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When happens if you say that you want to become a referee?

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD by Don McMahon

Here’s a question: what happens when you say that you want to become a referee?

It’s actually not quite what you might think. For what actually happens is that you find you need a certain amount of strength to overcome the first hurdle.   Which is the amazement and amusement one gets when announcing the news to your mates or team-mates as the case may be.

¨WTF lad, are you daft?¨ is the most likely and predictable response to such news. The second is, ¨ couldn’t hack it as a player eh?¨ and the third is ¨Our condolences lad!!!¨. These are actual statements my colleagues received when they told their mates about their decision to don the black. Encouraging isn’t it!

The second hurdle one must face is to register for the course and stick it out to the bitter end, hoping that the instructor will prove to be entertaining and interesting, if not at least enlightening.

In my case I had a retired former Scottish Professional League referee whose dower nature and unsympathetic impatience with his neophyte flock was surpassed only by his overwhelming disdain for any ¨kids¨ actually pretending they could match his vast and irrefutable expertise and experience. That said he did know the game and the Laws and was coherent and lucid in explaining them.

The third hurdle was (and still is) understanding the complexity of the letter of the Laws and an even greater challenge to grasp the spirit in which the Laws were written. There are 18 Laws but at least five of them (Fouls and misconduct, offside, penalties, the throw-in and the assistant referee) required some serious thought,careful and concise understanding and practice to apply them fairly on my part and I imagine among my colleagues as well.

The biggest hurdle for most of us is applying the Laws based on using common sense, fairness but firmness, visual confirmation, excellent positioning and communication among officials, coolness and calmness and most importantly a genuine concern for the Game and the players involved. These are skills that are learnt by hard work, countless errors, tolerating excess stress and a willingness to remain outside the temperature of the game and its nefarious influences (less than efficient assistants,irate managers, threatening crowds, aggressive players, mounting fatigue, fear, confusion, uncertainty etc.) and still do one’s job.

Once we have overcome these hurdles, we have one of the most massively dangerous and clandestine hurdles EVERY official must face at least once in his or her career. It is known as ¨the moment of truth¨ and maybe by other names as well, but I am too polite to repeat them on UA!

What it means is the moment when an official (referee or assistants) have to make a call or signal an event that can easily get them into serious trouble. For example; Serbian White Eagles are playing Croatia United in the local league and with the score 1-0 for SWE, one of their players handles the ball in their own penalty area. Simple decision right? Not so fast….there are 200 Serbs on one side of the pitch and another 100 Croatians on the other side. Make the ¨wrong¨call and you are literally in deep s**t!!!

BUT, and here is the rub, what is the RIGHT call? If you award a penalty and the Croats tie the game, you risk a very adverse reaction from the Serbs. If you ignore that obvious foul and ¨pretend¨ you didn’t see it, you enrage the Croats. Don’t even think that the Serbs will protect you if the Croats decide to lynch you, they’ll happily provide the rope. By the way it could be any 2 teams at any time…..

I am speaking from experience and anyone on UA who has officiated on a regular basis will recognize this dilemma immediately. I have seen the entire gamut of decisions from fearlessly awarding a penalty, to cheerfully ignoring the foul and in between (awarding a direct free kick outside the penalty area, awarding an indirect free kick inside the penalty area, awarding a free kick against the team expecting a penalty and so on).

The moment of truth actually means doing your duty and calling it as it is…..once a referee does that, he or she has earned his or her stripes. Once they fail that test, they can NEVER be trusted to do the job fairly and honestly again no matter how good they were previously…..once doubt creeps in, it rarely disappears.

There are numerous other hurdles around such as; getting and staying fit, the use of alcohol before or during the game (believe it or not), bias for one team/player or another, injuries, poor or indifferent communication with your assistants, lack of organization in your preparations (forgetting a second whistle, watch etc.) sexism or racism, staying updated on the Laws, game reporting and discipline procedures, the temptation to argue with players,coaches or fans,etc.

Hopefully you can get a preliminary idea of what a referee must do to become a ¨good¨ official and maintain his or her ranking as one over a 25-40 year career. In refereeing we say that the ref is only as good as his/her next game and how true that is.

