After a period of sustained criticism of NCEL officiating during last season, the Bootiful Game published a special feature interview with Brian Fairclough, the Referee Observers Appointments Secretary at the NCEL, in March.
In that piece, our writer Colin Muncie got an honest perspective from Brian about how refereeing standards were monitored, maintained and improved.
The wheel has turned again, though, and we’ve again seen an upturn in quite vocal criticism from many of our Managers. In the last couple of days, two of our most respected and successful managers Billy Fox and Jas Colliver have given us a few insights into the possible causes of the current disaffection with officiating in the League; but we were interested in what the guys in the middle had to say.
So, our intrepid Editor, Craig Kendall climbed into his little bubble car and set off for a sit-down with respected referee, Danny Guest. Not for the first time this week, Craig has come up with a fascinating and readable piece which is well worth your time.
Danny, only 32, was promoted to a Level Three referee for the start of this season, which allows him to officiate in both NCEL Leagues and the Evo-Stik East, Central, West and Premier Leagues.
Also a serving police officer on his way to a night shift immediately after the interview. With this in mind Craig wondered if his chosen career – not uncommon amongst NCEL referees – helped Danny in his refereeing role. Danny agreed that it had, stating, “Being a police officer is mainly about communication and man-management, skills which are definitely transferable into refereeing. At work I man-manage all different types of individuals, some under the influence of stuff and things, which makes it a tough job. However, it’s good practice for when you have to deal with the many different characters and personalities connected with the game. When dealing with the dugouts you’re essentially dealing with people that are running high on emotion and sometimes want to challenge you. It’s the way you talk to them to calm the emotions down that gets you the success and helps you get on with the game. Basically, just another extended day at the office!”
Danny, relatively young for a referee was asked, how come he was still not pursuing a playing career. “I played until about the age of 18/19 having flirted with one or two professional clubs as a 15/16-year-old” he recalled. ”I played at Rotherham and Chesterfield through their Centres of Excellency but I never particularly made it… I played in goal, however at only 5 Feet 10 I was classed as ‘not tall enough,’ but it would have been nice to have made it. I also played at one or two semi-professional clubs and also played for Mark Shaw at Alfreton Town in their Under-18 side.”
“I spent some time away from playing football, football coaching at the time and concluded that wasn’t going to be a long-term career for me either. Approached by a guy called Paul Canadine, who was a Premier League Assistant at the time, he asked if I fancied giving refereeing a go which could be the perfect opportunity to stay within sport I love. I thought why not as I’m always up for a new challenge, I gave it a go and really enjoyed it! Result.”
“At the time I was also working with Barnsley or Rotherham United on one of their community programmes so I was working with people like Chris Dolby and Darren England at Barnsley, who’s gone on to be a Football League official. Also, at Rotherham, I got to know Jas Colliver, Ryan Hindley and Mark Shaw quite well, doing the soccer schools. I knew a few people that are now involved at this level of football, before they got into Management, and before I got into refereeing. We have all evolved into our different roles – but we still keep in contact with each other.”
Danny was honest enough to accept that he didn’t always enjoy refereeing. “I’ll be honest, it’s not something I think everybody enjoys 100% of the time. Obviously, mistakes happen – and nobody likes making mistakes. It’s a common myth that referees enjoy upsetting clubs; that’s completely not true! It ruins weekends when we make mistakes. Obviously when a criticism’s is levelled, it does affect you. We’re all human beings at the end of the day, however, the sooner you can shake off the criticism and be ready for the next game, the better.”
Asked for further insights into the impact of wrong decisions on referees, Danny was unequivocal in his reply. “Referees live on confidence, they live on good form and when you do hit a dip in form it’s the same as anything: your confidence goes, which then in turn affects performance and enjoyment. It all correlates, in that when things are going well we’re the same as anybody, we’re enjoying it.”
Does Danny want to make a career out of refereeing – maybe even getting to the Premier League? “Absolutely!” he enthused. ”I would love to take it as far as is physically possible and age is still on my side. I did about five years on the Northern Counties, having moved from the Sheffield Counties Senior League. I’m fairly well experienced at the Level below, which has given me a good foundation for moving up to Level 3. We’ve definitely all got ambitions,” Danny went on. “Obviously in three years’ time I’ll have the decision to make whether to continue in the middle or to go on the line. By that time, I’ll be 35 so, to be brutally honest, age will play a part in my decisions. I’ll see how I’m feeling at 35! Either in the middle or on the line; I definitely have ambitions to go as high as physically possible.”
Asked about his refereeing style, Danny is crystal clear. “I’ll more than happily let the players get on with things,” he insisted, “and I’ll be standing back in the shadows, I’m not one that needs to raise their profile for any sort of reason. If there’s something that needs dealing with then I’ll deal with it but, if there’s nothing there, I’m more than happy to be a spectator.”
“That’s the philosophy I adopted a couple of years ago, when I reached my thirties,” Danny explained. “Communication with people becomes easier with maturity. I think it’s easier for younger referees to get taken to task by the more experienced managers – and they all know who they are! When you get to thirty I think people look at you a bit differently, which enables you to deal with people differently. It enables communication – so I can deal with those people easier by talking to them rather than having to throw the cards about.”
