Premier League referees are becoming more and more like household names these days, from Michael Oliver to the infamous Mike Dean. Retired referees such as Mark Halsey and Howard Webb have even seen themselves become a big part of match day coverage on certain media outlets. The profile of top level referees has never been bigger but not a lot is known about how referees make their way to the top and what they’ve got to do to get there…

To find out more about the road to becoming a top referee, we decided to speak to a young ref about his journey towards his ambition of a career in the professional game and the challenges he has faced along the way. Still in his early twenties, Will Davis is making a name for himself as a referee in the North West of England and has his sights set for a long career in football…

Getting Started…

I have pretty much grown up in and around football and was kicking a ball around as soon as I could walk. Growing up I represented Sheffield schoolboys as well as playing for my local Sunday team. Unfortunately, whilst playing I suffered a fractured ankle and was out for over a year. I managed to get back into playing but was never quite the same so I thought I would turn my attentions elsewhere and stay involved in football. My Dad has always done a bit of refereeing and for some strange reason I thought I would give it a go! So I completed my local Referees course and haven’t looked back since!

That first course is where I learned all about the laws which are enforced by match officials each game, in addition to learning about technical aspects such as positioning and match control. In order to pass the course, I had to pass a laws of the game exam and officiate a certain number of football matches. From then on I have just tried to enjoy myself and learn from each match. There have been some very challenging times but these have only helped me to become a better match official. I am currently a level 4 Supply league referee and Assistant Referee on contributory leagues mainly around the North West. 

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Developing Your Game…

Within refereeing there are always developmental opportunities designed to help you grow as a Match Official. Once you qualify these courses are optional but I have found them to be absolutely vital to my development. Since joining Manchester FA I have been a part of their development pathway, going from the Referee Development Group to the Referee Academy right through to the Level 4 Group. Being a part of these groups has allowed me to learn alongside other referees of similar abilities through both practical and theoretical sessions.

We often have meetings led by high profile officials where we analyse clips of certain situations and try to learn from them. We also have regular fitness sessions alongside practical pitch based sessions where we can work on aspects such as positioning. Being a part of these sessions has been absolutely fantastic for my development as a match official and I am now lucky enough to be leading the Referee Development group at Manchester FA where I can give back and help other referees to develop their own games and skills. This is highly rewarding and has given me so many skills which have not only helped me in Football but also in the world of work. I never expected to have gained all these skills just from becoming a referee. I am confident I would not be where I am now if I never picked up the whistle!

Overcoming the Challenges…

There are obviously a lot of challenges faced when refereeing but overcoming these is what makes it so enjoyable. Initially when I first started, communicating with players, mangers and parents was a challenge. Being able to manage 22 players and ensure I keep full control of the game as a young person was hard. However, with time I found I built confidence and found techniques which work for me in managing different personalities and situations.

Probably one of the biggest things I have had to overcome is the fear of making mistakes. As a referee often you are the first to be blamed and have your performance scrutinised and people can often forget we are only human. Having a fear of making mistakes can sometimes affect my performance and ironically lead to more mistakes. For me, learning to not be scared of failure and using mistakes as opportunities to develop has helped me get over this.

Working Under Pressure…

For me this is one of the most enjoyable parts of refereeing. Working with and managing different people and their personalities is the biggest challenge out there. I have found different situations and different people can require completely different management styles and it is important to be able to adapt your approach to suit any given situation you find yourself in. Always being honest is key, as most people will respect you for it even if you make a mistake.

In terms of the pressure, it’s just something you get used to. I have learned several coping mechanisms which I now use to help keep me focussed on the game and avoid any unwanted thoughts. 

Referee Pressure

Learning From The Best…

I look up to many of the referees on the Premier league and within Europe. I watch how they manage different players and situations and then try to put this into practice during my own games. If I had to pick one, I can’t look much further than Michael Oliver at present. He is the Premier League’s youngest ever referee and consistently delivers top performances. His fitness is second to none and the way he communicates with players and manages challenging situations whilst under so much pressure is a joy to watch.

Unfortunately, when you become a referee, you never quite watch a football match in the same way again. I always have an eye on the Referee even if I’m just trying to watch my own team!

The Future of Refereeing…

Personally I feel refereeing is reaching new heights in terms of the volume of people getting involved from all different backgrounds. We now have many younger referees taking charge of big matches in our top leagues helping to inspire more young people to take up the whistle. Also, it is now possible to make a career out of refereeing if you can make it to the top, something that wasn’t necessarily possible in the past. These factors, along with the fantastic support provided at County and FA Level has made it a fantastic time for any budding referee to give it a go!

My tips to anyone just starting out would be to make sure you enjoy every moment possible and always look for opportunities to improve. Don’t be scared of making mistakes as these are often the biggest opportunities to learn, embrace them! Lastly get out and watch as much football as you can and learn from your fellow officials.

Match Day Routine…

I actually make sure I have a bit more of a lie-in on match day if possible as I’m off work over the weekend. I’ll usually go for some eggs around midday and some fast acting sugar and caffeine just before the game. Apart from that I just try to stay relaxed and focus on the match. 

Ambitions…

My ultimate long term ambition would be to do this full time and officiate on the Premier League and around the world.

My dream match to officiate would be Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Nou Camp. I saw a video of the atmosphere at one of their games and it looked unreal. I can only imagine what it must feel like to referee such a prestigious game with so many fans in such a great stadium, although I’m not sure anywhere beats Bramall Lane!

el clasico referee

Get Involved!

Fancy giving it a go? For more information check out The FA’s website or contact your local County FA for more information.

If you’re a referee or just interested in the beautiful game from the man in black’s perspective then check out Referee Tales, a warts and all blog about officiating amateur football.

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