“As a black referee it was my worst possible scenario: an all black team versus an all white team. Either way I couldn’t win. Straight away, I had to send off one of the white players for insulting me but he refused to go. Then it became a very aggressive situation and I was chased from the field of play. All I could do was pick up the ball and run for my life. As soon as I got home I thought about quitting.”
Faced with this sort of nightmare experience, most people would run a mile - not just from the bloodthirsty gang of Sunday Leaguers - but from the insane world of refereeing. Not Aji Ajibala though. The mobile phone salesman from south London refused to quit and today his determination is paying off. He, along with 100 other 18-25 year olds, has been handpicked to attend The Young Referees Conference – a residential weekend course run by the FA to groom the next generation of Graham Polls. Should they one day make the cut as Premiership referees, they will be regularly insulted by 50,000 strangers and have their performances ripped apart on Sky Sports. If they miss the mark, however, it’s back to giving free kicks against the cream of the Blyth and Wansbeck Sunday Football League and dodging punches from overweight pub players. Makes you wonder why they bother, doesn’t it?
Each year, there are over 350 assaults on English referees; a statistic that doesn’t even include those incidents when the ref was quick enough to get away. A figure of fun, derision and questionable parentage, the idea of becoming the ‘wanker in black’ is simply incomprehensible to most fans of the game. As Eduardo Galeano points out in his history of the World Cup ‘Football in Sun and Shadow’: “The only universal sentiment in football: everybody hates him.” Yet despite this, there are 33,000 individuals in this country who volunteer their weekends to referee and, perhaps even more inexplicably, 3,500 of these are aged between 18 and 25. So what exactly is it that drives these people to become match officials? Is it boredom, masochism or just an insatiable desire for power?
It’s ten in the morning on a warm bank holiday Saturday. Anyone in their right mind is sleeping off the excesses of a bacchanalian Friday night. The rest of us are standing around the lobby of Staverton Park, a conference hotel in Northamptonshire. Not just any conference hotel, mind. This is Ref HQ, where the likes of Graham Poll and Steve Bennett meet up every fortnight during the season to practice using their LOAF (Laws Of Association Football), console each other about their latest high profile blunder and throw darts at pictures of Andy Gray. Today, however, they are here to coach the cream of England’s young referees who are sitting patiently in rows of sombre suits and neat haircuts like a convention of public school headboys.
“You’ll notice there are no stragglers,” whispers Regional Referees Manager Edward Stone to me as we stand at the back of the hall. “They’re all smart and on time. It’s a philosophy we try to drill into them early on.” As we sit listening attentively to the Chairman of the FA Referees Committee extolling the virtues of “a fit body and a fit mind”, I can’t help notice what an oddly old-fashioned environment this is. Referees, it appears, take their responsibilities very seriously. Steve Bennett explains: “Our job, as a guardian of standards, is to ensure that the image of the game is not tarnished to such a degree that people don’t want to get involved with the game.” Perhaps Messrs Rooney and Cattermole could do with a day at ‘ref school’.
Failing as a player seems to be a fairly common reason for picking up the whistle.
Unlike Premiership players who put in a few hours training before sloping off to waggle their Playstation joysticks, these budding referees have a packed 12 hour programme in front of them and that’s just Saturday’s schedule. Top cardsmiths Graham Poll, Steve Bennett and David Elleray are providing crash courses in body language, avoiding confrontation and man management. Then it’s time to head out on to the pitch for practicals in officious whistling, card flourishing and, of course, ‘accidental’ Robbie Savage elbowing. Before they head off, however, I manage to grab a few of them to find out what exactly they think they’re doing…
“I played in a few Sunday League teams with my mates and wasn’t as good as them,” says Ian Cooper, a 26-year-old car bodywork repairer from Kent. “So I thought if I can’t make it at the top level as a player maybe I can do it as a referee.” Failing as a player seems to be a fairly common reason for picking up the whistle. Adrian Quelch, a 23-year-old sales rep says, “I used to play for Hayes but I got cocky and put on loads of weight so I dropped out and came back as a ref.” Twenty four-year-old bank manager Chris Hitt had a little less choice in the matter. “I was playing for Reading when a two-footed tackle broke my knee in 37 places and ended my career before it began,” he says. “Sometimes now when I’m reffing I wish I was still playing.”
