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In the Middle review – referees in grassroots English football take centre stage | Film


You really don’t have to give two hoots about football to get a kick out of this documentary about grassroots referees. It’s an entertaining and affectionate tribute to the men and women who show up week in, week out for 40 quid (plus petrol for a big game). Chasing players around for 90 minutes in the rain isn’t the half of it: verbal abuse comes with the job, as well as spitting and assault from players and spectators, not to mention picking up dog poo off the pitch.

Director Greg Cruttwell does a terrific job assembling of a lineup of characters. Steve, a retired tube driver with a Benidorm tan, has been reffing for 25 years. Everyone moans about referees, he says, but someone’s got do it. (He looks like a man who can handle a bit of argy-bargy). Glorious Ann Marie Powell is a teacher who moved from Jamaica to work in a London school a decade or so ago. Elderly gent Ron, who has officiated at 6,000 matches, gives the film moments of documentary gold with his views on everything from the state of Coronation Street to cooking sausage rolls in the microwave.

This is not a hard-hitting documentary about the scandal of harassment experienced by grassroots referees. (In a recent survey, more a than a third reported that their mental health suffered as a result of abuse.) The film touches on it: we hear from trans referee Lucy, who assumed she’d have to give up reffing after transitioning to living as a woman. In the end she’s only had a couple of issues – some misgendering and one idiot insisting on calling her “geezer” – which she felt she could handle. Dele, a Black Londoner, opens up about racism. But mostly this is a positive, feelgood film about the sense of purpose found in being part of a community, giving your time, getting stuck in. It should be compulsory viewing for anybody tempted to give refs a bit of grief.

In the Middle is released on 31 March in UK cinemas.

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