). So, I have no rational answer. Blame it on the dreams.
Or, maybe, it’s possible that I will lose five of them on the way to the game – a hole opens unnoticed in the bottom of my sports bag and they drop out. Perhaps a whistle-collecting obsessive will rob me at gunpoint as I cycle to the ground. It could happen.
Six whistles. They’re in there merely for the sake of my own security and comfort. Two of them are tucked into my boots, the other four in my folder. I look at them as a new mother looks at her sleeping sextuplets.
Alright, you’re saying, you’ve got half a dozen bloody whistles, you weirdo. But even six Acme Thunderers don’t take up that much space. What else have you got?
Well, the whistles are symptomatic of the problem. If I take six whistles when only one is necessary, how do you think I pack the rest of my kit? I used to take two jerseys, one blue and one green. And then I turned up to ref a game when the teams were playing in – you’ve doubtless guessed it – blue and green.
How did I not foresee that happening? I had to borrow a shirt from the home club, and it didn’t feel right. Worse still, I imagined them talking about it in the club house afterwards. “Bloody ref, couldn’t even get his kit right, let alone implement the 17 Laws of the Game.” And they would have been quite right to do so.
So now I take three jerseys, two pairs of shorts, and three pairs of socks. I like black socks the best, but I might have yellow, red or blue socks along too. I have yet to meet a team playing in black socks who’ve asked me to change because they are worried they are going to unintentionally pass me the ball.
I’m usually about 20-30 years older than most of the players, so the chances of them thinking that this balding, grey-haired, knobbly-kneed old fart could actually be participating in the game is not a serious concern. Still, if one team has black socks, I’ll change. Interpretation: I am an amateur trying to fool myself that I’m a pro. Isn’t that central to the whole experience of grassroots football?
Let me add some other items. Under-shirts, because it can get cold, sometimes as many as three. A towel and toiletries for taking a shower afterwards. Now, I cycle to most games so I don’t usually bother with a shower until I get home.
But I still have a towel along, because if I’m sweating after my warm-up then I want to wipe down before I put on my pristine, dry referee’s shirt. I do like to look well-groomed when I walk out on to the pitch, and I don’t much care if some players are muttering behind their hands, “Bloody hell, does this wanker think he’s in the Premier League or something?” In fact, all the better if they do. I can give them the Michael Oliver Manic Stare.
Also: water bottle; glucose tablets; several sets of red and yellow cards; notebook, pencil and game cards, plus several spare pencils, plus a marker pen in case it rains and your game card is too soggy to write on; that little plastic thing to measure ball pressure; a number of coins for the coin toss; a roll of Elastoplast with a small pair of scissors; pain-killers; expenses chit; a spare pair of boots; three watches (though I wrap one around each wrist before I leave the house – the third is a spare just in case); two flags for the hopeless club ARs; a baseball cap in case it’s really sunny; a woollen cap in case it’s really, really cold (though I prefer to go without if I can stand it); gloves for the same reason (though they make it awkward to take notes); spare contact lenses; contact lens fluid; and spare hearing aid batteries, although I’ve discovered that most football players, rather than gently pointing out, “Excuse me kind sir, but I do not believe that I just committed a foul and that perhaps, may I suggest, your judgment was in this instance marginally erroneous”, will communicate instead via outraged screaming, so my hearing aids are not really essential match day wear.
These days I take an iPad too. In Germany we’re obliged to file a game report within an hour of the final whistle, and as the club computers are usually down, disconnected or utterly dysfunctional (like many of the clubs who own them), I’ve taken out a €9 per month data plan to make my life easier and get the damned thing written and dispatched as soon as I’m back in the changing room, provided that angry coaches or players are not hammering on the door because of that throw-in I gave the wrong way in the 64th. minute. I mean, how did I not see that?
That’s it. No great or sordid revelations. It’s mere accumulation due to the borderline obsessiveness that comes with being the kind of person that can cite at length Law 14, Clause 2. Most of it’s unnecessary, but it gives me peace of mind before I step out at the halfway line and start another afternoon of making a whole new series of unbelievable and atrocious decisions.
Ian Plenderleith’s latest book is The Quiet Fan, published by Unbound. He has also written a history and analysis of the North American Soccer League, Rock n Roll Soccer (Icon Books), and a book of football-based fiction, For Whom the Ball Rolls (Orion). He writes a game-by-game blog, Referee Tales (refereetales.blogspot.de), offloading about his experiences alone out there in the middle of the park.