One thing I must mention is the idea that a good player/coach/manager (or any player for that matter) will  inevitably make a good referee. This is simply and patently untrue. There are some excellent officials who were also excellent players but the mental, attitudinal and physical preparation of a great official is far more demanding than that of a player, for numerous reasons, but specifically because a player is competitive, biased, replaceable and usually asked to do one limited task…..the officials are rarely if ever required to be or do the above and in actual fact are asked to be the opposite most of the time.

That said, I will never regret my 40 years as a referee and would do it all over again if I could.

Untold Arsenal is here

14 comments to When happens if you say that you want to become a referee?

  • Nicky

    What shone through that post was honesty and integrity….. something sadly lacking in football officialdom today.

  • Gerry

    You really know how to put candidates off Don, but a reality check probably weeds out those less likely to succeed?

    I still trying to get to know exactly what Clattenburg’s crime was? Apart from being one of the best to referee Arsenal’s matches.
    Not biased towards, but rather manages the games more evenly, mistakes included, and all ref’s make them.
    Demotion for leaving early, after the game a has finished, and a phone call in lieu of his absence, does seem harsh?
    Nice choice in music though.

  • gouresh

    we all know what a thankless job this is. just read gary linekar’s tweet on DM. why can’t people like him who constantly ridicule, criticise the ref’s actually become the ref. wonder what’s holding them back?

  • Menace

    The most important thing anyone in football should strive for is that the Game should win. That goes for players, managers, fans, officials, owners etc. When the Game wins, everybody wins.

    However, when a crooked pillar is used to support a roof, the chances are that the roof is crooked. When that roof is PGMOL then the whole crowd beneath the roof is in danger of getting buried. In most matches in the EPL as it is today, the Game rarely wins. When the Game wins there’s a celebration for everyone, including the losing team (if there is a result other than a draw). It will not matter that an official made a mistake or two. What will matter is the Game won.

    The Game wins when all the players are safe, having been protected by the officiating within the Laws of the Game; the official has communicated & explained his actions; the players have been controlled & corrected and the fans have enjoyed the Game.

  • proudkev

    I thought the first question asked of a referee applying to join the Premier League was:

    Do you live in Lancashire, Merseyside, Yorkshire or anywhere North of these areas?

    The second question:

    Do you listen to Talksport and purchase either of the following Newspapers: The Guardian, The Sun, The Mirror or the Daily Star.

    Top of the list

  • Va Cong

    Here £10 first thing is to not talk about PGMOL can you keep your silence?

  • WalterBroeckx

    Thanks Dom for this excellent article. It sure brings back some sweet memories.

    When I look back at the start of my referee career that is still going on and that has given me the honour and pleasure to do matches from U11 level up to doing matches with teams from the top division in Belgium one could say that I was scouted.

    When one of my kids was waiting for the start of their match the ref didn’t show up or there wasn’t one appointed (shortage of referees you know). So there they stood 22 kids waiting to start their match. But no ref, no match. So we had to find an idiot to be the ref. Any idiot. And well I volunteered to be that idiot.
    What I didn’t know at the time was that one of the grandfathers of a team mate of my son was a former referee who had done matches up to the 3rd highest level in Belgium.

    I did the match and after the match he told me: you are a born referee. Ok both teams seemed satisfied with what I had one but I wasn’t. I just felt it wasn’t as it should have been. He told me then to follow the course. But as there wasn’t a course at that moment he told me to volunteer for the U9-U10 matches who have club referees in Belgium and see if I would still enjoy it after doing it a few months.

    I followed his advise and I did enjoy it after those months and followed the course.

    And so some 15 years later I still love to do it. I know apart from one match where I did an experiment I have been faithful to the laws of the game and done my matches as honest as could be.
    Even when they included my own local first team in one of their most important derby matches of the season. Even when they included my son who won the league when I did a match when the ref again didn’t show up and they lost their only match in that season thanks to myself blowing two penalties against my own son.

    But alas I have seen and heard things that made me realise that not all referees are as should be. Yes, there is corruption. Yes there are brown envelops. Yes there are biased referees. The big problem is to prove it. Because unless a guy (and I have heard it say) admits to wanted to cheat in a match you cant prove it. And of course if he wants to be a cheater during the match he will have no problem in lying after the match telling you it were all honest mistakes…..

