You Are The Ref


It's one of the most challenging and criticised jobs in football; what motivates someone to be a referee? We explore what it takes to be an official at the highest level, and how technology is changing the role of the ref.


JAMES: I’m James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.


JAMES: Imagine this scenario: You’re the referee, and you accidentally block a defence-splitting pass, so, you apologise for your clumsiness. You think the players have accepted it and moved on - but moments later, the midfielder who played the pass suddenly sends you flying with a brutal “accidental” body charge. “Sorry for being so clumsy,” he says. What do you do now? That scenario featured in the widely popular column, “You Are The Ref” - edition 349, published in The Guardian on November 20, 2015.

JAMES: Like many sports, football fuels a lot of debate that surrounds the game and everyone has an opinion. Perhaps that’s what makes ‘You Are the Ref’ so popular - especially when the Laws of the Game can be interpreted in many different ways. But that also means the referee has a pretty difficult job.

JAMES: Prior to the Laws of the Game being established in 1863, teams would typically settle any disputes themselves in a “discussion between gentlemen”. It all sounds ridiculous now, but it was implied that fouls would never be committed deliberately. Gradually though, as the competitiveness grew, it was clear that some sort of authority was needed.

KEITH: The referee, it was then called an Umpire.

JAMES: This is Keith Hackett.

KEITH: My name is Keith Hackett. I’m a former professional referee.

JAMES: Keith is also the expert giving the verdicts in the “You Are The Ref” column and book series.

KEITH: He wasn't on the pitch. He sat in a pub, close by where the game was taking place. And when the players had a dispute, they would run to the pub, the guy would come out of his seat, come down and make a judication. It seems amazing that that was the case.

JAMES: It’s quite a situation to imagine. I couldn’t actually find any documented cases of this happening, but either way, early officials were in fact called umpires and initially remained on the sidelines. There were two of them, one appointed from each team - until a third official, called a referee, was introduced in the late 1870s to settle any disagreements between the umpires. Eventually, in 1891 the referee assumed full control and authority over a football match, which was reflected in the rulebook. And linesmen were introduced in 1898.

JAMES: Refereeing is often a thankless job, and one that’s also open to a lot of scrutiny, so what motivates someone to become a referee? Well, for Keith at least, he kind of just fell into it.

KEITH: And I have to tell you, I had absolutely no intentions of becoming a referee.

KEITH: It was interesting. I played for a local football team, in the parks for enjoyment. And I was encouraged to take up a refereeing examination and they were looking for volunteers at the time and I was the guy pushed forward to do the job. I suspect that I wasn’t a very good player. And I went to the local county football association. Over six evenings, over a six-week period studied the laws of the game and then took a verbal examination. I passed that and was announced as an official referee.

KEITH: And then, one weekend we hadn’t got a game, and the county FA’s secretary rang and just announced, “Mr Hackett, you’re refereeing Hillsborough Boys Club versus Sheffield United Juniors, and put the phone down. So I hardly had the opportunity to say, “no, I’m not going to do it.”, and then turned up one Saturday morning to referee a football match and thoroughly enjoyed it. And from then on, my career continued.

JAMES: That was 1960. And for the following 12 years, Keith refereed throughout the local leagues in his home town of Sheffield.

KEITH: And then in the early 70s was promoted on to the Football League as a linesman. And then followed that through and was promoted a couple years later as a referee.

James: What was it about refereeing that appealed to you?

KEITH: Do you know, as a player you probably only have two or three minutes of actual time on the ball, if you’re lucky. You do a lot of running around and you do a lot of shouting, but the reality is there are periods, and long periods in the game, where you’re not engaged.

KEITH: What I found about refereeing was that before the kickoff and throughout the 90 minutes, concentration had to be high. You were involved in everything. And you were running around and going into areas of the field that you never sort of ventured as a player. And so in a sense, I don’t know whether the ego was being built, but certainly the confidence was. And I found myself getting invited to do games.

