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A day in the life of a top referee; the inside view

By Don McMahon

There have been constant reviews of officials performances and personalities on UA, since I first began following this blog 4 years ago.

I thought it might be educational and enlightening to present, to our cultured readers, a ¨typical¨ day in the life of a professional referee preparing for and officiating a league game. These observations come from my seven years as a NASL official and my experience in officiating international tournaments in my home country. They also conform,more or less, to any officials experiences, I believe.

The official wakes up the morning of the game with a certain excitement and anticipation. He or she ensures that they get a decent start to the day by having got a good night’s sleep, eating a healthy breakfast and refraining from any consumption of alcohol (obviously) before the game.

Most officials also refrain from thinking too much about the upcoming game and the teams involved as that can wear on one’s nerves over the course of a day, especially if it is a night game. Many officials do not like late evening games, especially if their eyesight is less than 20/20 etc. and if the stadium lights are overly bright (often the case).

The referee begins to inspect and review the kit to ensure that nothing is forgotten for this big game. Most officials are conservative in nature and will have almost two of everything, so two good whistles, two sets of shoes, (in case one set gets damaged or too wet, etc., a second jersey (of a different colour) a spare flag, two sets of cards (not the playing kind:) etc.

Many may also have a small hand pump and an air valve just in case, as well as a copy of the FIFA Laws of the Game. This copy is not for consultation by the officials but to present to others in case of a misunderstanding or misrepresentation by the match organizers or tournament sponsors about some of the competition regulations.  This happens far more often than one can imagine, especially in North America and these problems do even occur at professional levels.

Once everything is in order, the official will drive to the stadium at least two hours before the kickoff is scheduled. He or she will enter the officials dressing room and re-acquaint themselves with their colleagues. For clarity of purposes, I will talk about the referee’s role and not the assistants’ but aside from different duties, they all follow pretty much the same preparation and habits.

Before getting dressed, the referee and his or her assistants may go onto the pitch and verify its condition, the lines, nets, goals and various other physical conditions. Some officials prefer to do this after they are dressed for the occasion, but it makes no difference, other than the fact that doing it earlier gives the groundsman time to rectify any observed issues.

Regardless the officials always take lots of time to review their respective roles and requirements, to verify that their timing devices are synchronized and working, to go over emergency procedures in the case of serious game incidents, crowd disruptions and to coordinate their signals, both the formal and the more discreet, among other things. I

I had made up a permanent plasticized clipboard with an image of the field and my requirements for my assistants. This was invaluable and was adopted by the provincial association for all officials. We were often required to work with assistants who did not speak English or French well or at all, and this visual aid helped a great deal to ensure uniformity and consistency. One of the greatest fears of a referee is that his/her assistant(s) will contradict them and this will become visible to all and sundry in the stadium…you might as well go onto the field naked as have this happen.

Finally, the assessor would come in and have a quick hello but never discuss any game matters, always waiting until the match was over. We would then have the respective coaches, managers or their assistants present the team sheets and identity documents (if required) and we would head off to their dressing rooms to do our inspections.

Usually I was accompanied by an assistant and would visit both dressing rooms, always introducing myself and the 3 assistants, regardless of whether the players knew us already. I would always ask to see their cleats (particularly if there were poor field conditions) and would verify their kit and personal jewellery.

I do remember one old timer who had a disagreement with a player about his heavy metal medallion. The player insisted on wearing it, so the referee had him tape it to his chest with medical bandages. That was the last time that player wore the medallion in a game because the torture of taking medical tape off a hairy chest does not bear describing!

We would return to our dressing room and verify the match balls for weight and pressure, as well as other potential issues. Once all was done we would , upon being signalled by the organizers, stadium managers, walk out leading the players onto the field. This is the moment EVERY official loves….the cheering crowds (even if it wasn’t for us) and I can assure you that there is no sound like 50-70,000 people coming to their feet and the sound that follows.

We would do a second quick check of the field and nets, etc. and then do the toss. I would always turn to both assistants on their lines and give them a thumbs up to ensure that we had good eye contact and that everything was well. then I’d blow the whistle, after ensuring that those sneaky pros wouldn’t already be in their opponent’s half.

