The Surprising World of a Budding Referee


Sam Ogles is a 20-year-old referee who has just been promoted to the Conference South. Despite angry criticism being cut from the cloth of accepted officiating, Ogles explains how starting up as a referee has been one of the best decisions he ever made, citing a marvelous education in the game as a reason.

Football is a sport in which defeat hurts a country or group of fans collectively more than any other. When such disaster strikes; it seems second nature to blame somebody else and no-one fits this more perfectly than the referee. Managers can erect criticism against referees as a way of defending the worthiness of their jobs, fans can unleash a caged-in anger that side-steps the performance of the team they support and players often feel that one bad decision subtracts the poor performance they put in.

So with this in mind why would anyone, in the right state of mind, want to become a referee? In what world does being called a “wan*a” by 70,000 angry fans, a hard tackling Joey Barton-esque midfielder or even the 8-year-olds Mum on the sideline merit the sacrifice of one’s weekend?

In April it was even reported that former referee, Tom Henning, was still receiving volatile death threats from a match he refereed involving Chelsea and Barcelona three years ago.

Well, much to your surprise, the choice of becoming a referee is actually awash with advantages and goes much further than being a “someone’s got to do it” job that we often categorize in Britain.

I spoke to Sam Ogles, a 20-year-old referee who has just been promoted to level 3 and currently officiating matches in the Conference South. He started out as an amateur footballer when he was 9 and before the first match he officiated at 14, he too witnessed the abuse that referees endured.

Sam started playing football for his local amateur side, St Francis. He began as a goalkeeper but soon realised – like 99.9% of boys playing football at that age – his chances of making it professionally or even semi-professionally was rapidly getting slimmer and slimmer. Then as a 14-year-old in need to earn some cash, Sam looked for ways around the law of having to be 16 for local jobs. It was at this point that, although he didn’t realize it at the time, he would make one of the best decisions he would ever make.

“When I was 14 I figured it was a great way of earning some money”, Sam said. “Considering that all my friends had to wait until they were 16 so that they could start earning, it was at first a terrific way of earning £40 a weekend. Plus it was the only way possible to make some money through being involved in my favorite sport”.

So how did a passion for something that even the Guardian called the “loneliest job in football” turn into something that had not just earned Sam a comfortable bank balance at the stereo-typically debt-ridden 20, but something that had become enjoyable?

“It really is such a rewarding job”, he continued. “People don’t realize it but the job that you do is actually a highly satisfying one. When I walk off the pitch and can be pleased with my performance; what I’ve actually done is control 22 potentially angry men whose income can depend on the games outcome. I’ve pleased managers who have demanding chairmen over their shoulders and contained emotions from being violent with just two pieces of card and a whistle. That feeling is highly rewarding and i’m sure a lot of people in football aren’t aware of it”.

Despite this, the obvious questioning stems from the evident amount of abuse that referees get in this country. It’s not just the abuse; it’s the overall feeling that referees are there to be disliked. As if praising a referee is a tragic, ignorant failure to understand the obvious. It is this that makes Sam’s decision to pursue a career in refereeing seem, to many, like an odd one. This is also the reason that many young people in this country would be scared of becoming a referee, even if they really wanted to.

Sam, however, takes a different angle on this. Instead, he insists that there are many things people can do to avoid such abuse and, in the event that they receive it, can manage it effectively. For a start, he says a first impression is everything.

“In refereeing, I can’t stress enough how much making a good first impression can be pivotal in commanding the respect of players, managers and fans”, Sam continues. “At this level I always ensure that I turn up in a shirt and tie, presenting myself in a way that really says I want to be there, a way that also says I take the job of refereeing very seriously. It takes a bit of work but after this, what I’ll do is try to make some good conversation beforehand so that the managers get a good impression of what I’m there to do”. This tactic is perhaps the reason why he has never had to send a player off for abusive language in 6 years.

After listening to him explain his pre-match preparations, I am obliged to strongly agree with him. Often abusing a referee feels good because we know nothing about them and it feels like we have a licence to do so. A bit like how we are so much more aggressive within our cars than in person because we don’t know them personally. So hearing Sam’s pre-match preparation I realize how effective it really is. There are many games that I have played in my amateur career where, in hindsight, I may have thought twice about criticizing the referee if he had introduced himself and had come across as likable.