No one actually dreams of being a referee, it appears, they just somehow wind up wearing black on a Saturday afternoon. Put in slightly crasser terms, if refereeing was a member of the fairer sex, she wouldn’t be the prettiest but she would always be there, waiting for you at the end of the night. Even Graham Poll, England’s top official confesses as much. “People just fall into refereeing” he says. “When I was 16 my club folded and there was a referee’s course going so I thought I’d learn the laws while I was waiting for my next team,” he says. “When I came out the course, it felt incredible that I was wanted. As a teenager you’re used to rejection particularly from females and suddenly all these referees’ secretaries were saying ‘We want you on our list.’”
Like some sort of crazy shorts-wearing cult, once signed up to the refereeing fraternity admit it can be rather tricky to leave. This is mainly due to the juicy carrot of promotion that is left permanently dangling. There are 10 rungs on the referee ladder between the lowly 14-year-old trainee who runs the rule over children’s games for £15-a-pop and the likes of Graham Poll who last season earned over £65,000 and refereed the UEFA Cup Final. Now, according to National Manager for Referee Education and Training, Ian Blanchard, it’s easier than ever to scale from one to the other.
Recent research carried out by Gloucester University has revealed that in England not only are 10,000 games a year played without a referee but the average age of the nation’s officials is a creaky old 42. In order to reverse these trends, the FA have concluded that an accelerated promotion scheme is just the ticket to make reffing a little ‘sexier’ to the younger generations. “Someone can start a referees course today and within five to six seasons they could be a Premiership referee,” promises Blanchard.
Currently on that fast track is eighteen-year-old Lisa Rashid from Birmingham, one of only 1000 female referees in England. Recently invited to go for double promotion from Level Six to Level Four, which would qualify her to officiate amateur league games at county level, she hopes to one day be on the FIFA list. “I think that women actually make better refs than men,” she says. “We have far more patience and better communication skills.” The attractive A-level student is not afraid of making a few sacrifices in order to achieve that goal either. “I’ve had to ditch boyfriends who don’t understand that if I’ve got a cup final on the Sunday, I’m not going to come out and get hammered on the Saturday.”
So, Matt, who is the fattest Premiership ref? “I’m not going to answer that,” he sniggers.
Weekend boozing is not the only vice that has to be exorcised to become a top referee. If you want to keep up with play when the likes of Theo Walcott are burning up the pitch then fitness is key, believes Matt Weston, the sports scientist employed to keep match officials in reasonable shape since 1998. “It’s also about credibility,” says the 31-year-old. “If a referee is perceived to be fit and he looks lean then that’s half the battle.” Junk food and smoking are also considered taboo and if Mike Riley, Dermot Gallager and Rob Styles et al slip off the wagon, Weston will spot it instantly. “I take their body-fat levels every month with calipers so I can quickly determine whether people are not adhering to the correct lifestyles.” So, Matt, who is the fattest Premiership ref? “I’m not going to answer that,” he sniggers.
If you’re thinking that this refereeing lark seems like a lot of hard work for little pay and even less respect, you might be right. Could it be that, as Ian Wright once claimed, all referees are “little Hitlers” only in it for the power? David Elleray, the man who inspired Wrighty’s bile, confesses in his autobiography that the reason he became a ref was because he always liked to be in charge. “I suppose I must have had a power complex from an early age,” he says. Steve Bennett, another former teacher, sees his relationship with the millionaire stars of Premiership football as that of master and student. “As far as I see it, it’s a classroom of kids,” he says. “If one of them puts their head above the parapet then that’s the person you have to deal with.”