After the game, we’d be the last to leave the field and would go directly to our dressing room where we could discuss any controversies and get our stories straight.  This was important because we were a team and had to act like colleagues (or whatever). We would await the arrival of the assessor and there was always a security guard by our door before and after the match….this saved us from some very nervy moments.

Once the assessor had given us his take on the game, we would go about completing the paperwork and getting ready to return home.  We would avoid talking to anyone, particularly the press, who quite often would be waiting like hawks, outside the door….particularly if the game had been contentious. On occasion we would be invited to the guests’ box for a wine and cheese and on occasion we would go, but we would NEVER discuss the game or our roles in it.

By the time we got home, we would have spent almost the entire day and evening for a 90 minute event. As well, we would be hyper and restless, since one’s home is rarely as exciting and nerve-wracking as a cheering or booing stadium. Our spouses and kids would usually be quite solicitous of our needs but it all depended on our mood. We would spend a semi-sleepless night reviewing where we went right and where we went wrong but eagerly line up to repeat this experience the next week…..that is what we call being addicted to the Game.

If I’ve missed anything, I am sure Walter can fill in the gaps……

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11 comments to A day in the life of a top referee; the inside view

  • WalterBroeckx

    Cheers Don for that article and for me a timely one. 😉

    Talking about waking up “with a certain excitement and anticipation” well this is all me today. As today I will be making my first appearance on the second highest level in my country as an assistant. (For personal reasons I have turned in to being an assistant the last two years and together with my son who is my full time partner in this we have made a nice blitz career). It is the championship level in England. The level that teams like Leeds, Nottingham Forrest and Bournemouth and other old glories from English football now are playing.

    Alas for me we are not professionals (not enough money in the game) so I’m sitting here at work just 7 hours before kick off in my lunch time counting the seconds till I can go home to prepare myself for what is a rather important moment in my career and one that I never thought I would reach (looking at my age 😉 )

    Ok I had the womens cup final in my county last May and that was also special but still this level will be a big test for me. (And it is hot, hot, hot today 🙂 )

    So far the excitement and anticipation part 😉

  • ClockEndRider

    Nice work Don. Thanks for your insight.

  • Paul Southcott

    Walter , all the best for your game today

  • Paul Southcott

    Thanks for the report Don, biggest crowd I have had was around 4000 – (I was 4th official, but came on the line for 2nd half as referee went off injured!)

  • AL

    Thanks Don, really informative piece. Sorry I couldn’t resist but what are the odds some numpty will butt in and twist this into an Arsenal should buy buy & buy debate?

    Good luck Walter:)

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Nice Dom ,and good luck ,Walter .

  • nicky

    Don,
    A fascinating inside story of a day in the life of a referee.
    I have to display my ignorance though and ask why a referee needs a small hand pump and a air valve. Surely not to inflate a deflated football, which wouldn’t be his responsibility.

  • weedonald

    Have a great game Walter…..I am sure you’ll both perform wonderfully!
    Nicky….as I mentione din the article, most officials are conservative and like to keep things under their control, or mayeb it was me being paranoid but I always insisted that if the match ball provided was not to specifications, I could at least bring the ball up to pressure requirements and also wait to see if it was leaking, so I pumped it up myself. You would be surprised how often the balls lost a lot of air, especially if they were brand new….thus my habit of having a pump and needle with me at all times. Not all my colleagues followed that habit.

  • WalterBroeckx

    For those who wished me well: Thanks and the game went just fine. Great night out. I am a bit surprised that at my age (and with my wobbly knee) I could keep up for 90 mins with a team consisting of professionals and semi professionals (football in Belgium is not that rich enough to have all teams at that level playing with nothing but full professionals)

  • WalterBroeckx

    And a tip about the handpump: never let the ball lying on a heating device before the game. In very cold conditions we had the experience on a few occasions that “heating” up the ball and then going out in freezing conditions let the air out and the ball had to be replaced within minutes.

  • weedonald

    I’ve had that happen to me and I remember in Mexico City, before I officiated a game at 9000 feet above seas level, I kept on having to deflate the ball because my over-enthusiastic linesman kept on filling it behind my back! It looked more like a beachball than a Football after he was through with it:)