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The boys in black being taught the game’s dark arts
In January Kevin Small, the Referee Development Officer of the Wiltshire FA told the Adver all about the work that his team does to develop high class officials in the county. Now Christopher Panks meets some of the next generation of referees, currently studying on the FA’s basic refereeing course.
If a survey was undertaken, or an experiment conducted by Government scientists in stereotypical white coats, to determine the most frequently used word at sporting events, I’d wager that ‘referee’ would be top of the list. That may be closely followed by ‘lineo’ and any number of words not suitable for publication.
For most, I imagine that the unrequested performance feedback that spectators so selflessly offer, is one of the first things that they filter out while on the field on the play, but that all takes time.
“The referees on Match of the Day or the Football League Show have worked their way up over many years, but they too have all graduated the course that I attend tonight.
I settle into my chair after being welcomed by Graham and Kevin Barnes, the father and son team who tell me and the seven candidates, all half my age, that over the next two sessions we’ll be learning Law 12 - fouls, free kicks, penalties, cautions and dismissals to you and I.
With just over two weeks of the course remaining, we’re told that these two sessions amount to 70% of the prospective referees’ final exam, which decides whether or not they can be card (and whistle) carrying referees in the minor leagues.
“If they pass,” says Kevin, 45, an official with more than 23 years experience. “They will become level 8 referees. When they turn 16, they’ll become level 7 automatically and from then on they need to apply for promotion.”
Barnes is aware of this first hand, having climbed the ladder as far as the Football League before a back injury forced his retirement in 2009. All the referees we see on our Saturday night highlights programmes are level 1’s, Conference referees are level 2’s and so it follows down the leagues to where these boys will begin, the minor leagues - under 17’s to under 9’s football.
The session begins with an exercise. We’re shown 18 video clips of tackles from the 2002 World Cup, for each we have to assign a number corresponding to the action that the tackle merits. The choices are no action; foul and free kick; foul, free kick and caution; and foul, free kick and dismissal. We watch the clips and scribble our opinions, the correct answers will follow next week.
Then comes the theory, with the use of a tactics board, video clips, real life scenarios from their own officiating and even physical demonstrations, Kevin and his father Graham, 77, display the list of ten offences punishable by a direct free kick. Misconduct of this nature includes pushing, kicking, tripping and striking an opponent.
They also explain very simply that there are only three types of foul; careless, reckless and excessive force. Careless fouls are punished by a free kick, reckless with a yellow and excessive force with a red.
Graham and Kevin take the lead in the session, but it is far from prescriptive, using questions to test the understanding of the concept they help the youngsters to arrive at their own conclusions, after all, the laws of the game are prefixed ‘in the opinion of the referee.’ “Decision-making is one of the most important things for a referee,” says Kevin. “Passion for the game is important, but if you can’t make a decision and stand by it, you won’t go too far.”
All the while, the candidates chip in with questions of their own, often using real-life high profile examples such as Nani’s dismissal against Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League fixture. For a session where laws of the game are being learned they seem genuinely engaged, repeatedly imagining new scenarios to test the concepts that they’re learning.
With just two weeks to go before their two-part exam the boys are confident that they’ve learned a lot since January.
“It’s very odd,” says Brandon Waite, a 15-year-old player for Greenmeadow. “I came here thinking that I knew a lot, but from what I’ve learned, I didn’t really know much at all when I arrived.”
“When I’m watching TV now,” says Dan Laken, Highworth’s 14 year old goalkeeper. “I’ll see a challenge and can appreciate the decision. I can see why the referee might have only given a yellow, where I thought it was a red.”
And Barnes doesn’t have any worries regarding his current crop: “The group we’ve got now, they’ve said that what they’ve learned here, they’ve never even thought of it before. For lads of such a young age, they’re doing remarkably well to take it all in.”
The learning has affected the boys in ways they couldn’t have foreseen when they signed up for the course too.
“It’s the other side of football.” Says Tom Hill, 14, formerly of Highworth Town. “As a player I was always arguing with the referee, but I now know where they were coming from. I’m looking forward to being in control of the game.”
Former team-mate Laken is in agreement: “When I’m playing now, I do show a lot more respect, I’ve learned that speaking to the referee at half time, shaking their hand and saying that they’re doing a good job can mean something to them.”
Fifteen year-old Kalam Titcombe, who doesn’t play any more, believes that refereeing could be a career for him: “It depends on how much I enjoy it, but there’s no reason that with dedication any of us, couldn’t make it. You get out of it what you put in I think.”
In Barnes, they have a mentor who has done just that: “I came through the course in 1987. Every referee has done the same, regardless of where they officiate.
“Nothing can beat walking out in front of thousands of people doing a game, or being live on the telly doing a game. Nothing can really beat that.
“But getting the lads through their exam and see them going out and refereeing their first games. That’s the joy, to see them come through, knowing that we’ve taught them from scratch and now they’re out there and they’re doing it.”
“It gives me a sense of achievement to see them pass and get their kit and they’ll go out then and actually start refereeing. We’re still here for them, it’s not a case of pass the exam and off you go. We’ve got the mentoring scheme and then there’s a catch-up session after the first six games.
“It’s really good, because it keeps us on our feet, but one thing we say from the start is that we’re not teachers, we’re tutors and there is a difference. We’re going to teach you the laws of the game, share some experiences that we’ve had over the years and make it a fun exercise for them. Hopefully they enjoy it.”
The four hours that I observe, though on paper could be deemed tortuous for boys of this age, are fun-filled and entertaining. In truth, they fly by.
When we’re shown the same video montage of 18 contentious decisions that we saw a week earlier, before the learning of law 12 began, a number of my answers changed. That’s an indication of how much I picked up in only two sessions - though when the correct answers were shown, I was still too lenient with some decisions in FIFA’s book.
Kevin tells us that he doesn’t want to know how many we got correct. That should only be important to us. Still, I’m confident that my fellow classmates performed much better than me and that for them bright futures in black lay ahead.