Jamie Robinson: Abuse, Fifa and Pep - why be a referee?
"There's an incredible amount of mental resilience required to block abuse out but it shouldn't be that way."
The abuse? The pressure? The criticism? Why would anyone want to be a referee?
From friendships and goals to Fifa and Pep - it turns out it is pretty rewarding, according to Northern Irish official Jamie Robinson.
"A career in refereeing isn't an obvious choice because it's unconventional," said Robinson, 25.
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"The old saying that referees are failed footballers is largely true and it most certainly applies to me.
"I played football for a few years until I was 13, then I decided an 18-0 drubbing was the end of my playing career.
"I had lost the love of playing, so my uncle and a few others suggested taking a referee course but it was something I had never considered doing.
"It was a good way to stay involved in a sport that I love while keeping fit with the potential of reaching a higher level than I ever would have playing the game."
It is incredibly rewarding
An email to Alan Snoddy, the former referee chief at the Irish Football Association, sparked a journey through the ranks for the Portadown native.
Two weeks after qualifying from an intensive course at Banbridge Town Football Club, the then 14-year-old took charge of his first game.
"I was appointed to Loughgall and Cookstown Youth in the Mid-Ulster Youth League," he recalled.
"It was an under-12s game and it's funny to think about how nervous I was before it."
Robinson was in his 12th season as a referee before the coronavirus outbreak halted the Irish Premiership season and he says he is enjoying the sport more than ever.
"I have met an incredible amount of people and have made lifelong friendships with people all over the world," he added.
"I've been extremely fortunate to have travelled to so many countries and it's not something I take for granted.
"Whether you're at Mallusk playing fields on a Saturday morning or if you're working in the Premier League, refereeing allows you to develop skills to a level which would struggle to be matched by many other activities in life."
His progress up the order has been rapid and Robinson was named as a Fifa referee in December, something he says is his "biggest achievement".
"It is the referee equivalent of playing for your national team as a player so it's a huge honour to have been nominated by the Irish Football Association," he added.
"The minimum age requirement to make the list is 25, so it wasn't something I was expecting to achieve when I had only just became eligible.
"I was due to travel to Russia for my first appointment at the end of March but Covid-19 put an end to that."
We're not robots, we do care
Abuse from the stands is one of the reasons why referee retention is such a problem worldwide and why so many new officials move on from the game.
Robinson feels that the issue is no different in Northern Ireland and says there is "definitely a line" to what is acceptable.
"People say officials take the most abuse on a pitch, but in certain cases I would argue otherwise because some of things I hear being said by fans towards opposition players is hard to believe," he said.
"The onus must be on the supporters behaving in an acceptable manner rather than the player or referee simply trying their best to ignore what's said."
He adds that while he is now able to block out abuse, it doesn't end once the final whistle has blown.
"There's so much coverage of the league now on tv, radio, social media, forums and podcasts," Robinson said.
"The fact is we do make mistakes because we're human and not robots, just like a player might miss an open net or a manager get their tactics wrong.
"There's a misconception that we go home after a match, open a bottle of bubbly and dance around the kitchen regardless of our performance because we don't care.
"The truth is we do care, we are accountable and we do understand the consequences that our decisions can have on the game.
"It's sometimes very difficult to clear your mind of a mistake but we need to quickly because you can't bring them into your next game or you'll just mentally self-destruct."
Despite only making his debut in the Irish Premiership in 2017, Robinson has officiated at Europa League level and had some incredible experiences.
Starting a Europa League qualifying game between Universitatea Craiova and Budapest Honved as fourth official, he was called into action after referee Arnold Hunter was struck by an object thrown by the crowd.
The match in Romania was suspended for 30 minutes before Robinson took charge for the remainder of the game, which is quite an ask in front of a crowd of 22,000.
He also had the opportunity to stand on the touchline with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola in the FA Cup after originally attending the game as a spectator in January 2019.
"It was a total surprise since the only reason I was there in the first place was to watch a game that my friend was refereeing," he reflected on the third round tie against Rotherham United.
"I was tapped on the shoulder by a member of staff from City who said I needed to come down and replace the fourth official, and it was a swift move from my seat down to the changing rooms for a quick change of clothes and link up of the communication system.
"It was difficult to adjust myself from the mindset of casually watching a game to being completely focussed for 45 minutes of football."
After being confirmed as a Fifa-standard referee, Robinson knows he will have to keep on improving and performing at the top level.
"The biggest game in Northern Ireland is the Irish Cup Final so it would be fantastic to be involved in that in some capacity in the future," he added.
"I want to to maintain my place on the international list of referees for as long as possible and hopefully progress on it."
"There are an abundance of opportunities available, but nothing comes easily and you have to put in good performances on a regular basis, it's as simple as that.
"There's always someone else looking to take your position so nothing can ever be taken for granted."