It is just past midday on Wednesday and after Mr Blue Sky plays over a montage of talking points from a busy Easter weekend of matches in the Terry Venables Room at St George’s Park, 19 referees and 30 assistant referees are plugged into the words of Kevin Friend, the select group two Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) manager. An hour earlier the referees were hurtling up and down the grass, honing their acceleration and sprint techniques in the first session of the two-day training camp at the Football Association’s sprawling national hub. “There is a lot to play for in the coming weeks,” Friend says, “and they are also really big games for us.”
This is a sacred place – Gareth Southgate is on site reviewing England’s latest displays – and 24 hours behind the scenes with Championship referees, some of whom have officiated in the top flight, is insightful and eye-opening. A referee makes on average about 300 decisions a game, an assistant about 200. Across an English Football League season referees make more than 530,000 decisions. Naturally, some are scrutinised more than others. “A referee is pretty much like a goalkeeper,” says Friend, a former Premier League referee. “If a goalkeeper makes a mistake, they usually concede a goal; if a referee makes a mistake, it’s a penalty or something like that, [something] everyone is talking about. If we make a decision that is perceived wrong, that hurts a lot.”
Match officials are rarely out of the spotlight, but over the past month the glare has felt particularly harsh. Last weekend the assistant referee Constantine Hatzidakis raised an elbow at Liverpool’s Andy Robertson (the Football Association has said it will take no action). At Old Trafford Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic was sent off for shoving the referee Chris Kavanagh and shouting in his face. Last Sunday came a PGMOL apology, over a foul in the penalty area missed by the referee and not corrected by the VAR.
Phil Gibbs, a referee coach, stirs debate at St George’s Park by presenting on the projector screen recent match incidents where in some cases the officials “could possibly have done something different”. “You’re only going to see each clip once … it’s like match-day,” says Gibbs, occasionally playing devil’s advocate as he collects feedback from each table. Some referees are purposely teamed with officials they often work alongside on game-days. A discussion about whether a penalty call meets the PGMOL threshold illustrates the difficulty of the job. Also reviewed is a clip of a player rushing from one half to the other to confront a referee.
The referees consider themselves the Championship’s 25th team and prepare meticulously like a club. Perhaps, then, it should be no surprise they share the same football lexicon. Gibbs emphasises the importance of “staying strong as a team” as a referee tells of how a manager apologised for their behaviour after berating a decision they later realised was correct. Friend talks of a “worldie” decision in Coventry’s recent defeat by Stoke, where the officials did not rule the goalscorer Tyrese Campbell offside because they recognised he was millimetres inside his own half when racing on to the ball. In a later session the assistant referees ponder how VAR, not yet in use in the regular EFL season, would have interpreted a chaotic scramble in the buildup to a Millwall goal.
“Right, I’m conscious you all want to go and get your trunks on,” Gibbs says. It is the cue for an afternoon recovery session and the referees head to the hydrotherapy suite, which is fitted with an underwater treadmill, a variable depth pool and hot and cold contrast pools. “We have blown up an inflatable shark to have Jaws, so the cold-water pool is shark-infested,” smiles Francis Bunce, a senior sports scientist. The referee David Webb, who will take charge of Saturday’s televised lunchtime kick-off between Sheffield United and Cardiff, speaks to their common portrayal as the pantomime villain. “People think we just turn up at five to three on a Saturday and spoil someone’s weekend,” he says.
The officials visit a nutrition station to take in fruit or protein and when not on these fortnightly camps they use an app to plan healthy meals. Body fats, sprint speeds, jump ability and aerobic endurance are among the numbers monitored. Vicky Smith, a senior sports scientist, helps oversee a gym session containing upper-body, power and strength circuits. “We try and create a physical profile, almost like you would on a Fifa card, for every referee,” says Bunce. “When you watch a game across our leagues, the referees and assistant referees look like athletes. They fit in. Ten or 15 years ago, they didn’t. We’re trying to get them in a position where the players are going: ‘We respect you because of everything you do away from here to prepare to referee our games.’”
The officials can also lean on the sports psychologist Liam Slack. “If you think you’ve got a decision wrong early doors, it is a case of how do you park that decision and think about the next one because that next one could come in five minutes or five seconds – that is one thing we work on with Liam a lot,” says Sam Lewis, an assistant referee who officiated in the Premier League for the first time this month. “It is a skill when you’re in a stadium full of people who might not be very happy about what you’ve just done.”
That is the diplomatic way of putting it, but referees are often the target of abuse, be it an earful from a player, bearing fans’ frustrations in the stands, social media abuse or even death threats. “Much like traffic wardens or police, we’re always easy to have a go at,” Friend says. “You only have to put a referee’s name into Twitter on a Saturday evening … some people will always find fault. It is about having the strength of resolve to go: ‘It doesn’t matter about that. You’re actually doing a good job.’ We have to keep reinforcing the [officials’] strengths.”
It is, Gibbs says, important that there are lighter and heavier aspects to the camp. James Linington updates the group on their 3 Peaks Challenge to raise money for Leukaemia Care in support of the referee coach Gary Willard, who is undergoing treatment for blood cancer. The referees laugh at short clips of them losing their footing before being shown shining examples of teamwork and movement. In between sessions they answer questions from a scenario-based quiz.
Four PGMOL analysts arm referees with data packs for every match. The referees usually discover on a Monday which weekend games they will officiate and set up a WhatsApp group with the appointed assistants and fourth official. They then begin to digest and discuss information such as previous lineups, form, formation, free-kick takers, which foot the takers predominantly use and whether goalkicks tend to be played long or short. The performance analysis manager, Josh Andall, details how a team’s formation can flip mid-game and affect a referee’s positioning.
Webb tries to build a picture of how teams tend to operate at corners. “Who the taker is, who the target is, which areas [the ball goes], and I cross-reference it with match footage,” he says. “Are there any blockers? You want to know who the target men are, what happens around them: how are they getting space?” Knowledge is power but it is a fine balance. “You have to be careful not to overload yourself because you don’t want to preempt something before you go into a game,” Lewis says, “because inevitably the whistle goes and the game is completely different.”
Who really knew referees have an encyclopaedic knowledge of players? They do their own homework and analysts feed them information about trends and styles – how Burnley press differently to Birmingham and how Michael Beale’s early-season exit from QPR led to a shift in possession statistics – and officials are alert to sackings and transfers. The PGMOL is trying to make a thankless task as easy as possible. “It’s all about giving us the tools we need to perform,” says Lewis.
The assistant referees juggle officiating with full-time jobs. Lewis works in recruitment, Bhupinder Singh Gill, the first Sikh-Punjabi to assistant referee in the Premier League, is a secondary school teacher. Here in the classroom there are honest evaluations. Carl Fitch-Jackson, also an assistant referee, is praised for his performance at Coventry’s draw with Watford after two years out with Covid. But it is not a case of patting each other on the back. A mic’d up clip of a wide free-kick from another game is shown. At the time the officials were unclear about which player was on the far side. “Comms-wise, we have to be better,” says Friend. “We should know every player. It is that gold standard we are always looking for.”
By 8.30pm most of the referees have gathered to watch the Champions League quarter-final between Real Madrid and Chelsea. Many dream of being involved in such matches. Singh Gill, known as Bhups, remains the man in the middle, officiating an altogether different quarter-final as Steve Martin takes on Adrian Waters in a table-tennis tournament. “As referees, we’re a team, we’re a family together,” Friend says.