He was a referee for 27 years – 14 of those in the Premier League.
He’s heard ‘sickening’ obscenities screamed at superstars such as David Beckham and winced as his own wife and kids reported the abuse they’ve heard from football fans as they attended games at which he officiated.
Today, Graham Poll, who retired in 2007, has given his backing to the #RainbowLaces campaign and revealed his experiences of homophobia from the terraces and its poisonous effect on the game.
“Referees know where to draw the line. We have worked our way up from one man and his dog watching a game to 80,000 in a stadium. As the crowds build, so does the abuse,” says Graham.
“One man and his dog might call you a ‘knob’. You can deal with that. Even when there’s 5,000 or 10,000 chanting ‘who’s the wanker in the black, or who’s the bastard in the black’, you can treat it as a form of recognition. That kind of abuse is part of the fabric of football – for better or worse – but there is a marked difference when the abuse is directed at your wife, your family, or your sexuality.
“If those directing abuse could think: how would you like it on the factory floor, or as a postman, if somebody was taunting you about who was f**king you wife last night, or if you were called a ‘gay bastard’ as a slur? It’s totally unacceptable.
“As a referee, I had training from sports psychologists on how to deal with abuse. We were told: these fans don’t know you personally – so they’re abusing the position of the referee. You learn to wash it off – literally. After a game, you’d take the kit off, shower and leave the abuse behind, then walk away in your everyday clothes untainted.
Graham says: “I remember a young Scouse lad coming up to a former colleague, Paul Durkin, and asking: ‘Do you have ginger pubes?’
“Now, you can laugh that off easily enough. What’s different is cowards who stand 10 or 20 yards away and hurl homophobic abuse.
“In one FA Cup game at Old Trafford years ago I was the fourth official and my best friend, Graham Barber, was the ref. Graham was best man at my wedding, and I was best man at his, so we’re close. One coward starting shouting that we were ‘wankers’ and I was ‘talking it up the arse’ from Graham. Nobody should ignore this kind of abuse. It was unacceptable. I got this thug identified and the stewards ejected him from the ground. It was way beyond the line,” said dad-of-three Graham who’s been married for 22 years.
Graham welcomes the Paddy Power and Stonewall campaign to tackle homophobia in football. He emphasises that more action is needed on the pitch too to help stamp it out.
“It’s more than six years since a player was sent off for abusing a referee during a Premier League match. That doesn’t mean players are getting better. Referees are encouraged not to send players off but instead to understand the pressures they are under and tolerate the players excesses. This does nothing to discourage fans. We need more awareness and more consistent punishment.”
- Tweet your support for #RainbowLaces. Tweet players, clubs or your pals to encourage them to show we’ve got the balls to change the game.
- How to get Rainbow Laces: You can get Rainbow Laces at any Paddy Power Shop (shop locator here) or via Stonewall here
- A brief history of Paddy Power’s Rainbow Laces campaign
- VIDEO: Watch Arsenal stars give the performance of a lifetime in this Rainbow Laces video
- Where can I get a pair of Rainbow Laces?