Open Letter Sept 2021

Open Letter

SUFFOLK FA Chief Executive Richard Neal has written an Open Letter.

Dear Suffolk Football Community,

Having two disrupted seasons behind us, we are now a few weeks into what we all hope will be the first season without significant disruption since 2018/19. But there’s no hiding that even getting the 2021/22 season started continues to prove to be incredibly difficult for all involved in the game. It is regarding some of these difficulties that I write this open letter to the Suffolk football community.

Clubs and leagues should have received a number of communications over the summer regarding the Player Registration system and the problems faced when using the new system. It’s no secret that this process, which should be bread-and-butter, has caused immeasurable stress and angst for everyone involved. I know of volunteer club secretaries feeling the need to set an alarm to wake up at absurd hours of the day/night, in the hope the system will work when usage should be reduced. I know of league officials having enquiry tickets unanswered for weeks without resolution. And I know of CFA staff members who have been bought to tears by the sheer volume of issues and frustration that we at County FA’s have had very limited ability to help with a system which is centrally administered. For my part, I am proud of the way the Suffolk FA team, particularly Darryn, Phil, and Melissa, have and continue to do our upmost to assist as much possible but there’s no hiding the fact that the number of issues faced when using the system has made the registration of players for this season shambolic. As a proxy-representative of The FA, I can only offer my most sincere apologies, gratitude for the persistence and resilience of those having to use the system, and reassurance that colleagues at The FA are doing their very best to ensure this situation isn’t repeated again – although I appreciate these may be hollow words until improvements are evident. I accept even then the scars will take a long time to heal.

Once we did manage to register players and begin league campaigns it quickly became evident across the country that player availability was going to be an issue, one which some clubs were going to struggle with even more than others. Indeed, with great sadness, we have seen teams and clubs fold over the first few weeks of the season – more than we would usually expect – and the majority cite player availability as a key reason. We did forecast risks with player availability coming out of the pandemic, with fitness, finance, holidays, continued Covid-19 cases, other personal interests, getting out of the weekly habit, and having to work amongst the reason’s player availability could be reduced. We tried to mitigate some of the risks by returning to playing once lockdown had ended in April 2021 and reducing affiliation fees for the 2021/22 for a second season, as have leagues and clubs, but still player availability is proving very difficult with average squad sizes anecdotally needing to be even higher than previous seasons.

A similar mosaic of challenges is being experienced within refereeing, again replicated in neighbouring counties and across the whole country. In adult football, this is meaning some Suffolk & Ipswich League Senior Division matches are being played without appointed assistant referees, and some leagues affiliated to other CFAs within which Suffolk teams play are having no appointed official at all. In youth football an increased number of matches are being played without an appointed official.

To illuminate the impact on our and leagues’ ability to appoint officials, the table below identifies coverage statistics across the Suffolk Youth League, Ipswich & Suffolk Youth League, and Suffolk Girls’ and Women’s League for the past five seasons as part of the Suffolk FA Referee Appointments Service:




SGWFL (youth)

SGWFL (open age)


YTD 30th September





Season Average






YTD 30th September





Season Average






YTD 30th September





Season Average






YTD 30th September





Season Average






YTD 30th September






This season’s year-to-date coverage is lower than last season, significantly so on Saturdays, exemplifying how coverage is suffering as a result of the challenges we face even if the general trend is that coverage improves as the season progresses.

So what are the challenges? The pandemic has undoubtedly had an effect but isn’t all to blame!

There are always referees who decide not to re-register each season. In a normal season we can expect a season-to-season retention rate of 75%-85%, but in normal circumstances that seasonal shortfall is filled through recruitment of new referees. For this season retention is slightly lower than usual at present, but not exceptionally so at 73%. The challenge comes when we’ve had two re-registration periods between March 2020 (the first lockdown) and the start of this season without being able to hold new referee courses until this Summer. Four courses have now been held in Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket, Ipswich, and Lowestoft, yielding 48 new referees who are already embarking on their journeys, but clearly this is not enough to make up for the drop-off. However, it is not as simple as holding more courses and expecting people to referee without support and guidance. Appropriate mentorship is an important factor in the early career of any new referee, and it would be a false economy if we attempted to hold courses without considering this element of the process. More referee courses will be held through the season as the capacity for developer visits allows us to support learners’ first experiences in the game. If you would like to become a referee, please complete the expression of interest form available here and the Referee Department will be in touch in due course.

