Referees, respect and Rooney
Referees, respect and Rooney - you'd have done well to have heard one of my sports bulletins over the past month without any of these being mentioned. As I drove to Hertfordshire to accept a Football Association invite to be a referee for the day, I found myself asking two questions: Do referees deserve their rough ride? How hard can the job actually be?
I'd be welcomed by FA bosses, given a theory test on the laws of the game, and then actually referee an academy game. So not only might I find that I don't fully understand all of football's rules, but I could also be facing the prospect of being verbally abused on the pitch by the county's top teenage footballers. Why would I agree to that? I quite like a challenge, so I decided to give it a go.
Arriving unshaven in a pathetic bid to look intimidating, I am greeted by my guide Roger Vaughan, a national referee manager and a thoroughly good bloke. This is a relief, having had visions of boot-camp tutoring by Pierluigi Collina's more intimidating older brother.
Roger and his colleagues, including 2002 World Cup final assistant Phil Sharp, outline some of the pressures officials are under. Phil tells me that he could make a dubious offside call early in a game that leads to or denies a goal and regardless of the remainder of his performance, he knows he can only be marked 59/100 by his assessors.
Preparing to referee my first match with assistants Richard and Simon
"It plays on your mind right up until half-time when you can find out whether you got it right," he says.
So officials actually find out at half-time if they've got things wrong?
"They can do, as even if you don't check the decisions, there's always a TV producer in the tunnel happy to tell you before the players do," Phil reveals.
At the heart of officiating, it seems, is 'bouncebackability' - the thick skin to continue with your head up when you know you've got one wrong.
I'm then handed my referee's kit - beaming black with shorts that are a little on the snug side - and introduced to my assistants Richard and Simon, who will run the line.
This is where the nerves start; they are very professional, whereas I know full well I only have a muddy pair of white boots in my bag.
"The players will be here in an hour so we better run through the theory," says Roger, as I head back into the classroom for the first time since the mind-numbing days of medieval French literature at university in the late 90s.
There's a speech on the FA's drive to attract more officials, in which referee retention rather than recruitment emerges as key. I struggle to get my head around the idea of persuading 14-year-olds to train up as refs - surely they would prefer to play?
Then comes the test and I'm asked to pinpoint the fundamental skills required to become a successful referee. I go for confidence, decisiveness, common sense and ability to communicate. I'm told that of the 17 laws of football, common sense is actually referred to as the unofficial 18th.
There's an in-depth study of "law 12" - that's fouls and misconduct to you and me. I'm shown a series of tackles on the big screen and I have to be the ref, dividing each into categories of careless, reckless and excessive force and dishing out the appropriate punishment.
That negotiated, I'm sent off to get kitted up - and now the fun starts. Anyone can play the armchair ref - but can I cut it in the heat of battle?
The players are from Luton Town's academy. I can hear them talking about me in the changing room next door, which isn't hugely helpful to my confidence as I unearth my muddy white boots from a plastic bag, still sodden from last Saturday's 11-a-side run out.
I feel a little sick as I put on the black shirt for the first time. I'm one of those annoyingly mouthy footballers in the London Saturday League so this is a poacher-turned-gamekeeper scenario.
My main difficulty is actually remembering I'm refereeing. I just get in the players' way
The next setback is not having a stopwatch but thankfully Richard has two, and down the tunnel we go. The first thing I see is my group of assessors staring at my feet.
"What the heck are you wearing?" asks Phil. "Are they leopardskin?"
"No, muddy white," I reply before being admonished, but let off given Martin Keown had previously turned up for the same seminar in a brand spanking new pair of ice-whites.
The presentation of cards, pencil and whistle takes place and we're ready to go. Almost. I don't have a coin for the toss - something I didn't even think about. I brief my assistants ("if it all kicks off I expect you to pile in and save me") and the two captains ("I'll respect you so I expect the same back regardless of whether I'm a qualified ref").
And we're off. 30 seconds into the game, I remember to start my stopwatch. The first-half is surprisingly comfortable. As a friendly, they take it easy on me and I only have to award one free-kick.
My main difficulty is actually remembering I'm refereeing. As I still play football, I start taking up positions that I'd normally occupy in central midfield. But as a ref, I just get in the players' way. My other main first-half shortcoming is losing my pencil out of my pocket, so I have to keep score in my head until I borrow another at half-time.
The second half proves much tougher. Unbeknown to me, Phil has given the players a half-time gee-up and told them to create havoc in the second half. The pace increases, tackles fly in, the backchat starts and I begin sweating. Several decision are greeted with "you serious ref?". I do my best to keep calm and give as good as I get: "I'm not talking to you like that so don't talk to me like that please son".
I'm handed two big decisions to make. I wave away penalty appeals after playing the advantage because I feel the keeper got the ball - but next time the same goalie cleans out a striker and I have to point to the spot. I decide not to caution or dismiss the keeper as the ball was heading off to the corner flag, although the manager tells me afterwards he wanted to see a red.
I'm still dwelling on this days later, so heaven knows how proper refs deal with the aftermath. I later disallow a goal for a foul throw, infuriating for the attacking team - but the correct call, if ridiculously late.
I'm pretty relieved to see the clock tick over and whistle for full-time. There's no player-rage at my performance, which I take as a positive, and the assessors seem reasonably happy. I'm told my plus points were my fitness, desire to play advantage and let the game flow, and continued communication with players. My negatives are positioning myself as a player rather than a ref, and often yelling decisions while forgetting to actually whistle and signal.
I leave with two main thoughts. One is that I'm a shade nostalgic at these hugely talented young footballers with their dream still alive, given I'd gone through the schoolboy ranks before admitting I was not good enough. But my most surprising thought is I actually really enjoyed refereeing, which I didn't expect. It strikes home that referees are human beings, and their matchday is just as big as it is for the players. Plus I wasn't sworn at once.