With the news that Mark Clattenburg will soon be moving to China and that Howard Webb has been headhunted by MLS to oversee the introduction of video technology it’s clear that referees are the emerging stars of the global game.
Even so I was slightly startled to hear of the formation of an Official Supporters Group dedicated to an individual match official.
The “Red Card Brigade” have announced that they will be following MLS PRO referee Kevin Stott at all of his games this season and a mixture of amusement and inquisitiveness led me to meet the founder of the group, Connor Blanton, at a British themed pub in downtown Los Angeles.
He was easy to spot of course, dressed as he was in his replica yellow MLS officiating jersey and my first question to him was the obvious one.
“Why not?” he laughed taking a sip of Harp lager. “But seriously the game is moving further and further away from the grassroots fans and it just feels as though referees are the last bastion of a culture worth saving”
“They get paid a pittance and get nothing but abuse. They’re the anti-heroes that the game needs”
“But why Stott in particular?”
Blanton shrugged “I saw him officiate a Galaxy game last year and that was it for me. I guess you don’t really choose your favourite referee they choose you”
“So how many are there in this group of supporters?”
“Almost two hundred now. It’s taken off way more than I thought it would. It seems to have really tapped into a need”
“But what will you do at the games?”
“Stand up and sing like any other group of fans. We’ve adapted a good number of traditional football songs to suit our purpose”
“‘Booked in a minute, you’re getting booked in a minute’, ‘All we are saying is send someone off’ and my personal favourite ‘Kevin Stott is magic, he wears a magic hat, he saw some holding in the box and said I’m having that, you may play in yellow or you may play in white, Stotty doesn’t give a shit ‘cos he is always right'”
“Won’t that antagonise the home fans?”
Blanton laughed “I hope so! We’ll be like a constant away presence at every game. It will really add to the atmosphere. And I’m looking forward to Kevin getting a Cascadia derby because then it will be three different supporters groups in the stadium at the same time. We’ve got plans to unveil a TIFO of him sending off a player from both teams. That would be mental!”
“That could lead to trouble though?”
“It’s not that aspect I’m too worried about funnily enough” he said finishing his pint “It’s groups that follow other refs that are the danger. In a preseason friendly we went to watch Portland play Minnesota because Kevin was the fourth official. Problem was that there was a group of ultras there from ‘The Whistle Blowers’ who follow Edvin Jurisevic who was refereeing the game”
“It was all quite friendly banter at first but when Jurisevic missed an obvious penalty call we all starting shouting ‘How clear do you want the foul? How clear do you want the foul?’ and it all kicked off. Honestly, MLS is going to have start thinking about who it pairs up as ref and fourth official or it could get really serious. No way do we want trouble but we’re not going to let Stotty take shit from some other group”
“So there’s other groups? How many?”
“Quite a few. There’s ‘The Geiger Counters’, that’s self evident who they follow, ‘The Crazy Gang’ who follow Baldomero Toledo, ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ for Alan Kelly and ‘The Moby Dicks’ who support Ismail Elfath. There’s others too but they are the main ones at the moment”
I thanked Connor for his time and bid my farewell to him just as he was pulling a red card out of his pocket and waving it vociferously in the direction of a group of drunken youths at the bar.
And as he was being pummeled mercilessly to the ground I couldn’t help but wonder if he and his group weren’t actually on to something. Maybe following a referee is as close as anyone can really get these days to what first drew so many of us to the game?
The sense of camaraderie, the love of an underdog and a sub culture that’s accessible to only a chosen few.
But whatever any of us think about the subject it will certainly be a development worth following in the coming years.