He offered an interesting insight into how wisdom comes with experience. “There are games that I’ve done this year, where previously I would have issued four or five yellow cards and maybe a red. This year I’m only using, say, two yellow cards because certain actions that I would have carded before, I am now able to manage and keep players on the pitch – and the cards in the pocket.”
Always a fan of the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, Craig put Danny on the spot by asking him to name and shame the games and managers that he had dealt with before, that he dreaded to go to when the match confirmations came through. “I wouldn’t go as far as say dread!“ Danny shot back. “There are certain grounds that you go to where you know you’re going to be in for a hard time – but my take on it is that I relish the challenge. I don’t shy away from those people.”
Danny is a big fan of the game as well as the man in control. “I ’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved in some fantastic games of football this season and I’ve not really had any major issues,” he reported. “Obviously there’s an element of luck in there – but the games have gone well! I’ve let the lads get on with playing football and there haven’t been any really major issues.”
“I did have a red card at Staveley last month – against Albion Sports,” Danny added, “and I think it’s one that no-one could really argue with. That’s the only one I’ve had so far this season. It’s the only time I’ve really had to raise my profile – and I didn’t get too many complaints about my decision.”
TBG had noted that Danny was no stranger to social media, but he preferred to set that in context. “I think I asked a question in response to a bit of ongoing conversation,” he pointed out, “and I didn’t really get much of a response to that specific question. For me, there’s a lot of criticism aimed at the referees for not communicating effectively – or not communicating at all. I suppose the question is; would it be something that people would want… I mean, officials on social media, talking about decisions?”
Danny isn’t so convinced that the answer to this question would be an unqualified ‘yes’. “It’s not going to suit everybody,” he admitted. “Not everyone would have the confidence to talk about decisions that they made, or be able to put it across in an eloquent style that doesn’t offend people. However, I do think that anything that enhances communication between clubs, players and officials has to be seen as a positive.”
“I saw a conversation that was ongoing with people saying that they’re aware that mistakes have been made,” Danny told us by way of explanation.” I take it on board and I understand the point of view. It’s how the mistakes are dealt with afterwards; the explanation why the mistake was made; how it can be prevented and then that allows improvements to be made. That’s my philosophy.”
“I had a phone call with Andy Saunders, the Chairman of AFC Mansfield, yesterday, who wanted my take on one of my handball decisions, a penalty that I didn’t give,” Andy told us. “I explained my decision and he respected that; and I respect him for the way that he conducted himself in the phone call. Communication for me is vital for anything to be a success.”
Craig wondered if having an Assessor in the grandstand on match days added to the pressure on the officials. Danny had no doubts. “There’s no need to think about it, it does, without a doubt. I might be hanging myself out to dry a little bit here – but that’s the kind of character that I am! It impacts massively. Ultimately, we all want to get on and the way that we get on is by getting good Assessor’s marks. It’s as simple as that. Club marks do have a certain bearing – but ultimately, it’s down to the guys that come and watch us at the games.”
Danny gave us some feedback on what the Assessor thought of his performance in last week’s Northern Premier League (East) clash at Forest Town. “I was criticised on Saturday for my style of refereeing,” he told us. “I was told that I was too laid back and I needed to be more stand-offish. “Now, those were the words of the Assessor based on how I had spoken to both Management teams before the game at AFC Mansfield against Brighouse.”
“That attitude is not going to please everybody on the communication side of things. It’s disappointing because ultimately that would suggest that certain observers want to see cards and that the way that referees are going to get on is by showing cards rather than managing situations. There are situations where they’ve got no option but to show cards. Everyone’s expecting a card and, if you don’t card, you invite criticism because you’ve not shown a card. There are though certain things that can be managed. Offences early doors can be managed, then, if they continue to repeat the offence then you are left with no option. It’s easier to sell the decision that way by managing it early on rather than be throwing out early yellow cards.”
“I’m friendly with both Vill [Powell, Brighouse Manager] and Rudy [Funk, Manager AFC Mansfield], not just one of them,” he explained. “I’ve been refereeing for eight years and I know the pair of them, but it’s a difficult one. Manager says, I should be less stand-offish which the clubs want, but then you have the Assessors telling referees they need to be more stand-offish; and if they are, it’s going to create this ‘us and them’ culture.”
Asked if the fans ever influence Danny’s decisions, he couldn’t be clearer, “with regard to supporters, not at all!” he insisted. “You’re so focused on what’s happening around you in the game that you know they’re there, but you don’t really correlate what’s been said. Sometimes you become so engrossed in what’s happening around you that you can’t even hear what the players – who are only three or four yards from you – are saying.”
As he heads off to his night shift, Danny left Craig with a worthwhile parting comment in keeping with the rest of a fascinating conversation. “People will read this and think, “why is a referee being interviewed, but there are people out there that do want to hear a referee’s side. We are normal guys like them, with wives and families and regular jobs; why shouldn’t we have a voice, they do!”
“Normal guys who, rather than play, we referee the sport we love.”
The Bootiful Game would like to thank Danny Guest for his fine contributions to this piece. We would also like to thank Ellie Dalglish for her transcribing skills.