In the world of football, the way referees are treated is a hot topic of conversation. This month Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic has been charged by the FA after he appeared to push referee Chris Kavanagh during an FA Cup match; a heavy punishment seems likely, with The Referee’s Association asking what influence this will have on non-league and ‘grassroots’ matches.
With that in mind, British documentary In The Middle is aptly timed. It follows several Non-League, Sunday League, and youth level referees in the English game, talking to refs from a variety of racial and gender backgrounds, who discuss why they love a role in which abuse is as common as free kicks.
It’s an interesting cross section – the most involved seem to be older men, who thrive on the responsibility and “banter”. There’s also some interesting input from referees like Anne Marie, a stern language teacher from Jamaica, and Lucy, a transgender woman persevering with her passion despite prejudice.
It’s essentially a pleasant montage of anecdotes from enthusiastic amateurs. Some, like 76-year-old church organist Ron, are charming, and there are sweet moments such as Lucy explaining the meaning behind her pink referee’s whistle.
Production was clearly interrupted by Covid, and at times the frayed ends of a bigger project are visible. It’s also crying out for at least one example from the professional leagues, to show how the pressure mounts further up the ladder.
Nevertheless, In The Middle is a swift and affectionate look at a thankless job. There may be no definitive answer as to why these people do what they do, but over the course of about an hour you’re left in no doubt about their conviction.