It then seems like no coincidence when, on the rare occasion we can hear a referee speak on TV, that he will referee to players by their first name. Perhaps his efforts to be personal with players reaps great rewards when the approach is one of friendliness as opposed to a totalitarian style of talking down to players.

Even if referees do follow this guideline, is it still apparent that they are treated grossly unfairly in today’s game? Is there too much abuse waged towards the “bastard in the black”?

“Based on my experience probably not”, Sam explains. “The main issue at the top is media interference. People don’t realize that a manager usually gets interviewed only 5-10 minutes after a game, at which point emotions are running high and things are often said that weren’t meant. Usually, after about 30 minutes, a manager will pop in to see the referee and by this time they will have calmed down enough for a civilized conversation”.

Then again, Sam acknowledges the fact that expectations are getting higher and higher and with that comes a higher expectation towards referees. Sometimes referees just can’t compete with the perfect standard expected of them. “There are expectations at the top level to get everything right and perfectly fair”, he said. “Players are getting paid more, the shelf-life of a managers job is getting shorter and more and more people are either watching or attending. So with that comes an impossible expectation”.

He is also highly realistic and explains to me how he has far from turned every pitch he has walked on into a mothers meeting. When I asked him what his worst memory as a referee was, he told of one horrific event in which it was the crowd that got most out of hand. “There was this one game that really stands out as being bad for me” Sam explains. “We all have our off-days and referees are no different. It was a Spectators FA Trophy game and the game was a high-intensity affair. The players were abusing each other and confrontations were breaking out all over the pitch. But worst of all the crowd got really nasty, especially to the linesman”.

So how would a young, aspiring referee deal with games like this? “You just have to realize that people like that are trying to provoke a response out of you”, Sam said. “Do not turn around and engage in any way. You have a job to do and just focus on that. When you’re focusing on your job, then nothing else anyone says will matter. Also bear in mind that any abuse is directed at you the referee, not you the person. So there really is no need to be offended by what anyone says”.

He then pointed out that more and more young referees are getting into the game and encourages any young people with an interest in sport to seriously consider taking up a career in refereeing, not just for the financial gains. What many people may see as 6 years of dull whistle blowing has actually been, to Sam, an outstanding education in how the game works. He claims that he has learnt so much about football through officiating it that, should he ever return to playing amateur football, he will hold such an advantage to players who haven’t had similar experiences.

“Refereeing has taught me so much about the game that I didn’t know before” Sam gushes. “Over the years I’ve made so many observations of how footballers work and the on-field decision that players make. If I was ever to start playing football at amateur level again I feel I’d be in such a good position to have an advantage over other players. I’ve spent so many years learning about the rules of the game and how and why decisions are made. So in that respect football has taught me so much that I didn’t know before”.

It pays well, too. For doing a job involved in football at amateur level, getting paid the £45 a game that Sam earns seems highly rewarding. He also has his travel expenses paid for and claims that the money he earns from refereeing is enough to keep the petrol in his car, which certainly says something in today’s climate. Refereeing becomes even more appealing when considering that aside from travel, a game of football takes up no more than 2 hours of his time at a weekend.

Upon giving advice to aspiring referees; Sam says: “Take your time, be patient and progress. Always, always, always listen to your senior colleges because they will have been through all the experiences that you will one day have to deal with”. He then finishes by telling me that more and more young people are applying to the Hampshire FA to become a referee.

After speaking to Sam I would have to share his encouragement in advertising refereeing as a brilliant platform upon which football-mad individuals can get into. More so, refereeing is something that is so realistically achievable that anyone with the right attitude can get to a high level – most notably a combination of eagerness to learn, a love of the game and an ability not to let words get to you, displayed impressively by Sam. In this regard, my attitude of being the poor man that everyone despises has now changed to a referee being a highly astute, ever-learning individual who realized the rich advantages to refereeing at a much younger age than I have.

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