JAMES: What’s interesting about Keith’s journey through the sport as an official, is his professional approach - long before referees were even full time pros. And he says the competitive aspect was a big influence.

KEITH: The motivation, really, was that immediately when you become a referee, you’re moving into a competitive environment, there are other referees. And I had ambition. I suddenly thought “actually, I wouldn’t mind refereeing higher level games”. I’m fairly competitive myself so I chased the thing down, really. I sort of got very competitive, trained more, a lot of endurance training. And thought “I’m going to be fitter than the players and I’m going to be fitter than the other referees. So I would focus everything in improving performance.

KEITH: At the same time as refereeing, I was studying the lawbook and the “what if’s”, on the basis that if something did happen, I was prepared to deal with it. So that competitive spirit - I was clearly growing in maturity as an individual but also in confidence. And you know, refereeing is about confidence, it is - you know, confidence can easily be turned into arrogance. But every time I stepped onto a football field, it was a challenge. My challenge was to retain 22 players on the pitch. And therefore, the only way I could do that was to make good decisions and be able to communicate well.

JAMES: A referee’s job is to enforce the Laws of the Game. But the ways in which they go about that can have positive or negative consequences. Good communication is crucial - something Keith really prides himself on.

KEITH: And I suddenly, quickly realised, in my future career that having a conversation and having a relationship with the captains of the team were in aid to my control. I got two additional guys - I could run alongside the captain and say “hey, can you quieten down your number four, he’s having a bit of a dig”, or if you know, I wanted improvement in his behaviour. All those sort of scenarios I could communicate through the captain of the team. And invariably, because I’d formed a relationship over a number of years, that helped my refereeing.

KEITH: When there was confrontation, I learned either through a stare or a look or a gasp, whatever, to calm players down. And as a result, I didn’t send many players off in my career, which is amazing when I look back.

JAMES: The mental approach is also an important component, and one that the best referees have mastered.

James: Describe what’s going through your mind during a match. How do you approach a game, mentally?

KEITH: I would be telling myself, “look, when that whistle goes, be focused”, because it can happen, in the opening seconds, a big decision. Be aware of that. But throughout the game I would be talking to myself. That might be in ten minute blocks - “keep focused, keep focused, keep it tight, keep it tight. Come on, you’re losing distance, get a sprint on. He needs a talking to, that’s number four, number seven”. Starting to recognise players as they foul, dealing with them. And that was a constant theme.

KEITH: And then you might say “right, okay ten minutes - we’ve gone through the first ten minutes, I feel in control”, right? “Now let’s just relax a bit, be prepared to play a bit of advantage, let the game flow.” So talking to yourself is an aspect. When it starts going a bit heated, that’s when you’ve got to calm yourself down. And then if you’re, you know, suddenly coming under pressure, the best thing you can do is take a deep breath and just exhale. And do that a couple of times and it’s a calming influence, in terms of dealing with pressure.

JAMES: And that pressure doesn’t just come from the players on the pitch or the manager in the dugout - referees can receive some serious abuse too, particularly from the fans. Even in those very early days of the sport, when officials were first introduced, they were often insulted and ridiculed. And sadly, it’s something that still continues today, as an additional challenge that refs have to deal with, at all levels of the game.

KEITH: I’ve got junior colleagues refereeing local football matches and getting assaulted. Going out on a Sunday morning, looking forward to enjoying his game that he’s looked forward to all week. Might have a drab job, and suddenly he’s got something that he’s enjoying doing, and he finishes up in hospital, assaulted, or abused by parents. The guys doing a job, he’s a volunteer - yeah, he’s getting a few quid - but he’s a volunteer. And he’s there wanting to enjoy it and wanting to encourage young players to play. And then he gets the verbal and visual abuse. It’s sad.

KEITH: In the local parks you can hear every word that’s said. You know, “referee, you’re useless”, “why are you spoiling the game?”, all those sort of things come through. They’re there to break your concentration and when you get into a professional theatre, it’s very much the same. You switch off, your focus is on the game and the decisions you’ve got to make.