    For some : Local bias…it exists. Regional bias….it exists. Club bias….it exists… personal bias….it exists. Bribing….it exists.

  • para

    Great insight into refereeing, i enjoyed this article. It shows what refs have to put up with and the hurdles they face.

    I think real refs, (like real teachers, doctors) are born to be a ref, if you know what i mean.
    Real teachers just have that inborn desire to teach, doctors the inborn desire to heal, and refs will have to have the inborn desire to be fair to all.

    All others are probably just doing a (mostly for them boring or opportunist)job really.

  • Gord

    I think Clattenburg’s crime was two-fold: he communicated with a manager without his assisstant’s present, and he did not follow specified procedure. Going to the concert was nothing.

    While there is a northern bias, what seems to be stronger is that all EPL referees appear to be caucasian people who were born in the UK, and have never lived away from the UK. A question about as strong your first question, have you always lived within say 50km of where you were born.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    @ para October 30, 2014 at 2:15 pm – Real doctors ?
    Many would confess that the chance of seeing women naked and sending the bill to their husbands was probably high on the list of ‘perks’ !
    Oh , and the fear in the patients eyes and the sharp intake of breath , when you hold up a syringe or sharp instrument or make that snapping sound with your gloves!

  • Vintage Gooner

    Thanks Don for a very interesting and I think valuable post. If you have never refereed then I don’t think you can possibly appreciate how difficult it really is. At the end of many years playing (poorly) I took the course and refereed for a few years. What made it much more difficult was the mistakes I made as a player could be covered by teammates but my referee mistakes found me totally on my own.

    All credit to those who pick up the whistle and they should never forget without them the great game would very quickly disappear.

  • omgarsenal

    Thanks everyone for your supportive comments. They entice me to write a second article about a few of the wild and wooly things I and others have seen or heard about from their colleagues and shines a more positive light (in most cases) on this vocation.
    Regarding Clattenburg…..if it is true that he is being punished for attending a concert then truly the PGMOL has flipped on its head as we say here (in French: vire a l’envers) and there is NO hope for remediation or redemption….but knowing officialdom like I do ui am sure there are ulterior political and personal motives behind this unfortunate dismissal. I sincerely hope he is not out of officiating for a long time in the EPL because he was one of the better referees imho.

  • Mark

    How do countries differ in the preparation of refs/linesmen?
    What could be done to bring more into the lower levels and therefore have more selection for moving up the ranks?

    One idea that I think would help is is more youth training for refs with some actual recruitment of those who show some potential. Why is it not possible to watch some teens reffing games for kids and see some potential? Why could Football Associations not give scholarships to kids showing potential to actually train to be refs during University or Vocational Training?

  • omgarsenal

    Mark….great questions and many have never been seriously considered by national or local associations. Here is what I can tell you from the 5 countries I have lived in:

    Canada (province of Québec) – refs are recruited by chance and with volunteers. There is no campaign to recruit from other sources. There is a coordinator of referees and he is fairly active with development and training issues but , as in other provinces, is overwhelmed with training and administrative work. On average there is one referee for every 10 Canadian teams

    Kuwait: There is a serious shortage of referees as in most countries. Most of the referees are recruited from ex-players and their clubs occasionally offer a sacrificial lamb to become a referee. Here there is 1 referee for every 8 Kuwaiti teams.

    Mexico: They are better organized at the lower levels than Canada or Kuwait and their officials are better prepared in dealing with the Latin American mentality and approach to Football. That said, they have serious recruitment problems and being a very poor nation unlike Canada and Kuwait, cannot afford to invest in a lot of free courses, etc. Mexico has 1 referee for every 7 teams.

    Germany: This is the penultimate nation in Europe for referee development because every referee must belong to a local Sportverein or Sports Association which oversees their development. As well, recently these Associations oblige teams wanting to play in their local leagues to offer at least 1 candidate (usually a male) to follow the referee courses. As well, the state Association of referees requires that all officials attend monthly meetings where a professional referee or a top official (FIFA/national/bundesliga) gives a course on specific incidents and laws of the game. Their officials are well trained, very conscientious about fitness and mastering the Laws. There is about 1 referee for every 9 teams so there is a serious shortage there as well. I officiated on average 2 games each week but both on the same day….at my age that was a challenge.