REFEREES hold a unique position within football, writes CHRISTOPHER PANKS.
It could be argued that no other collective within the sport attract quite the level of ire as the men and women in black.
At the end of any given match, both sets of fans, players and coaches can leave the field feeling that, regardless of the result, the officials had favoured their opponents.
Though a logical impossibility, each Saturday any number of phone-ins, internet forums, or a cursory glance of twitter will show that this is the opinion of many.
It seems to be an entirely thankless task, made all the more difficult with the increase of technology at games.
Decisions of officials are dissected in minute detail, from different angles, in slow motion, all tools that, as biological beings, an official can’t access when making a decision.
The odds are stacked so badly against referees that it’s difficult to imagine that anybody would want to do it, much less enjoy it.
“There are the odd days when it’s not worth it,” says Kevin Small, a referee with more than 30 years of experience.
“But most days I say ‘yes’. The odd day, you’re out in the cold and you’re getting an earful from all sides.
“You’ve had to send off two players in the first 10 minutes.
“You think, ‘oh, is it all worth it?’, but most of the time I come off thinking ‘Yeah. I really enjoyed that.’”
On top of refereeing, Kevin is the Wiltshire Football Association’s referee development officer, responsible for the training and support of the county’s referees so that there are enough to officiate at all matches in Wiltshire.
In Swindon each weekend, in the adult game alone, there are more than 50 league games at ‘park level’ in which the players are not paid.
There can be another 102 across 21 youth leagues ranging from under 11 to under 18s and over the course of an average season that equals almost 4,500 fixtures for referees to officiate.
This staggering figure grows further when including cups and league fixtures at ‘supply league’ level (the Hellenic League) and above.
“We’re not doing too bad for numbers here in Wiltshire,” says Kevin. There are 295 fully-qualified referees who list their parent county as Wiltshire, there are 12 ‘associates’ who are either in the forces or on the borders and will do some games in Wiltshire.
“Our numbers have increased year on year for the last five years now, but our local leagues could still do with more referees to give them the support they need, especially in the adult game, so that we’ve got enough referees each week to support the number of teams we have playing park football in Swindon.”
Given the volume of games taking place in the borough, it is a creditable that within the amateur leagues, only 131 have taken place so far this season without a qualified referee. But for Kevin, that’s still too many.
“I think most players would say that it’s always a better game with a referee.
“They may moan about the referee afterwards, about their decisions, but they’d rather have a referee than no referee at all.
“It does add value to a game, when 22 players know that there’s a neutral qualified referee, they know they haven’t got to worry about the application of the laws, because there’s someone to adjudicate on that and the quality of the game always improves when you have a referee.”
One man who knows the problems that absent referees can cause is Jack McGeouch, secretary and player for Swindon Sunday League Division Five side DH Fitness, his team have contested three of their 13 fixtures this season without a referee.
“It’s disappointing when you don’t have a referee,” he said. “It means that first we need to find somebody to fill the role. At this level, both sides will often only turn up with 11 men.
“Secondly, if you can find somebody and they belong to one of the clubs playing then every decision can be seen as biased, whether or not it’s correct. It’s so much better to have a qualified referee, we want to go out and play and it’s a bad position for a player to be in.
“I’ve been lucky to avoid it and if you’re lucky you might have someone in the 22 who has refereed before, but otherwise you have someone in charge who’s not prepared.”
In addition to the 307 fully qualified referees, there are currently 73 trainee referees who are classed as ‘level nine’.
When you graduate from a refereeing training course,” says Kevin. “So long as you pass the test, you become a qualified trainee referee, as a level nine. I did that in 1981, aged 15.
“But a lot has changed since then. We have a lot of 14-18 year olds who come in to train as referees, and there’s is a lot more support in place now so that the enthusiasm that our trainees have isn’t diluted.”
As a level nine, referees will have completed an eight-week training course and passed a test on the laws of the game, application of the laws and a video-based exercise. Then they’re given their cards and whistle and asked to referee six games and get some experience before fully qualifying.
“A lot of referees are eager to start, so we’ll get them in as quickly as possible,” says Kevin. “But in the past, referees would qualify after passing the exam and then be left to get on with it. We’ve deliberately introduced six games and a final session as part of the training, to give that taste of refereeing, whilst they’re still being supported.
“It is very important to give them additional support during those early stages, so they know that they can contact us and we’ll send someone out to watch them, who can give them advice on their refereeing, so that they’ve get the confidence.”
After completing the games and the final support session, referees will be assigned either level eight or level seven qualifications depending on their age and from then on will need to formally apply for promotion. Theoretically, trainees can take advantage of a very clear career path and may one day reach ‘level zero’.
“Level zero referees are also known as FIFA referees - someone like Howard Webb. Simon Hooper trained at the Swindon training course and is now a football league referee, he’s young enough that he could graduate further and reach the top. So there’s a great possibility for those who show great dedication and are willing to learn.”
“We’re proud of that and like to see all the referees in the county do well, progress and have successful careers. But when they do fulfil their potential, it means there’s a gap locally for us to fill, so we need to keep developing referees.
“Our next Swindon course starts on January 22, at our Headquarters in Dorcan.
“It runs for eight weeks over two nights, Wednesday and Thursday.
“It will be led by Graham Barnes and his son Kevin, who is a former Football League assistant referee.
“We go through all 17 laws of the game, but it’s much more about teaching referees how to deliver laws in a refereeing situation.
“You might start by looking at laws around penalties and detailing the offences that need to have taken place to award the penalty.
“But then we’d take them through where the referee should stand for that penalty kick, so he can get the best view of the goal, the players that might be encroaching and it’s the same with the positioning at free kicks.
“That practical experience will make that person a better referee.”
Kevin believes that contrary to the perception in some quarters, a deep love of football is an important prerequisite for any aspiring referee.
“I think someone who loves football is very important, a love for the game and a want to make a contribution to the game. One of the most important roles of the referee is that of a communicator. The ability to communicate is so important. To not be frightened of making decisions, but also to communicate those decisions.
“They need to be a people person. The skills to manage people, manage players is another important aspect.”
On those days when he’s asking ‘is it all worth it?’ Just what is it that has kept Kevin coming back for three decades?
“I’ve been very lucky,” he smiles. “As a referee I was able to get up to what’s known as a level four, I refereed the Hellenic League. I’ve been involved in the FA Cup preliminary rounds, I ran the line in the last sixteen of the FA Vase, so I’ve had an enjoyable time at a level of football that I’d have never have experienced as a player.
“Now I’m back on the park, often on a Sunday morning the teams are running around like headless chickens and you’ll come off and think ‘well, it wasn’t very good football, but by gum, 22 players and a referee really enjoyed that today and that’s what matters.’ I think that’s what football should be about, people enjoying themselves.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate that for the last five years, refereeing has been my living and I’ve been able to earn my living through football and refereeing and that’s a great privilege and a pleasure to be able to do a job which is your hobby.
“There aren’t many people who get that opportunity, but I have so I’m very grateful that I got that opportunity. I owe a lot to football and a lot to refereeing.”
l The Swindon course begins on Wednesday, January 22 running for eight weeks on Wednesday and Thursday evenings between 7pm and 9pm at Wiltshire FA Headquarters.
For more information contact Kevin Small at Kevin.Small@Wiltshirefa.com or phone 07979 770130.