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In the Middle

Quirky football referee documentary might just give you a new outlook the next time you step out onto the pitch - in cinemas Friday, March 31st

The life of a football referee can’t be easy, receiving all that abuse from players and fans alike. It’s not something that every little boy or girl grows up wanting to be though, but someone’s got to do it, otherwise, there’s no game. Like one ref says in this film, “without us, these people wouldn’t be able to have a game,” and that couldn’t be more true – these refs are doing a job that nobody else wants to do, you know.

Greg Cruttwell’s In the Middle is told from the centre of the football pitch, and it follows a diverse group of match officials as they attempt to cope with the thankless task of officiating matches at grassroots level. It’s a pretty niche subject to focus on, but one that is incredibly enlightening as well – who’d even think to focus a film on the “robots” in black? This goes one better as it attempts to build a bridge between the pantomime villain of football while also humanising them by following their lives away from the green grass of a Sunday morning.

The lives of six different referees are the focus of this film (although it’s mainly four that go under special inspection), and they come from all different backgrounds and represent some really diverse groups. It’s fantastic to see such diversity as it offers us all the power of perspective and how “the beautiful game” is loved by so many groups of people. The referees in question are Lucy Clark, a transwoman and London cabbie who runs a trans radio station and referees on the side. Ron Clarkson is a senior citizen and someone who’s been refereeing for more than 60 years, who soon becomes the film’s most eccentric character. Dele Sotimirin is looking to move up the refereeing ladder while also talking about racism and other problematic aspects of being a referee. Steve Earl is a tough-talking, no-nonsense referee. Nigel Owen is another ref looking to move up the officiating ladder of the football league and is an established ref at his level. While Anne Marie Powell is a Jamaican woman, a PE teacher, and another no-nonsense referee.

We follow these people as they go to work on the pitch with their own individual styles, as well as getting an insight into their normal work or the hobbies they partake in. And believe it or not, they are just normal people like everyone else – until they put on that black uniform anyway. In the Middle does a great job of painting football referees in a much more positive light, and that’s exactly what needs to be done. They are human with families and feelings, and the abuse they receive is totally unjust – although these referees don’t hold grudges, they understand what can be said in the heat of the moment and this film gives them a platform to voice their opinions and concerns.

This is a film that won’t cater to everyone because of how niche it truly is. Even though niche does attract, you’d need to play the sport or show interest in it to even have the slightest bit of intrigue – cute and quirky isn’t quite enough to make all the non-football fans become invested. It’s also very simple too, with it simply relying on the premise to capture the hearts of the viewers. There is nothing that grabs your attention other than the mildly interesting life stories of its protagonists. Due to its simplicity, it does feel largely repetitive at times, often going over the same topic and showing the same footage, but then again, how much new, fresh, and engaging content can you include in a film about football referees?

In the Middle is a decent little film, short (at 67 minutes) and snappy and easily watchable for some causal viewing. There’s something quite endearing about listening to the passion that these people have for their jobs. It becomes very inspiring, and you cannot help but respect their commitment. Next time any of you go out onto a football pitch, remember that you wouldn’t be able to do so without the person in the middle.

In the Middle is cinemas on Friday, March 31st.

By John McDonald - 25-03-2023

Failing from the seaside town of Southport but now living in Liverpool, John McDonald has had a passion for cinema since he was a small child. The westerns of John Wayne were his gateway into the cine...

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