In the second part of our Q&A with three leading Maccabi referees, Jewish News Sports Editor Andrew Sherwood discusses all things Jewish football, with League Referee Secretary Martin Fox, Martin Lavender, who’s refereed in Jewish football for 33 years, and Alex Smith, a relative newcomer who’s officiating in his second season of MSFL football.
JN: Using assistant referees in Jewish football is controversial – some referees use them, some don’t. After all, what are they supposed to rule on?
MF: There are two schools of thought about running a line. I know Martin’s take on it, I’m virtually the same but I like to pick my games – if I’m going to use an assistant referee or not. Sometimes I’d rather do it all myself, if I can see the lines. If you’re talking about offsides, you’re not going to get an honest decision [from players/substitutes] – whether they’re cheating or not. At least half the games I referee I don’t use them. It causes so much more aggravation, he may flag for offside because it’s his team defending, you know it’s not offside but have to then get involved in an argument.
ML: I’m known throughout the league for not using them – ever. Like Martin, I don’t believe players turn up on a Sunday to be told not only they’re on the bench, but they’re also going to run the line. They don’t want to do it.
AS: I occasionally have the luxury of my cousin coming along to some games, he sometimes does the lines. Sometimes you can tell right from the off if they know what they’re doing or not. I haven’t had that much problem with it. If you give them a couple of instructions and show trust in them, they know what they’re doing sometimes. You can overrule them anyway so that is where your power comes in.
JN: What would you say are the biggest challenges you have on the pitch?
ML: Controlling the game. If you can’t control the game, the football pitch is the worst place in the world to be. You have to set your stall out in the first ten minutes. We all want to have a good game, but it’s all about gaining control. If you can’t you may as well walk off, once you’ve lost it, players will absolutely destroy you.
MF: It’s a fear of making a bad decision early on. Even a simple decision, if you give a throw the wrong way, you can lose that respect, they’re looking for the slightest thing to jump on you.
AS: Sometimes you can see from a mile off that someone’s going to be trouble and it’s how you manage it. To be able to control a situation is important. It’s very easy to lose control because sometimes it can be very overpowering.
JN: What are your views on the future of Jewish football?
ML: What I hope and what I think are two things. I hope it will still be there, our community needs it, it’s a wonderful thing. We are very lucky with our chairman David Wolff. But when I was referee secretary there were 64 teams, now it’s 41. I think a lot of people within our community are getting fed up of playing. But I think the league is now at the right amount of teams and that there will always be a call for Jewish football.
MF: There are also fewer teams because of other distractions. We all support London teams, boys can’t do both, they either play or go to the game. Some are also married, have young families, it’s one or the other and I think 11-a-side football will lose.
AS: Some teams still use it as a way of identifying themselves. There are teams who come down from Manchester and Leeds, and those teams will still remain as the main core, but others will struggle. Some of the new teams are good, but I don’t think they have the staying power.
ML: I don’t know what the future holds, but my hope is that there will always be a Jewish League. I think it would be an absolute travesty if David’s 60-odd years of hard work just goes, I hope that never happens.
AS: I hope to be refereeing in this league for the next ten years but it’s changing attitudes in general – not just Jewish football. It’s not just us getting smaller, but everyone is. I think other commitments will come ahead of Sunday league football, it’s fantastic that Jewish players can have this environment to play football in and at the end of the day most of them are friends, never mind just Jewish.
JN: Is it right that we can still operate a League for just Jewish players?
MF: David is fighting to keep us going as an all-Jewish league, I think he has a battle on his hands to maintain it. He does a fantastic job and is getting all the right answers he wants from the FA now. But I think it’s very hard to keep it going and in ten years’ time it may be different. I think up until a year or two ago, there’s no problem but now non-Jewish kids for instance are going to Jewish schools, so why not football? And it would finish us.
ML: I agree 100 percent. The minute we go away from a Jewish league, that’s it.
JN: One of the main talking points this season is the re-formatting of the Peter Morrison Cup. What’s your opinion on the rule change?
MF: I understand the logic of it. They wanted to revamp it, to get a bit more excitement into it, but it’s backfired big time. I think it might revert back next season, we will have to wait and see.
ML: One of the managers made the point in saying, ‘it’s a second or third round game, you’re asking all my players to schlep up to Leeds or Manchester, a game that effectively doesn’t mean much to them.’ If I was playing now, there’d be nothing there, no incentive, for me to travel that distance to play a third round game. They say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and I think they’ve broken it quite badly.’
AS: My brother had to go to Manchester for one of these games, but he couldn’t get a team together
MF: What you’ve got to remember is it’s much more of an event for the northern sides to come down here, we don’t want to go up to Manchester and that’s the truth. There’s only a few Jewish teams up there and it’s more of a novelty for them to come down here, they love it.
JN: Did you give referees grief during your playing days?
MF: I think the best referees are the ones who played in the league. You understand when there’s a foul, you understand when someone’s trying to take the mickey out of you. I’d throw my toys out of the pram if I got dropped, but I only ever got booked once for having the wrong studs on – a technical call.
AS: I remember when I was about 15, I should have got a blatant penalty which would have won the game, it was possibly the only time I shouted back at the referee. I called him a bottle job or a bottler, that was as bad as it got for me. I’d absolutely hate it if I ever got called that.
JN: Are there enough referees in the league? Is there a good standard of refereeing?
MF: I’ve got more referees than I‘ve got games. Last season I had 24 games, now on average it’s 18. I lost a couple of referees over the summer because of dissent, senior ones which I didn’t want to lose – they said ‘I’m not standing for it’. The only reason we’ve managed is because there are less teams.
ML: I think the standard, although it’s not Martin’s fault, in our league is not great in fairness. Being honest, there are, and I had it [as referee secretary], deadwood. I was talking to someone the other day, and as a referee secretary, I was very fortunate, I had real top referees, a real hardcore who you just did not mess with.
MF: You talk about deadwood, I talk to all of them, tell them about man management and I think I’ve improved some referees over the years. I would like to have a few more for the top games, but then again we also don’t have so many top games any more. I’m also a firm believer that everyone pays their money and deserves a good referee. The only unfortunate thing is that, like the professional game, there are some who can’t officiate the bigger games.
ML: Or think that they can – and that’s their problem, and for Martin.
MF: Referees have a different perception of their own abilities and that’s a problem, they don’t know their own ability. There are some referees who I can’t give a bigger game too because they simply haven’t got it.
ML: There are some lower division clubs whose football may not be great, but they are problematic, and you need to send them a ‘big’ referee to sort them out.
MF: I don’t just select a referee’s name out of a hat, I do think who I’m giving to who, I make considerations.