Whistle up a world of wide horizons

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The Independent Online
A passport to paradise is one view. A ticket to a torrent of abuse is more likely to be the other. But love them or loathe them, football needs referees.

Newcastle United might spend pounds 15m on a new striker, but, however much the Gallowgate faithful rant and rave at his decisions - and it is always "his" in the Premiership - if there is no man in black, green, blue or whatever they are forced to wear these days, there is no match.

And as there are a lot of matches every week in Britain, referees are always in demand.

"You can always have a game of football without a referee, but football depends on referees to be administered properly and to have competitions, so we play a vital role," said Peter Willis, the president of the English Referees' Association (RA). "We are always looking for more. There are 45,000 registered in clubs in England and most field more than two teams each week, that is more than 100,000 sides."

There are 32,500 referees in England. About 5,500 are recruited every year, but the total stays remarkably static. You can start young (though only those over 16 can referee adult matches), and continue until you drop.

All it takes to qualify is a 12-hour course mastering the 17 laws of the game, with an oral and written exam at the end. The courses are administered by the local branches of the RA spread across Britain and are being run all the time.

"We have no particular bias towards anyone," Willis said. "We have every walk of life in the world of referees and we do not even think about anything like ethnic background. If you are good enough, we will take you."

So what makes a good referee? "In the modern age, if you want to progress, you have to be fit. You need man-management skills, a love of the game and the ability to decide 'is it or isn't it'. Those who first come along to the course usually get a shock. They do not appreciate that the laws are simple. Other people make them complicated."

Willis admits some are put off the criticism and abuse from players, managers and fans, but insists it is not an important factor. "If a supporter does not agree with you, they will tell you. That's a fact of life. It would be awful if there was no one shouting. Abuse is something different and I have no time for it, but it is nowhere near as bad as people make out."

Just as on the promotion pyramid for clubs, referees can climb the ladder. If you pass the initial course, you become a class three official and referee at the lowest level.

All referees are marked by the teams in the matches they officiate and if the marks are good enough at the end of a season, they are promoted, eventually becoming a class one and moving up the leagues, each time running the line at a higher standard before refereeing there. In theory, a referee who qualifies this season could be running out in the Premiership in seven or eight years. From there, the world is waiting.

"There is football in South America, Asia, Australia and Europe. In this world of football we have today, referees from England take charge of games in all competitions," said Willis, who refereed in the Football League for 28 years. "It is a passport to world travel. A passport to paradise. If I was 35 years old . . ."

Always game when Saturday comes

Dave Higgs does not hold with those who say there is no sportsmanship left in the world. And he should know because he has been refereeing football matches for nearly 40 years after a long career as an inside-forward with Woodlands Albion.

Higgs is 70 and still referees every week in the Old Boys and Southern Olympian Leagues in London. He took up the whistle when he was 33 and has enjoyed it ever since.

"I used to play, but then someone said why didn't I have a go at refereeing," said Higgs, who has reason to be grateful to that anonymous adviser.

"I enjoyed it. I have slowed down a bit since, but I still do, mostly because of the people you meet. You get well-treated and have a drink and a meal afterwards."

Higgs only reached class two as a referee but did not mind. He officiates at matches around north London and has run the line at some of the grounds of the more senior clubs and refereed local cup finals. He comes across the odd abusive player but finds most clubs and players just as welcoming and supportive as when he first started and would recommend refereeing to any youngster.

"I think a lot of people tend to look back at 'the good old days' and all that sort of thing, but I still like refereeing and I don't think players are any worse now. I hope to keep going. In the Old Boys League, there was one well-known gentleman who went on until he was in his eighties. They do not expect you to run around like a two-year-old.

"To anyone just taking it up, I would say keep at it and don't let the hassle put you off. It's worth the trouble."

The weekends are always packed for the Savages. Having already refereed a match during the week, his son Mark will officiate again on Saturday. He then plays on Sunday morning and referees another match in the afternoon. His mother, Liz, takes charge of a game on Saturday, manages a youth team the next morning and then puts on her boots again to play centre-half for Sutton United in the afternoon.

Mark and his mother took up refereeing last season. At just 15, you might expect most football-mad boys to have playing the game as their only thought. But not Mark. He will have to wait another year before he can referee adult matches, but he looks like making quite an impact when he does.

"He is so calm, it is incredible to watch," says Liz. "In youth games, you get parents giving you grief when you give decisions against their kids. One manager gave him so much that his team were chucked out of the competition. But all Mark does is go over to them when the ball goes out of play and say, 'I'm not listening. You're ruining it for everyone, just let the kids enjoy it.' "

Liz has not encountered much trouble from the male players she referees. She believes that if more women followed her into refereeing there would be fewer problems at matches.

"A lot of players have said to me they would not argue so much with a woman referee as with a man," she says. "There is always the element of surprise when I turn up, but because I am properly kitted out and I have played the game for so long and know all the tricks, you get their respect."

But mother and son took up the whistle when their former club advertised a referees' course. Liz wanted to put something back into the game she had played for more than 15 years.

Mark, who plays left midfield for Shirley Juniors in south London, decided to go along too and is now the only one of his group of friends who passed the course still refereeing. He intends to go a lot further. He wants to become a referee for Fifa, football's world governing body, and time is on his side.