Football Focus: Kevin Kilbane tries life as a referee and linesman

By Chris BevanBBC Sport
Kilbane learns how to be a referee

After more than 600 first-team matches during a 17-year career as a professional footballer, there is not much left about playing the game that is new to Kevin Kilbane. It is a different story when it comes to refereeing one, however.

Kilbane, a self-proclaimed novice with the whistle, discovered his limitations as the man in the middle when he joined top officials like Howard Webb and 80 aspiring referees from all over the country at a Football Association and Referees' Association master-class.

He was there to find out what it takes to become a top official - and why youngsters want to become one. The former Everton, Sunderland and West Brom winger admits he did not make the grade himself, although watching him in action was definitely entertaining.

"I've got to remember to blow my whistle when I am running," sighed Kilbane at one point during a referees drill, while a linesman exercise did not go much better.

Although he got the decision correct, his signalling from the touchline was somewhat eccentric. "I am out of my comfort zone! I didn't know which hand to put my flag in, or how you need to keep your line of sight clear when you wave it," he laughed afterwards.

Kilbane was keen to learn from his mistakes, though, and he was definitely in the right company. As well as Webb and a host of Premier League officials, David Elleray - the president of the Referees' Association and chairman of the FA's Referees' Committee - was also present, as part of an initiative to mark the FA's 150th anniversary.

So were the fitness coaches that put England's top officials through their paces and the video technology for analysis they use in training to improve their standards.

"The purpose of the day is to try to demonstrate the practical way in which we try to teach referees these days." Elleray, who officiated in hundreds of top-flight games, 70 international matches and the 1994 FA Cup final before retiring in 2003, told BBC Sport.

"The field of play is where they do their work, not the classroom. We believe increasingly that it is better to learn on the pitch than it is indoors."

There are plenty of willing students too. Referee recruitment and retention rates are up by 5,000 since 2008 and, despite the public perception that this is a profession where you face verbal abuse and even violence on a regular basis, the young referees that Kilbane spoke to feel it is a positive experience, whatever their level.

Jacob Miles, a 22-year-old student from Sussex, has been a referee since 2005 and now runs the line in Ryman League matches.

He said: "I was a bit shy when I was younger but refereeing is a great way to improve your confidence, communication and man-management.

"There are still bad incidents which are widely publicised but things have come on leaps and bounds since the FA brought out the Respect programme, and that is helping young referees especially."

Lauren Steers, 17, is one of a growing number of female officials and added: "From refereeing you become more organised and independent and learn how to deal with people.

"There is not much sexism. I might get the odd remark but mostly that is people coming up to me and telling me how refreshing it is have a woman refereeing their game.

"I would definitely say to more women to get involved. I've acted as a mentor for girls who have just passed their referee exam and the advice I always give is 'don't give up after your first season'. Some people are not able to handle the abuse they get in the first season but, in the second season, they can say 'I've heard that before'."

Webb, who dished out his own bibs and cones before taking a session on decision-making in and around the penalty area, was encouraged by the numbers and the standards of the young referees he worked with.

"Looking here today, we have got people of all ages but lots under 20 who have taken up the whistle," Webb said. "Seeing how many of them have turned up for this session really enthuses me.

"They have a passion for the game and they have seen the opportunities that refereeing can give them in terms of personal development. They might have ambition to get to the top or just do it because they love the game and want to be involved in it.

"It attracts different people for different reasons but what people do see these days is that there is a definite career path they can take to get to a really decent level in the game."

At 41, London cab driver Wally James was the oldest amateur referee present. He knows he will never reach the Premier League, but is keen to progress as far as he can.

"Howard told us that if you think as a referee that you are never going to make a mistake again, give up now," James explained.

"He said if you carry on refereeing, you are going to make mistakes but you can learn from them and they will make you a better ref."

Those words are encouraging for Kilbane too. He sailed through both sections of the assistant referee's fitness and speed test but flunked his next drill with the whistle.

Kilbane tried to split up Elleray and Martin Atkinson as they grappled on the ground in the penalty area, bringing an incredulous response from the officials.

"What are you doing!? You can't do that!" shouted Elleray. "When we are lying on the floor and another arm comes in, how do we know it is the referee's arm? We could react and hurt you.

"Never touch the players - it is not your responsibility. You let them sort it out, and use your voice and blow your whistle."

Kilbane is not alone when it comes to players not knowing the rules. He knows only one ex-team-mate who took a refereeing course while still a professional - former Preston stalwart Ian Bryson - but feels it would benefit players to know the laws of the game and how referees do their jobs.

"The day was a real eye-opener. I think as a player you do take the officials for granted," Kilbane said afterwards. "At times you think officiating is an easy job, but it certainly isn't. There are lots of fine margins, such as when it is your call if it is a penalty or not.

"At times I was 50-50 about some of my decisions. It is hard to decide either way, and even harder when you have the whistle in your hand. David Elleray asked me if I would stake my career on one of my decisions, and you realise you have to be 100% certain."

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