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FEATURED ARTICLE: In-depth discussion with Brian Fairclough, Referee Observer Appointment Secretary for the NCEL

The Bootiful Game special feature in conversation with Brian Fairclough, Referee Observer Appointment Secretary, NCEL.

Whether you’re a Bootiful Game reader , contributor or just a simple keyboard jockey like Craig Kendall and I , we all surely agree that we love our Non-League game-and not least the passion of our fantastic NCEL Manager family. After over a thousand pieces for this great on-line magazine, however, I’ve realised that when an NCEL gaffer says “I’m not one to talk about referees, but….” you can tell what’s coming!

As a Premier League Committee Member at Parkgate, I’ve been there myself… we all have from time to time, writes Colin Muncie.
In recent weeks, many of our highly –respected NCEL Managers have been pretty vocal about refereeing standards in both Divisions of the NCEL. All passionate, intelligent, articulate men apparently driven to absolute distraction by a man or woman with a whistle or flag. It’s always going to be that way-and maybe that’s why our game is as exciting and opinionated as it is.

However, I wondered about who spoke for the match day officials. This seemed to be a pretty one-sided discussion, heavily weighted towards the Managers, Coaches and Players. So I had a quick word with some of our contributors, the NCEL and Craig, our editor, suggesting that I consider writing a piece on referee assessment and development-and almost unanimously, they reckoned it was a good idea.

So I contacted Brian Fairclough, who’s the Referee Observer Appointment Secretary at the NCEL, asking for his take. To be fair to Brian, he was, initially, more than reluctant to speak to me, because he believes- as we all do-that the game is about opinions and that “there will always be others who see things differently, and it is one we can never “win”; but after giving the matter a good dose of thought, Brian agreed to speak to us at the Bootiful Game-and as you’ll read, we are very glad he did.

“Some information about how we help to develop our referees may just create a better understanding, and that can only be a good thing”, Brian told me.

Brian began our conversation by providing some clarity on a couple of key issues. “The first thing which may surprise your readers is that the “Marking” season” is different from the “Playing” season”, Brian explained “The performance of referees is evidenced by the marks CLUBS give the Official, and, when one is in attendance, by the “OBSERVER”.

“That’s another thing which may surprise your readers” Brian told me. “They used to be called “Assessors”, but as the emphasis from the FA moves more strongly towards developing referees, it was thought that a more appropriate name would be “OBSERVER”.

“The “Marking” season for referees starts –annually- on 1st March and concludes on 28th (or 29th) February the following year” Brian explained “ So we’ve have just concluded a “Marking” season; and all across the country, marks are being collated and sent to the FA. The FA will then determine those Officials who merit promotion for the start of the next “playing season” (subject to a fitness test) -and those who should be demoted”.

Brian then described the referee grading system as it impacts on the NCEL. “Referees in our Premier Division are appointed by the FA, who also appoint – where they see fit- Observers to watch, and report, on the performance of the referee. Those referees in our Premier Division are graded as Level 3 Officials”.

For the information of our NCEL Division One Managers, however, the probability of a referee being observed is incredibly high. “In our Division One, the referees are graded as Level 4, and they are appointed by this Competition (the NCEL)” said Brian. “It would be true to say that, at Level 4, referees probably have the most to learn as they aspire (hopefully) to climb the ladder -and to officiate at higher levels. We are very proud (as is the FA) of the coverage that we achieve at Level 4. It is one of the highest coverage levels across the country, if not the highest. We consistently watch 75% of games -and at times, we observe even more”.

Brian explained that such comprehensive observation enables a high level of targeted referee training and development. “This coverage results in the widest range of advice from our team of Observers to help Referees to develop, and they all operate and mark within the framework provided by the FA for watching referees from Grade 2b to 4”, he explained .
Brian went on to describe how this observation process has helped to produce a conveyor belt of top quality officials. He told us “The referees can be observed as many as ten times or more in a season. Our aim is to help them, and any glance at the numbers of referees from this Competition who reach the highest level in the game will show that our record of producing top quality referees can be favourably compared with any other Competition”.

“The League also supports an Association for Referees and Assistants to further help and train them, and ,often, we bring in Senior Referees to speak to our officials ,to teach good practice and to offer advice and tips” Brian added.

Brian concluded our fascinating discussion by offering a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the application of video technology-originally intended to eliminate controversy in the game we all love.”I started by saying that this game of ours is always about opinions (and long may it be so)” he chuckled.”To prove my point I had to smile the other night when watching a game on TV where VAR was used. This was supposed to be the final answer to those tight and controversial decisions. A “goal” was disallowed after VAR intervention. All that did was spark controversy in the TV studio -where learned commentators thought that the Official using the VAR was wrong!”

“These are the blokes who often say “the ball was played down the bye-line- when there is no such thing as a bye-line. I rest my case!” Brian insisted as his parting comment.
I hope that you feel that Brian has given a fair account of the processes used by the FA and the NCEL in observing, grading and developing our referees. I certainly do. They don’t get everything right-but, believe it or not, nor do managers, coaches, players, supporters …and, dare I say it, Club Committee Members!

Thanks to Brian and to all his Observers-and to all our match Officials, too. It wouldn’t be much of game without you.

Brian Fairclough was talking to Colin Muncie at the Bootiful Game.

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