JAMES: Football has changed a lot over the years, which means refereeing has had to evolve and adapt too. And Keith has seen many of these changes first hand, having been there in the beginnings of the Premier League and the modernisation of the game in the 90s.

KEITH: Well, I think the massive change has been the speed of the game. Getting a referee from zero to ninety is pretty easy. Getting a referee to perform in the high nineties, in terms of 90% accuracy is something different. So the biggest change was fitness. The game, in a three-year period went up by 40%. At that particular time, even in my time, were doing probably eight, nine thousand meters per game. Suddenly we had to be doing twelve and a half thousand meters, average. You know, our number of sprints, for example, were probably in the region of fifteen, fifteen sprints in a game.

KEITH: So the whole dynamic, the whole training of the referees changed from endurance training - long runs over distances - to suddenly high impact sprinting. And short distances, high speeds. So we were collecting a lot of data and we were using that to our best effect to improve the standard of refereeing.

JAMES: Keith retired from refereeing in 1996 but he remained involved in the game, helping to usher in a new era of advancements in football.

KEITH: Some years later, I put forward a paper that we should have professional referees, the game was getting quicker. Fortunately Sir Dave Richards, who was then Chairman of the Premier League and lived in Sheffield, listened to what I had to say. As a result of that, the formation of the Professional Game Match Officials took place.

JAMES: Keith also lead the way in things like sports science, sports psychology and nutrition for referees. And he spearheaded the introduction of technologies which are now standard in the professional game, intended to make the officials job easier; communication kits - the headsets that allow the referee to speak with their assistants - and goal-line technology. And he’s also a big supporter of the most recent development in football - the Video Assistant Referee.

KEITH: The good thing about VAR, first of all, is if it’s used correctly it will rectify errors. You know, in my day there were three cameras around a football field. We currently have 22 minimum. So at the press of a button, can give an angle and a view of an incident that’s not afforded to the referee. You know, players block referees views. Sometimes a sprint leaves a referee, despite how fit he is, leaves him detached from the game. You know, when I’ve analysed - and I have - thousands and thousands of errors that referees make, invariably it’s not because they lack knowledge of the laws of the game, it’s because they’ve been caught out of position and they’ve not seen it, they’ve not seen it accurately.

JAMES: For most fans, taking on the job of referee is probably one of the last football jobs we’d choose to undertake. But for those like Keith, who welcome that challenge with open arms, it’s a way to uniqely express their passion for the game.

KEITH: I think there’s a misconception that we’re there to spoil the game, when in fact, you know we’ve got the best seat in the house. I’ve been very fortunate. You know, I’ve run alongside George Best on the football field. Maradona, Platini, Carlos Alberto. But I’m sympathetic to the game and always went out and enjoyed it, looked to enjoy it. And it wasn’t an ego thing, it was just a love of the game and a love of refereeing. I think fans have got to realise how difficult it is. That team of officials out there in the middle have massive levels of integrity and I’d like fans to understand that. We’re in love with the game.

JAMES: Thanks so much to Keith Hackett, and in just a moment, we’ll hear the origin story behind 'You Are The Ref'.



JAMES: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. The theme song is composed by Nic Buchannan, with other music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound. And artwork is by Andrew Weber, with illustration by Moonshine Madness.

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JAMES: So if you’ve never read the You Are The Ref column or one of the books, you’re really missing out. They’re a lot of fun and I suggest you go and pick up a copy. But I spoke to Keith about how it all came about and some of his favourite memories over the years.

James: So, tell me about the origin story of You Are The Ref, and how did you come to be involved?

KEITH: Well in the, I think mid seventies, Paul Trevillion the artist, he drew pictures for a newspaper but he loved football and You Are The Ref column was in the Shoot! Magazine. And then in ‘81 I refereed Tottenham against Man City, I got a phone call from the editor of Shoot! Magazine - would I be prepared to work with Paul Trevillion to answer questions on the Laws of the Game and he would do the drawing.

