thu 25/07/2024

In the Middle review - the true grit of grassroots referees | reviews, news & interviews

In the Middle review - the true grit of grassroots referees

In the Middle review - the true grit of grassroots referees

Canny football doc addresses a spectrum of social issues

No nonsense: Ann Marie Powell in 'In the Middle'Tull Stories

In the Middle profiles 10 football officials who referee and run the line of lower-league games in south-west London and north-east Surrey. Pondering what drives these apparently sane individuals to do such an onerous job, director-producer Greg Cruttwell's documentary is a vibrant study in diversity and concomitant prejudice that benefits from his light touch.

As a film actor, Cruttwell made his debut as the sexually predatory gym bunny and landlord Jeremy/Sebastian, a correlative to David Thewlis’s Johnny, in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993). Like Leigh, Cruttwell has a powerful radar for unforgettable characters. In the Middle's include the Jamaican immigrant schoolteacher Ann Marie Powell, cabbie and Trans Radio UK founder-presenter Lucy Clark, black home office worker Dele Sotimirin, and retiree and church organist Ron Clarkson. 

Toughness distinguishes Steve Earl – for thirty years a tube train driver – who talks constantly on the pitch and dispenses nuggets of home wisdom off it. Nigel Owen, who doesn’t disclose what his day job is but is filmed in an upmarket restaurant with his wife, dispenses commonplaces. Football for him seems to be a vehicle for his ambition; he's focused on becoming a Football League referee. 

Powell, Sotimirin, and Cassandra McKoy, another black referee, have inevitably experienced racism. More of it has come from spectators than players. Sotimirin (pictured right) admits how degrading it was to be spat at – “I’d rather be punched” – but doesn’t say whether it was a player, coaching staff member, or spectator who was responsible. McKoy “still has the bruise” given to her by an under-16 player who assaulted her. She was clearly traumatised by the incident, “though the FA dealt with it quite well.”

Verbal abuse leaves marks, too. Kian Hill, who referees youth games, recalls being screamed and shouted at by coaches and parents when he refused to give a penalty in the last minute of a cup game. “You feel attacked,” he says.

Elle Kaplitz has faced rote sexism and misogyny when refereeing. She walked out of a men’s charity tournament after being called names and told she belongs in the kitchen. Not much charity there. She was once called “a lesbian” for not giving a foul, and when her decisions annoyed one team she was accused of sleeping with players on the other side.

As a trans woman, onetime goalscoring midfielder Clark (pictured below) says she’s been called “man” and “geezer” by players who’ve tried to aggravate her deliberately, but nothing much fazes her. "There’s only going to be one winner,” she says. “You ain’t going to break me down.”

These are, of course, systemic ills elicited by the passions football arouses at every level. People want their own way, even when there’s no justice in it. When they don’t get it they resort to intimidating behaviour that targets people's differences. It’s one reason why “taking the knee” should be as permanent as changing ends at half time.

Like another veteran referee, Alan “Mouse” Halfacre – who in 45 years “sent no-one off, but I would tell them to fuck off if they swore at me” –  Ron Clarkson died in 2021. The film movingly climaxes with Clarkson being presented with a carriage clock and three framed certificates for officiating at 6,000 games over sixty-odd years. He was in charge when Sutton United beat Tooting & Mitcham United 1-0 in the 1980 Surrey Senior Cup Final, a game, he says proudly, that was witnessed by his mum just before she died.

The passing decades turned “Rocket” Ron into an endearing spindle-shanked linesman who had trouble keeping up with the play. The fiilm shows him eating alone (but appreciatively) in fast-food restaurants and chatting to his budgie in his alarmingly cluttered house. His memory of sending off 12 players and cautioning 48 in one season – which earned him promotion as a class two ref after nine years in class three – tells a different story. (Pictured below: the late Ron Clarkson)

The founder of Balham FC and until this season the club's chairman and manager, Cruttwell teamed with cinematographer-editor Nathan Webber on In the Middle, as he did on The Football Monologues (2021). Integrity aside, strength of character and natural authority are the key qualities they identify in these referees. “Lads tell me they’re scared of my face,” Powell says, not without satisfaction, knowing she commands respect. 

And not just from footballers. A teacher who arrived in the UK in 2015, she finds that boys “refuse education,” so she re-seats her students in a “boy, girl, boy, girl” permutation at the front of the classroom and secures their academic engagement. “Attitudes change when they realize I am with them,” she says, noting that on the last exam round boys did well “because I went all out for them.”

Cruttwell interviewed his subjects when the first Coronavirus wave emptied pitches. “It’s a horror film without the zombies,” said Earl, typically quick with an epigram. 

“Nothing in life is a given. Life is such a fragile thing,” Powell observed. “We should value people. We should cherish people more.” There should be a referee like her living at 10 Downing Street.

Director Greg Cruttwell has a powerful radar for unforgettable characters


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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