With a number of leagues, mostly adult, quite rightly front-loading their season to mitigate the chance of any disruption leading to a third incomplete season, there have been more games than normal for referees to be involved in. This has led to injuries, fatigue, overload of fixtures, all of which has an impact on availability and therefore coverage.

A national shortage of referees at all levels of the game is undoubtedly having an impact on local leagues. Referees who would usually be available to referee local league matches are being required to referee or assistant matches at other levels of the football pyramid, or in FA competitions which are also plentiful at this time of the season.

In a similar vein to player availability, we did forecast challenges with referee re-registration and availability at the start of this season as we emerge out of the pandemic. To mitigate these challenges, we employed a number of measures throughout the lockdown(s) including regular coffee sessions via Zoom, Strava challenges to maintain fitness, “Lockdown Lingo”, online CPD events, and drop-in sessions across the county during the summer. Without these measures designed to maintain the Suffolk refereeing community, I am convinced that the re-registration and availability of match officials would have been lower as is being seen in other counties. This week we have launched a monthly CPD programme for referees in partnership with Cambridgeshire FA and Norfolk FA.

It would also be remiss of me not to highlight behaviour towards match officials, and generally the behaviour and experience at matches full stop because this will impact enjoyment and therefore appetite to continue of all participants including referees.

We still receive far too many occurrences of poor behaviour and abuse towards match officials. Since the start of the season, we have received reports which include a referee having to deal with a brawl between two sides from the same club in a friendly match, a referee being spat at by a spectator, and an U18 referee wearing his green armband to denote that they are a minor being abused by a youth team manager after a match has been concluded. That’s just some of the exceptional things and doesn’t include the social media comments, constant questioning of decisions by players, spectators and coaches during play and even once the game has finished, along with general intimidatory behaviour which are almost seen to be a regular part of the game. This aspect of the game really has got to improve because regardless of whether it impacts on a referee wanting to remain involved or not, it will affect someone’s enthusiasm for the game somewhere along the line.

We have also received reports of indiscretions by match officials, and these are in no way ignored.  Any report of a referee acting, engaging or speaking in a way which falls below the expected conduct of a match official is investigated and actioned. Although these are much less common, we have had to take action against match officials already this season. In order to monitor the performance of match officials, clubs are asked to submit a commensurate mark for each match. These marks allow us to offer both operational guidance and/or praise as appropriate.

Given the shortage of referee availability, I will say a huge thank you to those referees who are covering games, in many cases 5 or 6 a week! If a referee does arrive at your match, please be appreciative of them – treat them with respect and consider that they are a person with feelings and families – that’s not asking for preferential treatment, just the same levels of decency as should be afforded to everyone. If you do not have an appointed official, please take it as given that someone will have gone to extraordinary lengths in the current circumstances to find you one but despite their best efforts and considerable personal disappointment it just hasn’t been possible on that occasion.

The start of the new season hasn’t all been doom and gloom though!

Clubs across Suffolk have already received considerable funding support from the Football Foundation to improve their facilities since 1 July 2021, and a further £40,000 has been successfully applied for through the Suffolk Community Covid Restart Fund to help football clubs. Through the Premier League Defibrillator Fund, potentially life-saving equipment is being currently delivered to sites within communities across the county. Three pre-season KBB Grassroots Festivals have been held in conjunction with Kesgrave Kestrels FC, Haverhill Rovers FC and Haverhill Borough FC, and Kirkley & Pakefield FC. And if nothing else, for the moment at least, we are back enjoying football without the restrictions and the lockdowns we were enduring this time last year. Long may that continue in a positive Suffolk football environment.

Yours sincerely


Richard Neal

Suffolk FA

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