Football referees: Sian Massey-Ellis, Chris Kavanagh and others on being an official

By Kal SajadBBC Get Inspired
Premier League officials Sian Massey-Ellis and Chris Kavanagh
Assistant referee Sian Massey-Ellis and referee Chris Kavanagh officiated at the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield in December

"I don't like to call myself a role model but if one person picks up a whistle because they've seen me on the field, then I've done my job."

English official Sian Massey-Ellis is an assistant referee in the Premier League and English Football League. The 33-year-old from Coventry also referees in the the Women's Super League.

As the Premier League's top referees and assistant referees meet for a training camp at St George's Park - the Football Association's national football centre - Massey-Ellis is the only female in the group of 45.

Despite the lack of diversity in top-flight refereeing, she says that times are changing and thinks refereeing is starting to become "a cool thing to do" for younger people.

"Volunteering and leadership roles are really developing for the youth of today," Massey-Ellis told BBC Get Inspired.

"When I was at school, kids were like 'I don't want to be the referee, give someone else the whistle', but now it's getting a little bit cooler and people will give it a go."

'Anybody can be a ref'

Sian Massey-Ellis
Massey-Ellis has been a Premier League assistant referee since December 2010

Farai Hallam, senior referees officer at the Football Association, says that although referees tend to be older men, times are changing from "20 or 30 years ago".

"We have a phrase at the FA: Changing the face of refereeing," Hallam said.

"Around 90% of new refs are under the age of 20 and the average age is coming down. More and more people are coming from diverse backgrounds. We want to make refereeing for all."

Hallam also referenced Lucy Clarkexternal-link - the first transgender referee to take to the field.

Massey-Ellis added: "It shows that anybody can be a ref, that it doesn't matter what background or culture you're from. It's all about that love for football."

'Her hair is like mine, can I be a referee?'

Referee Melissa Burgin
Four-year-old Clara found a new hero in referee Melissa Burgin

Melissa Burgin, 22, started refereeing after she fell out love with playing football at the age of 15, having been released by Sheffield United.

She said: "I burnt out from football, I didn't enjoy it. Refereeing is a thing where I get more adrenaline from.

"I am still involved in the game and it's the best seat in the house."

Burgin, a level four referee, was the assistant referee when Chelsea played Manchester City in the 2018 Women's FA Cup semi-final.

She dreams of "going all the way to the top", officiating in the Premier League and at international level, but she has already tasted the limelight after inadvertently becoming a role model for a four-year-old girl when a tweet went viral.external-link

"I was on the line at Garforth Town versus Hall Road Rangers at the beginning of last season," she recalled.

"A four-year-old girl called Clara was in the crowd. There was a long stoppage in play. I could see she was mesmerised that there was a girl on the men's football pitch. She was speaking to me. I turned round to say hello and her dad had taken a photo.

"He put it on Twitter, I woke up on Sunday morning and it had gone viral."

Four-year-old Clara dressed up as her hero Melissa Burgin
Four-year-old Clara dressed up as her hero Melissa Burgin, who was refereeing a game at St George's Park

Clara was invited down to St George's Park to meet Burgin, who was officiating a Scotland versus Wales under-15s match.

Then on World Book Day, Clara had to dress up as what she wanted to be when she was older - and chose to go in Burgin's referees kit.

"That's a prime example of how I can change people's perceptions of football games," said Burgin.

"I don't think there's ever been a greater time to be a female football referee. The opportunities are greater than ever.

"I've never seen it as a barrier and I don't think your gender obstructs you."

'No point hiding' from abuse of referees

Referee Daniel Sweeney
Referee Daniel Sweeney recovering in hospital after being attacked in an amateur game

Football refereeing has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons this year. Four men were arrested after assaulting referee Daniel Sweeney in an amateur game in the Republic of Ireland and assistant referee Calum Spence was hit by an object thrown from the crowd in Scotland.

"These challenging instances are very few and far between and we can probably count on one hand the amount of severe cases," Hallam said.

"But that's not to say it's right. One bad occasion for a referee is one too many."

Premier League referee Chris Kavanagh says there is "no point hiding" from the fact that abuse of referees happens, but added that the number of incidents is falling.

"It is becoming a safer environment for people to officiate in, there is a lot of work going on to combat it," the 33-year-old from Manchester said.

One of those initiatives is the FA's Respect Campaign,external-link which focuses on the behaviour of the individual, including parents, coaches, managers and players.

The physical commitment to being a ref

Can an aspiring referee keep up with Premier League's Massey-Ellis?

Massey-Ellis is part of Select Group One, the 17 professional referees and 28 assistant referees in top-flight football, appointed by Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL).

Those officials meet regularly as part of their development, to go through an intensive two-day schedule, including fitness drills and officiating mock matches.

There are also classroom-based activities, such as analysing the previous weekend's decisions, as well as a look ahead to the introduction of VAR next season.

Officials are given a strict training programme to follow throughout the week to maintain their fitness and keep up with pace of Premier League football.

"It's important to maintain the body," Kavanagh said.

"We do a mixture of things, from high-intensity cardio, upper body, lower body, core work and injury prevention.

"After the game, we have massages and foam rollers to make sure we are looking after the body. It's all very similar to the players; we have masseurs, ice baths, the lot."

Hallam said those getting into refereeing at grassroots level will see a distinct improvement in their fitness.

"Referees will do between nine and 11 kilometres a game so, as the game evolves and gets quicker, refs will get quicker and fitter," he said.

Teamwork, leadership, confidence

Dan Cook, Chris Kavanagh and Sian Massey-Ellis
Dan Cook (left), Chris Kavanagh (centre) and Sian Massey-Ellis (right) often work together as a team in Premier League matches

Becoming a referee can benefit you off the field too, says Massey-Ellis.

"Teamwork, leadership, confidence - I could list a million things refereeing has taught me," she said.

"When I was a young girl starting refereeing, I was quiet. I had a small circle of friends but I wasn't really that outgoing.

"Refereeing gave me a confidence. It's really developed me as a person.

"Standing in the middle of the pitch with players going to their own teams, you have to be a sociable person, learn to be confident as you blow that first whistle to call the players in."

Kavanagh nodded in agreement, adding: "You're managing situations on the football pitch but are then able to take that out into your personal life.

"I took it back into school, college and into work before I was a full-time referee."

Massey-Ellis and Kavanagh often work together as a team in Premier League matches, alongside assistant referee Dan Cook.

"The teamwork and friendship is great, I love the social side of refereeing," said Massey-Ellis.

"When the three of us do well together you just think how fantastic it is to be part of the team."

'We're all human, we'll make mistakes'

Massey-Ellis says it is inevitable that every referee will make a mistake, but being successful in the role is about learning and improving.

She said: "On the car journey home, you feel awful - and feel like you ruined the game - if you've made a bad decision.

"But I want to analyse the game from my own perspective, look at why I've made that mistake and prevent it from happening again.

"We're all human, we'll make mistakes. It's about learning from it."

'You get to watch the beautiful game'

The FA encourages anyone thinking of getting into refereeing to find out more via its website.external-link There are opportunities in different forms of the game, including adults, junior, disability, futsal and walking football.

Kavanagh wants people of all ages to give it a go.

He said: "We're able to walk on to a field of play, stay involved in the game and watch some fantastic football from grassroots to the Premier League.

"You get to watch the beautiful game."