HAMPSHIRE FA officials admit they are "hugely concerned" about the falling number of qualified referees in the county.

And chief executive Laurence Jones is urging anyone interested in officiating to ignore negative media hype and become referees.

Despite several national initiatives to boost the number of referees nationwide, Hampshire still has a shortfall of around 400 to take charge of sanctioned matches while the FA estimates that in some areas of the country, 20 per cent of games are played without a qualified match official.

Worryingly, Jones, a Football League official for 22 years, revealed it is the county's youngsters who suffer most from the lack of men in black with unqualified parents often assuming the mantle of makeshift refs.

But with newly-formed refereeing academies springing up at many professional clubs throughout Britain and the FA's Young Referees Programme designed to recruit keen teenagers, Jones hopes more people will be encouraged to get involved.

He said: "We're working very, very hard to encourage more people to become referees because the lack of referees is a huge concern right across football.

"We've got currently 1,300 referees registered in Hampshire but if you go back four or five years, we used to have 1,700 and that is a lot of football across the county going without official referees. Unfortunately a lot of the football that goes without official referees is youth football.

"Everyone's got to remember at grassroots level, people referee for a hobby. And everyone wants to do a hobby they find rewarding and enjoyable.

"As a county FA we have a responsibility to ensure that our referees are well looked after and are appreciated.

"Participation isn't just about players, it's about referees, volunteers who act as administrators and the guys who turn up to paint the line on a Saturday morning. And if these people don't get what pleasure they perceive out of what they do, they'll walk away."

Jones added: "We all work a lot longer hours within a different structure than we did 25 years ago and as a sports governing body, we have to recognise that.

"And the lack of referees, and administrators and volunteers as well, is a major concern because time is very precious.

"The referee's department at the FA have a national strategy for recruitment to encourage more people to become referees. And we've appointed a full-time referee development officer because we're responsible for delivering that strategy in Hampshire."

For further information on how to become a referee contact Eric Trengove on 023 8070 6812.