It is hard to think of a tougher hobby – psychologically – than refereeing football. In The Middle spends time with a group of referees operating anywhere between the Sunday leagues (purely recreational amateur football) and the National League (the fifth tier of the professional game; The Premier League being the first). Former actor Greg Cruttwell has directed this work covering around ten individuals of hugely different ages and backgrounds, some of them operating professionally, others purely for fun.
Most of the featured officials operate in the South and South-East of England. Steve Earl is an older referee, perhaps in his sixties at this point. We see him working in everything from small stadia – perhaps around tier ten – to open parks, where he may have to interrupt a game to pick up dog mess from the playing surface. We follow Steve possibly more than any of the other officials. He loves only football, holding no interest in other sports, and he is immediately amusing, telling everyone who will listen about weather conditions on his recent foreign holidays. He anchors the first section of the film, which seems to be chiefly about why they do it and the standards they look to uphold.
Dele Soltimirin (the National League referee), Ann Marie Powell (an immigrant who came here from the Caribbean to teach) and Lucy Clark (a trans woman, who has worked at a decent level of the game, both pre and post coming out) lead the heart of the film’s theme: the personality type required to flourish at this hobby. Dele is Black, and talks of the abuse he takes about his ethnicity – as well as his officiating more widely – in terms that suggest he accepts such things as a part of life. Ann Marie speaks in similar terms, also having the dimension of refereeing on a Sunday when her faith prohibits it, leading to issues with her immediate family.
Lucy is operating in a male dominated game, where female referees take abuse as it is, and the fact that she is known to be trans makes it even tougher. The terms in which she talks about those abusing her being those who have already lost speaks to the film as a whole. We are meeting people that simply overcome. Many of our officials did not make it as footballers, such as Lucy (who also overcame a number of heart attacks traced to a thyroid issue). At least two of our refs will be turned down for promotion to the next level during the course of the film, and we hear some of the abuse taken during games, as passions overflow, and often decent seeming people say some quite over the top things to people without whom the grassroots game could not function.
READ MORE: Resident Evil 4 Remake – Game Review
The heart of the film is probably ‘Rocket’ Ron Clarkson. We meet Ron working as a linesman near his home of Kingston, Surrey. Ron is nearly seventy-six when we meet him, and he looks – arguably – older. He is simply the kindest person you could wish to meet, but his story is sad, mainly in the details we do not see. There is no sign of a partner in life, he seems to go everywhere alone, be that a takeaway or his church, where he plays the organ.
He home is shared only with a budgerigar, and he we see him in a living space that can only be described as overstuffed – the man is a hoarder, to say the least. There is a sadness and a joy to Ron, a sadness, as he knows he will not be able to officiate matches for much longer – the very fact he can still run the line is something of a miracle – and a sadness as we can see that apart from playing the organ (and the church’s organist is about to return from sickness) there really is not much else in his life. He is coming up on sixty years working in the game.
Lucy has so much outside of the game: she runs an extermination business, drives a taxi, and runs a radio station with over 10,000 listeners a week, yet she pushed herself through countless heart attacks and a welter of personal abuse to continue working in the game she loves. For context, we see Steve go to the cinema to see what he describes as a Daniel Craig detective film, and soon after the game goes into lockdown, that tells us that he was seeing Knives Out, and we are at the outset of the pandemic.
To see how lost many of our referees are without the game, despite often having other hobbies, families and full lives is also bittersweet. To see such passion, particularly amongst a group vilified routinely is lovely, but it feels close to an obsession for some of them. As they travel so far for little money and so much abuse makes it very much the gift that keeps on taking. We leave the film with Ron getting an award for his sixty years in the game, and our referees returning to the game as matches restart post-lockdown.
At around 67 minutes, In The Middle may have played better as one episode of a wider look at grassroots football, as we see little of the people in whose service our subjects work – even the suggestion that anyone at all is grateful for their efforts would have been nice. It is an engaging look at an underappreciated hobby and profession, however, and one that not only does not outstay its welcome but gives a great deal of insight into the qualities of people that are often given too little respect.
In The Middle is out in cinemas on 31st March.