Referee 'never anything like it' after recording Sunday League fight with bodycam

Bodycams could become a regular fixture at football games if a new trial by the FA is successful

A referee has claimed he's "never anything like that in 15 years" after recording a football pitch fight with his trial body camera.

Cameras have been introduced following a rise in abuse of grassroots football match officials and are currently being used at four county Football Associations in England.

Rhys Battye filmed a fight between two Sunday League teams that led to the match being abandoned.

After filming the fight he was followed to his car by some of the players and threatened.

He told ITV News: "I've never anything like that in 15 years."

Battye said: "The abuse that officials out on the pitch receive is disgusting, referees being threatened week by week, again is disgusting, and it's just getting worse."

Wood wears a bodycam at a Redcar CF-The Southern Cross FC match in Middlesbrough. Credit: PA

How bad is it for referees?

Data obtained by ITV News reveals that police were called to an incident in which a referee had been abused 64 times in 2022.

This suggests that a referee somewhere in the UK felt threatened enough to call police more than once a week last year.

That's based on responses from 27 police forces in the UK out of 46, meaning the true figure is likely far higher.

Based on the responses, the most incidents were recorded in Manchester, with 8 calls to police.

In one of the more shocking reports, North Wales Police recorded a referee at a children's football match assaulted and thrown to the ground by one of the parents.

An off-duty police officer there at the time helped the referee back to his car.

A BBC survey in February found 293 officials had been physically abused by spectators, players, coaches or managers out of 927 Referees’ Association members who responded to a survey.

The figure who had experienced verbal abuse was much higher – 908 out of 927.

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The trial hopes to combat the growing sense of danger and will run for the rest of this season and the whole of next season in the adult grassroots game.

The camera does not record footage of an entire match. Instead, the referee can activate it at the click of a button, should they feel it necessary.

It records footage from the referee’s perspective, and is also able to film the 30 seconds prior to the kit's activation.

Referees have reported seeing an immediate drop in violent incidents since they began wearing the cameras.

“It’s changed behaviour, 100 per cent,” referee Sophie Wood said at half-time of her match between Redcar CF and Southern Cross in the Manjaros Langbaurgh Football League Division One on Sunday.

“My view on the cameras is that it’s there as a deterrent, and that’s definitely what I have found it to be doing so far.

“It’s then obviously the safety element – if you do feel your safety is in danger, then that’s when you’re going to activate the camera. I’m seeing a lot of much friendlier players, day to day!”

Approximately 100 referees are expected to wear the cameras within the first three months of the trial.

Referee Oliver Cairney tried out a bodycam during a trial at a North Riding County FA match. Credit: PA

Wood said she felt “lucky” not to have been on the receiving end of significant abuse in her nine-year refereeing career.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt my safety has been endangered,” she said. “But I know that some of the referees in the county have had that.

"Obviously with the increase of videos being shared on social media we know that week in, week out, referees’ safety is being compromised at grassroots football.

“I definitely think, post-Covid, players’ behaviour does seem to have declined slightly from what I’ve seen first hand, but I definitely think the rollout of this technology will help control that.”

Wood said players had been curious about the cameras in the three matches she has used it in to date.

“There was maybe a bit of an assumption that it will be filming for the whole game initially,” she said.

“Once it’s been explained, they have all taken to it quite well and have been excited to be part of the trial.

“I’ve made it very clear to the captains at the beginning: ‘This is the sort of thing I will be looking to deploy the camera for. Please just take care of your players as you would if the camera wasn’t here’.”

Referee Mohammed Ghafoor using a bodycam at North Riding County FA, Middlesbrough Credit: PA

Mohammed Ghafoor, a referee for the North Riding County FA, said: “You don’t even have to point to the camera. You don’t even have to mention the camera.

“People’s behaviour has just changed. It’s fantastic to be in the middle of the pitch and to actually officiate again.”

Daniel Meeson, the head of technical and referee development in the FA’s referees department, said the trial was key in efforts to improve participant behaviour and assist in the recruitment and retention of referees.

“The feedback has generally been very, very positive,” he said.“We’ve not had any activations yet, which is encouraging in itself.”

Referees choose when to switch on the bodycam recording function during a match. Credit: PA

Meeson said the FA is also looking at stronger sanctions, including the possibility of points deductions for persistent offenders and their clubs.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that 99.9 per cent of games are played up and down this country every single weekend that go without incidents, but one incident is still too much,” he said.

“That’s why we’re exploring the use of body cameras and other areas. (Abuse of officials) is not having a detrimental effect on recruitment so far.

“We have 29,000 referees in this country. Of course, we want to grow that, we want to add to it.

“We also want to make sure that we’re retaining referees, and if you are a referee that does encounter sadly a bad experience or a negative encounter in your refereeing, we’re working really hard with them to make sure that we don’t lose them and we retain them within the referee community.”