Age: 42 | Location: Leicester, UK
How many miles does The Referee run over the course of a football match?
Surely it’s a lot, I pose to him.
He’s wearing his high-vis sports kit, with the little embroidered FA logo, even though it’s 8pm and he’s sitting at his desk.
‘I did a game on Tuesday night and I ran just shy of 12k. Probably about five, six and a half.’
He knows the exact numbers because he wears a smart watch which tells him afterwards.
‘Some pitches are bigger than others, daft as it sounds. Some teams, instead of passing it around, they’ll just kick the ball on, so you'll end up having to run from one end of the pitch to the other. You end up just going backwards and forwards.’
The Referee started refereeing about 4 years ago, after a misdiagnosed blot clot almost killed him.
‘When I was in my early twenties, I nearly died. I was playing football and I had quite a bad ankle injury and I ended up getting a blood clot. The clot, basically, it got misdiagnosed by a doctor. It got left for about a week and it literally nearly killed me because it spread. I had a clot in my lung and in my leg and arm. It was horrendous. Horrible.'
'I literally spent the next two years going to hospital most days. Couldn’t walk properly, couldn’t run. I couldn’t do anything to be honest.’
In the time since it happened, it’s become a clean story, with short, sharp sentences. The Referee is looking me straight in the eyes as he tells it.
‘I was right in my early twenties, like your age now. It really sort of made me re-evaluate life massively. I got better obviously but it took a long time. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I managed to start running again.’
Interestingly, he also tells me that a friend of his recently died. It was on Boxing Day, all of a sudden, with no history of illness.
‘Although we didn’t live next to each other and I never saw them I knew everything they did every day. And then when all of a sudden I saw that, it was so hard to get my head around it. I was really upset. I hadn’t seen them for like ten years but I felt because of the Facebook thing I was still part of their life in some way.’
The scariest part - for him - is that this friend had two young children, the same ages as his own. He worries that when he does die, he’ll leave his two daughters behind.
When I ask him about the best gift he’s ever received he says:
‘My daughter, she’s eight, nearly nine, she wrote me a note. I think they’d gone out or something, and she wrote me a note to say like - I’ll miss you, love you loads - or something along those lines. It was just dead sweet.’
But The Referee is alive, very much so, and it’s on the pitch that he comes into his own. He is strong in ways he once thought he couldn’t be.
‘You have to be strong because you take a lot of shit from people. If you make the wrong decision you’re going to know about it right away so you have to be super strong and super decisive. The second you cast any element of doubt in anybody's mind about the decision you’ve made, they’re going to kill you. They’re going to find every single reason to pull it apart and wear you down, and kill your confidence.'
'It’s really tough. It’s almost like being bullied, I’d say.’
Outside of the ninety minute periods in uniform he’s a much gentler character.
‘I’ve always got time for anyone to have a chat or listen to somebody, but on a pitch it’s completely different. You’ll give one answer and that's it. I’m not explaining it, I’m not spending ages engaging in a big conversation with somebody. That’s just unfortunately how football is.’
I’m interested in discovering whether the age-old rumour is true. Namely, if referees are just failed footballers.
Surprisingly, he agrees. ‘I think that’s definitely the case. I think a lot of people who went to an academy and didn’t make it perhaps turned to refereeing.’
Having said that, it’s a much more complicated job than often acknowledged.
‘So much planning and thought goes into it. People think you just rock up with a whistle and run around in a pair of shorts, blow for the odd foul, and take a load of abuse. But that’s not true. Being a referee you have to think about anything that could happen and try and control the controllable. It’s about getting to the ground on time. It’s about getting all your stuff ready when you get there so you’re not rushing when you go out. It’s about making sure you’ve done all your relevant research on the teams. Captain, goalkeeper, full-back.’
I learn that there’s a huge amount of post-match paperwork from the FA: writing up reports, injuries, red cards and yellow cards.
I learn that just like football teams, referees have their own league table, with some promoted at the end of the season and rewarded with higher pay and better standards of football.
I learn about the other sides of football, the parts bigger than the game itself.
‘Stuff like fights and people getting racially abused. There's such a dark side of football, especially at grassroots level, that you just don’t really hear about.’
And, finally, I learn that The Referee once had a match interrupted by a pig.
‘I once did a game, a Sunday league game in a park, in a nice village. Towards the end of the game, this guy walks behind the goal, leisurely, as if the most normal thing to do ever, with a lead, and on the other end of the lead was the biggest pig I've ever seen in my life.'
'He was just walking a pig.’