For the past few years, I’ve been turning out on the occasional Saturday morning to referee youth matches for our local village football team. In addition, I have refereed a few of the games where my son Master Johnny’s team have needed an official, as well as regularly running the line as what is now known as an assistant referee.
His team now disbanded now they are adults, Master Johnny is dedicated to collecting money by working all the hours he can to afford to take off for Australia, unable to commit to regular training or playing for the local adult football club. This means my officiating duties have dropped off considerably and I’m spending more time at home at the weekend.
“I think I’d like to train as a qualified football referee,” I told Lady Barton St Mary, expecting her to arch one of her beautiful eyebrows and enquire as to why I would want to do such a thing.
“What a good idea!” she beamed, delighted that I may once more be out of the house and out of her way for part of Saturday/Sunday.
“You don’t mind?” I asked, seeking confirmation.
“Of course not, you like doing it,” she said, before returning to her Homes and Gardens magazines and making plans for the relaxing weekends without me ahead of her, giving a huge sigh of satisfaction through her broad grin.
So, thanks to Keith, the chairman of the football club, I managed to book a place on a referee’s beginners’ course in Bristol, paying up the required £130. On Friday, I attended the induction session, starting at 6.30pm.
The training room was a brightly lit affair. I was quite early, but a few other candidates were in the room, silent but alert. They all stared as I entered the room.
“Hello!” I chirped.
“Alright,” said one rather large man, shaven headed and straight faced. The rest continued to stare.
It was an interesting group of people, about 8 or 9 adult men; sulky looking, either with lots of hair or no hair, except on their faces, with a selection of beards and heavy stubble. I realised that maybe you needed to look intimidating if you were going to be taken seriously as a ref. They looked like the type of blokes who were used to dishing out pain and discomfort, rather than somebody punishing such indiscretions, like a group of former bank robbers turning up to become chief superintendents. I’d practised my tough look in the mirror at home, but felt that the expression I adopted always made me appear to be pushing out a fart.
As well as the scary men, there were a lot of children who seemed to think they were doing the course as well. It turned out that they were, since schoolboys could take the referee training as part of their GCSEs.
In addition to the intimidating men and schoolboys, there was another group of people sitting in a line at the back of the room; men, women, some suited, others in baggy track suits, others in casual clothes.
These people turned out to be the parents of the children and officials of different leagues, referee associations and football organisations from the Bristol area.
The session was hosted by Steve Tanner, the referee development officer and former Premiership and FIFA referee. The main objective of the evening was to make sure we were aware that we were embarking on a career which made us the target of abuse and dislike with constant questioning of our judgements, scrutinising every decision with disdain. Having already been through this experience, I was undeterred. Everybody else seemed to be like minded. I explained this to Lady Barton St Mary the next day.
“There’s a special counsellor you can call if you have a particularly bad experience,” I explained.
“Oh, you won’t need that, will you?” she said, “You don’t care what people think.”
I decided to take this as the faintest of praise.
Steve started a question and answer session. Most of the questions came from a 14 year old, which he handled expertly:
How much are we paid? (yes, we are paid!)
What if a referee punches a player?
What happens if I get sent off playing football?
Steve explained that the system of training had changed.
“It took me 20 years to become a Premiership referee,” he explained, “but with the changes in training, some of you in this room could make it in ten.”
The youngsters looked suitably impressed. Having realised I was the oldest trainee on the course, I was hoping that in ten years I would still be alive with functioning knees. Or at least one functioning knee.
The assembled league and referee association representatives gave short talks, all of them from the Bristol area, which was no use to me, but highly entertaining.
With that, Steve wished us luck when we returned next week for training proper. I walked back to my car with my training folder, FA directory and the FA Law book. Next Friday I get my whistle, book and cards. To be continued…