Football: Still desperate for the worst job in sport

Forget all the abuse. The youngest referee in the League simply loves what he does.
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The Independent Online
IF EVER proof were needed that referees have the worst job in the world, look no further than last Saturday's fifth round FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Sheffield United at Highbury. With the scores level at 1-1 and a replay looming, Nwankwo Kanu, the Gunners' Nigerian international, took it upon himself to change a century of rules in the space of a second, by latching on to that throw-in from Ray Parlour. The fans may have passed judgement from the comfort of their armchairs but the referee, Peter Jones, had to make his decision instantly and under incredible pressure.

No matter that he applied the letter of the law, a quick look back at the history of the man in black would have told Jones that referees will never satisfy everyone. If that was hardly the kind of encouragement the ever-dwindling number of aspiring officials were hoping for, then the views of Andy Hall, England's youngest professional referee - second only to Sir Jack Taylor in the history of British football - are significantly more uplifting.

Taking a break from his day job, Hall spoke openly about the highs and lows of his calling. "With a wife and three kids, I couldn't live on the football income alone," says the part-time air-conditioning units salesman and full-time Nationwide referee. Hall earns a flat-fee of pounds 200 and a meagre dinner and mileage allowance for every game he officiates. "After everything is added up and paid for, I probably take pounds 40 home at the end of the week," says the youthful looking 30-year-old. Forty pounds for a long drive to the ground, 90 minutes of abuse and no family-life. Any takers?

Actually, Hall senior was a referee as well. "Dad was a referee's assistant for 12 years," says Hall junior proudly. "Every Saturday, from the age of four, I would go with my grandad to the match dad was running the line. I never thought anything of it, but it must have rubbed off on me."

In fact, as with most officials, Hall turned to refereeing once he realised he had no future as a player. "I didn't want to be a referee. Like everyone, I wanted to play professional football. I guess officiating is the next best thing, though. But, if a club, be it Birmingham or Hull, asked me to play, I would sign in a flash. Football gives me such a buzz."

Hall probably knows that the chances of him starting a professional career at 30 are, at best, slim. So he compensates by fully immersing himself in every game he officiates. "During a match, when the ball comes across and someone heads it, I mimic the action. I'm living it too. If I could run around and celebrate after a goal was scored because I played an advantage, I would."

Needless to say that Hall is far too level-headed to show any bias, which may go some way to explaining his meteoric rise. Having started refereeing at 17, it took him less than five years to break into the professional ranks. By the age of 27 he had joined the nation's elite as one of 67 professional referees. "Next step the Premiership," he says with a mixture of hope and enthusiasm. "If I get in next year I could have 18 years at the top."

Hall is genuinely passionate about his Saturday job. For most, refereeing may have all the appeal of 12-rounds with Mike Tyson, but for him, it is an addiction. "It's very time consuming and your family have to be ever so understanding. For example, when my wife was having our first child, I refereed the game before I went to see my baby. Put simply, football is my main priority."

Despite the drawbacks, which include intimidation and aggression, Hall believes this is where his career lies. "It is an unfortunate fact about modern society that anybody who applies the law, whether they be teachers, policemen, or referees, will face aggressive behaviour. I would be lying if I said that didn't happen. With players, it is mostly verbal during the game. The crowd, though, can be very boisterous. But I enjoy it. If they are shouting "referee and what have you", it means they've recognised me and know I'm there."

Just as the demands and expectations of footballers have changed dramatically in the last decade so, too, have refereeing styles. "We no longer have the personalities we used to. The likes of Keith Hackett and George Courtenay were special. These days, though, especially with the new rules, there is not much room for adaptation. We cannot use common-sense. We all have a similar style. My father will often tell me he would not have done this or that in his day. I guess times just change."

Nobody can change what happened at Highbury last Saturday, but Hall would have done things slightly differently. "When a player goes down and the ball is kicked out, I always ask whoever is taking the throw-in if they are going to return the ball. If he says yes, I will point to the goalkeeper and tell him the ball is coming back. If he says no, I will turn to the defence and warn them. It avoids confusion."

If the Premier League are serious about introducing a few professional referees in the next 18 months, Hall could well be on their short-list. As one of the few young and enthusiastic referees around, he might actually inspire a new generation. "If they came to me tomorrow, and said will you go professional, I would have a go," says Hall with an open mind to his and the game's future.

Blackpool on Saturday; the World Cup final in 2010. Those are now the targets.