Rosy future for man in black

  • @SimonOHagan
AS Jason Peake trotted back to the halfway line you could see the referee sharing a joke with him. A midfielder for Rochdale, Peake had just hit a screaming 20-yard shot into the roof of the Scarborough net to bring the scores level at 1-1 in a windswept Third Division encounter on the North Yorkshire coast last Tuesday evening.

"I told him that I thought he must have miskicked it," Steve Baines said afterwards as he stood in the club bar having a drink with his two linesmen and reserve referee. "I talk to the players all the time. I think it makes it easier to sell them decisions, as it were. I may be an easy- going sort of fellow, but I like to think that at the same time I'm controlling the players with my verbals. I get that close to them that I see potential trouble and sort it out before it gets serious. The art of it is communicating with people."

Most referees would agree with that, but what is different about Baines, a jovial, guardsmanlike-figure who in his other life owns an insurance company in Mansfield, is that for 14 years he was a professional footballer himself. "I think I understand where the players are coming from," he said. "For someone who's never played, it might take three or four seasons to get the experience I've already had from being out there. And some of them will never get it."

As charges of refereeing incompetence multiply at about the same rate as yellow cards in a match involving Wimbledon, one of the more frequently proposed solutions to what seems to be a minor crisis in the game is to have more men in the middle drawn from the ranks of the ex-players.

You might expect it to be a logical progression. After all, of the 26 umpires officiating in first-class cricket last summer, 25 had played the game to that level. But in football, Baines is the only referee of the 66 operating in the professional game this season (19 in the Premier League, 47 in the Football League) who can look back on a career as a professional footballer.

Baines is 41. A steady, honest centre-half (his own description), he made his League debut for Nottingham Forest in the 1972-73 season and went on to play for six more clubs - Huddersfield Town, Bradford City, Walsall, Bury, Scunthorpe United and Chesterfield - before retiring aged 31 in 1986. He clocked up 438 League appearances, three sendings-off and "I wouldn't know how many bookings - a lot".

He never thought about becoming a referee while he was playing. "I wanted to go into management." But the opportunity did not arise, and when he read a newspaper article in which Tommy Smith and Ron Harris, two legendary hard men, advocated players becoming referees: "I thought, 'what a good idea'."

It was the right time for Baines to come along. Three years ago, Fifa lowered the retirement age for its referees from 50 to 45 and the Football Association realised that if its own officials were to stand a chance of making it to the top, their rise would have to be accelerated. From breaking up fights in the local Sunday league to repositioning a wall at Hartlepool used to take about 12 years. Baines, now in his first season on the League list, has done it in seven.

In the eyes of some referees, it is a suspiciously rapid rise. "Obviously, with my background people take a special interest in me," Baines said. "And I know that they're queueing up to see me fall." One of Baines's linesmen at Scarborough, Dick McGregor, said he had come across officials who were so put out at what they saw as preferential treatment that they were reluctant to work with Baines.

Arthur Smith, the general secretary of the Referees' Association, said: "In any profession there are always people who will say that so-and-so has got where he is because of who he is and who he knows, but there is no question that Steve Baines has progressed entirely on merit. If he wasn't up to it he wouldn't be there."

None the less, there is surely something in the fact that, according to Baines, he has generally received higher marks for his performances from the two managers than the referees' assessor up in the stands. If it would be wrong to suggest that there are forces working actively against him, it does seem that his light touch - he has yet to send a player off in 21 matches this season - has gone down better among his former colleagues than his present ones. "I think he's excellent," Ray McHale, the Scarborough manager, said. "Playing hundreds of games like Steve has must stand you in good stead. He knows the script."

So should even more be done to put ex-players on a fast track to refereeing? McHale thinks that after five years they would be ready for the League list; Arthur Smith, though, stresses that "it's a totally different trade" and still needs a lengthy apprenticeship. But for Baines, the problem may be getting players interested in the first place. "A lot of them won't even cross the road to see a game once they've retired."