The card sharps at The Young Referees Conference admit they too have caught the red and yellow fever. “The first games I did some of the lads tried to give me a lot of verbal and so I classed it as ‘dissent’ and sent them off,” says Lisa Rashid. “I sent two off in my first game and then another two in my second and word soon spread throughout the league. I don’t really get any trouble now.” Ian Cooper has even given the marching orders to his best mate. “He got tackled by a lad and didn’t like it too much so he threw a punch,” he reminisces fondly. “There could have been an assessor on the sidelines and I couldn’t take that risk so I said ‘Sorry that’s a red card. Away you go.’ He didn’t appreciate the 35 day suspension or the £26 fine but he shouldn’t have done it.”
Few referees could honestly deny enjoying the visceral thrill of sending a player off. After all, isn’t it their equivalent of scoring a goal? David Elleray even kept a framed picture on his desk at Harrow School of him red-carding Dunga, the Brazil captain. It would, however, be far too simplistic to suggest that the frisson of authority is the referees’ sole motive. As young referee Adrian Quelch says, “The small amount of power you do get it is far outweighed by the abuse you take.” Because if there is one thing for certain about all referees it’s the inordinate amount of flack they take.
“Kids’ football is the worst,” says Lisa Rashid. “It’s not the children but their parents. I’ve had mums screaming ‘slapper’ at me from the across the pitch.” Ian Cooper was refereeing a cup quarter-final last year when he became aware of a player on the sidelines that he had a previous altercation with. “His team lost one-nil and he came charging on to the pitch saying ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kneecap you,’” says Cooper. “Fortunately, my friends and my two assistants surrounded me, got me into the dressing room and then escorted me out of the club but I was left thinking, ‘Do I really want this?’”
Facing the wrath of a single player is bad enough but when a whole team wants to stick your whistle where the sun don’t shine, 90 minutes can feel a mighty long time. “During one of my very first games as a referee there was a mass confrontation on a neighbouring pitch which distracted me,” says Andy Symonds, a 25-year-old civil servant from Norfolk. “A corner was being taken in my game but I didn’t see the ball come over until it hit me on the side of the head and went into the goal. As the referee is deemed part of the field of play it counted.” Fortunately for Andy the wronged side did eventually manage to score the winner but, like a true ref, he still refuses to take the blame, “It was the ‘keeper’s fault,” he says. “He shouldn’t have missed it.”
For all its pitfalls, however, refereeing does have some advantages that any football fan would appreciate. Ian Cooper has just been promoted to Level Three so now qualifies as an assistant referee in the Conference, Football League Reserve and Premiership Reserve. “That means if Patrick Vieira gets injured and has a game for the reserves,” he says “I could be assisting on the day he plays.” Even Graham Poll, who you would expect to be inured to this sort of thing after 25 years in football, coos like a schoolgirl about “being out there with those players.” He says: “Neale Barry stood right behind Wayne Rooney when he hit that shot into the top corner against Newcastle. You can’t buy that.”
when quizzed about the abuse they suffer from players and fans, they revealed that it didn’t bother them
I don’t know about anyone else but for me, the thrill of being on the pitch when England’s brightest talent scores the goal of the season would still be marginally outweighed by having ‘wanker’ screamed at me week after week by a load of strangers. Even after a weekend at referee school, I’m not sure I quite understand the curious lure of the whistle. Fortunately, Dr Nick Neave from Northumbria University carried out a study of 42 experienced Unibond League referees for precisely that reason.
“We asked them to rate external factors such as income, prestige, status, feelings of power and they weren’t rated very strongly at all,” says Nieve. “The overwhelming reason was that they had a deep love of the game.” Then when quizzed about the abuse they suffer from players and fans, they revealed that it didn’t bother them at all because, as far as they were concerned, they were the only ones who actually knew the laws. These are the kind of people, his study concludes, that you come up against in everyday life such as police officers, traffic wardens or teachers. “They’re honest, dedicated people but I’m not sure they’re likeable. We should be grateful they do their job though,” says Nieve in conclusion, “because no one else would.”
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