In the latest instalment of our Q&A series with key personnel from the Scottish FA, referee John Beaton talks about the importance of mental health in refereeing during Mental Health Awareness Week.
He speaks about the challenges he’s had to overcome along with special moments in his career so far.
1. Why is mental health so important, especially in refereeing, as they are often a group who are forgotten when the subject is spoken about in football?
Referees are no different to footballers and managers alike. I’ve seen a few managers in the last few weeks speaking about coping with the pressure they are put under and the impact it has on them. Referees are exactly the same. When you start out in refereeing, it isn’t easy, and the Scottish FA do an incredible job in retaining referees. They lose a lot of people in the early stages as the abuse and criticism is too much. They don’t want to keep going and that’s based on their own mental health because they don’t want to put themselves in harms way. They don’t think it’s worth it.
Footballers are part of a team and have a structure in place. Referees are far more isolated and although you have a match officials team at the weekend, during the week it’s a lonely place as you don’t always train together. You are left to get on with it yourself a lot of the time, and that’s not a criticism of the structure, that just comes as part of the role. It can be very difficult.
2. Who does support you, when you need someone to speak to?
All of the referees try and keep each other going. We have a referee match observer for every game. They are a former referee and they’ll give a bit of a debrief which is mostly a positive conversation. Even if things go wrong, there’s always that structure there so you have someone to talk to about it. The head of refereeing is also there for support and we always check in with him.
The difficulties arise when the media and social media comes into play. I just try and keep myself away from that as much as I can but it’s impossible. We’ve all got jobs outside refereeing and when you go into the office on a Monday following a game that could have gone better, it’s tough to deal with and probably the last thing you want to do. Refereeing can be a bit of a lonely place.
3. Are there any specific instances you can point to where you’ve found the pressure and scrutiny tough?
I started refereeing when I was 15 and progressed quickly to amateur football. I was in a situation where I was 19, relatively young, and dealing with adults. That helped me grow up quickly and opened my eyes early on. I’ve never had any problems during a game and always enjoy the 90 minutes.
The aftermath of matches can be difficult and I don’t think you can ever fully appreciate what it’s like to be a top-level referee until you start experiencing challenges that come with the territory. The season just finished was relentless as you were going into massive games week after week and the pressure was enormous.
4. How have you found being a public figure and being recognised outwith football?
It’s only when you referee the big games, you see the fall-out on social media and that’s where it becomes a challenge. All of a sudden, from being able to walk about like everyone else, you’re now someone that people recognise. That can be challenging.
If you make a mistake in a normal job, it will frustrate you and you only have to answer to your boss. If you make a mistake as a referee then you have a lot of people to answer to. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has seen the mistake, and you have to get yourself in a position where you are prepared properly for the next game despite the background noise.
There’s often a perception of referees which isn’t true. For example, Bobby Madden did an interview with the Open Goal podcast recently and so many people have come up to me and said ‘Bobby’s just an ordinary guy’. I wonder what these people expected. During lockdown, I’ve been doing a lot of running on the streets, instead of going to the gym. It’s funny because I’ve yet to go out a run and not be recognised. I’ve never had any issues but people forget that you’re just a normal guy.
5. After a Rangers v Celtic match in 2018, you had a challenging time to go through. What was that experience like and how did you cope with it?
It was a tough time for me and had a massive impact. It was probably a turning point in terms of seeing the scrutiny that we are put under in games like that. The pressure on those games is incredible and it’s such a unique rivalry. It’s about survival for the referees, players and managers. You have to manage your way through those games as best as possible.
The feeling immediately after the match was that it had gone well for us a refereeing team. But clearly the media fallout was such that the perception of my performance had very quickly changed.
I was due to referee Ayr United v Falkirk at the height of the difficult period and I remember speaking to John Fleming, the Head of Refereeing at the time, who said I could have the weekend off. I said no to that offer as I felt it was really important for the younger guys coming through that they saw me fulfilling that appointment. It was important to do the game and show I wasn’t going to lie down to the criticism.
I don’t remember anything about the game at Somerset Park, it was just about getting through the 90 minutes. I was glad I did it.
It was a while before I was back involved with either of the teams, but I took charge of the Aberdeen v Celtic match in April 2019, that saw Celtic clinch the league title. That was a real show of faith from the Scottish FA and a boost for me personally to be appointed to the match and to do well in it.
Before that period in my career, there had been a real separation between my private life and being a referee. All of a sudden, I had a situation where they merged into one. That will never go away now, but like everything in football, things move on and I’ve refereed both Celtic and Rangers multiple times since with no issues.
6. Referees are not immune to mental health issues and being affected by what is shouted at them from the stands or on social media. How important is that message?
The way I see it is that they are not shouting at me as a person, it is just a figure in the middle of the park. I could be wrong about that though. The referee is seen as a person that you can just shout abuse at and we just need to deal with it. To be honest you sign up for that when you become a referee and you expect boos from the crowds at certain times.
I think it’s important the younger referees see that we have to deal with the mental health side of things and set an example for them coming through. They can come and speak to the more experienced ones. I’ve never not had anyone I could speak to. There’s always someone.
You can get really down about things if you’ve made a mistake on the Saturday and then you’re waiting for Sportscene on the Sunday for people to criticise you. I’ve got better with that though and find ways to cope, usually by getting back on the horse and refereeing other games.
7. In what way does refereeing also improve your mental health?
It’s so easy to focus on the negatives and think ‘poor me, people are shouting at me’ but we get an opportunity to go to some of the best stadiums in the world to referee and it’s a brilliant job. I’ve worked in the Nou Camp, Bernabeu and Allianz Arena in front of thousands of people, made good decisions and they’ve all been brilliant experiences. The dream is that no-one speaks about the referee after the 90 minutes and 9/10 that happens. People just remember you for your mistakes.
One of my first high-profile matches was between Kilmarnock v Hibernian in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals, in 2013, and it was my first big game on TV. I think Hibs won 4-2 and Leigh Griffiths scored a hat-trick. I had three massive decisions to make and they were all right. It catapulted my career and I still look back on it as it’s nice to remind yourself of the good moments. People focus on your negatives but for me, it’s good to look at the positives.
8. What’s been the most memorable moment of your career so far?
I was an Additional Assistant Referee with Willie Collum in Barcelona, against Olympiakos a few years ago, which was an incredible experience. During the match I spotted Gerard Piqué scoring a goal with his hand. I shouted to Willie and we decided it was a yellow card but we both then realised he’d already been booked. It suddenly dawned on us that we were going to send off the Barcelona captain in the Nou Camp, which was quite a moment.
At half-time we had Messi and Iniesta saying ‘you’ve made an error’ and Willie turned to me and said ‘you better be right here’. My response was ‘it was no more than 50/50 so we’ll need to look at the replay’. Thankfully it was the right decision and those are the things you look back on. What made it more intense was that days after the game, Pique was the poster boy for the Catalan independence referendum.
It that had been the wrong decision, it would have had a massive impact on my career.
My career is littered with memorable moments so I try to make sure the negative ones don’t outweigh the good times.
9. How are you coping without football?
Because no-one in Britain is playing football right now I’m handling it OK as I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything.
Now the other leagues are starting to get back, I think it’ll be tough watching games knowing you’re not going to be involved just yet.
It’s the first time in my career that I’ve been training during the week without a game at the end of it so that’s been unusual. The plus side is I get to see my kids more and play football at the weekend with my wee boy, which is great. I can’t wait to get back when it’s safe to do so.