KEITH: And from that, we moved into The Guardian newspaper. I think we’re now on about our fifth book. And what it’s about really is educating the public. The idea is that the public could come into the newspaper, ask questions, then I’d have to research the answers because sometimes they’re off the wall. You say to yourself, “those will never happen in a million years”. I’d say to Paul “look, that’s not going to happen, Paul, dump that question”, and he’d go “no, I’ve done the drawing, you give us an answer”. And then you’d have to go through an answer. Of course, because the laws have changed every year, sometimes I get a call or an email telling me I’ve got the laws wrong. Well, the laws changed since that book was published. I can’t go around with a rubber and a pen, changing the answer. But You Are The Ref is something I’m really proud of, and it’s a great edicational tool.

KEITH: I’m sat on the train the other week, coming back from London, having been to a meeting. And I was gobsmacked because it was the first time I’d ever seen my book in the hands of a younster, who was asking his Dad questions. And his Dad was taking the book and scrambling to the back - because I think the youngster hadn’t realised the answers were in the back of the book. And then the youngster saying “now you got that one wrong”, and it was quite amusing just to sit a seat away - I didn’t intervene, you know, it just took up a train journey. And I was beginning to question, I must say, a couple of answers in the book on the way up and I got home, got the law book out and checked them - I was right. Biut I was sweating a bit, driving from the station, home, thinking the book contained a couple of wrong answers. Fortunately, I overcame that within the hour of getting home.

James: Have you ever meet people who are big fans of the column and come up to you in public, and want to throw theor scenarios at you?

KEITH: Yes I do! And I get a lot on Twitter and email. I feel duty-bound to give the answers. And sometimes you have to say “just a minute, I’ll have to come back to you on that”, and you suddenly then begin to realise how difficult the job is as a referee. How, when you’re actively refereeing, how familiar you are and how high level your knowledge of the Laws of the Game are. To be able to deal with incidnets as they occur on the football field.

KEITH: Now some of the questions in the book might be bizarre and challenging and you have to look at the lawbook and sometimes go back a bit to get the right answer. But I know lots of referees buy the books in order to enhance and improve their knowledge. And we used to have lots of referees come on and their opening line would be “you’ve got that one wrong, Keith”. And then you would go back and go “look, you need to go to page ‘whatever it is’, ‘paragraph whatever’, read it and you’ll see my answer is correct.

KEITH: Or you might go back and say “look, there’s an opinion here”, and I’m just basing my opinion, without sounding arrogant, on 50 years of actively refereeing. And you’ve got to be careful when you do that. Otherwise, you’re seen as a person who gets it right every time. That is the hope, but the Laws of the Game do allow opinions and sometimes the laws are worded not very well. And so therefore you’re - maybe on the odd occasion when I’m answering a question before I give it publicly, I might ask another referee, “what’s your opinion on this?”, and then have a debate. And that’s I think the challenge as we take You Are The Ref forward.

James: What’s one of the most bizarre questions you’ve had over the years?

KEITH: Well I can remember, we got a question - this is a grassroots football game. Someone had had a good night before, had been to a fancy dress party and turned up late for the match, and had this monkey fancy dress on. And they had come on the field and played and they’d comitted a foul - “how do you deal with that?”. And so you ask him to - before he enters the fielf of play - that he can’t come on in that uniform, his kit has to mirror the other members of his team, and you quote the law. And you walk away from that thinking it’ll never happen. And then a couple of weeks later I get a newspaper clipping sent by Paul to me, from a game in the London area, and there he was. Someone had actually run on the field dressed as a monkey. And we never expected that to happen. So I suspect that the answer we’d given in then newspaper, he’d read, and therefore he thought “I’m gonna have a bit of fun”, and did it the following week. And on this occasion the referee allowed him to play for a good half of the match and asked him to change at half time, which I thought was highly amusing. Eventually he got it right but it happened.

James: Keith, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for your time.

KEITH: Pleasure. Thank you.