As part of a new series of features, Impact Magazine will be interviewing the often overlooked team on a football field; the referees. This week, we interviewed Graham Poll, ex-Premier League and FIFA referee and rated as one of the finest officials of his generation on his life and stories of being a match official.
Why did you become a referee?
I fell into refereeing. Like most young boys my age, I loved all football. Watching a football match was always an event, and like anyone at the time, I had youthful aspirations of playing football for England on the international stage. Of course, as in most cases, I wasn’t quite good enough to play for England. My dad was a referee and I’d always known about him going off to do matches. They were running a course at the local county FA and he suggested that I should have a go. I took the course over a period of six weeks, passed the exam and became a fully-fledged official.
What were your aspirations to begin with?
When I first started the course, it was initially just a question of passing the exam at the end of the course. What soon surprised me was how much I actually enjoyed refereeing, and as with many things, nothing breeds ambition like success.
“nothing breeds ambition like success”
To begin with there was no major ambition and I would never have dreamt of refereeing at the World Cup Finals. At the time, the profile of referees across the country was quite muted; they refereed the games, but you didn’t notice them or know what their names were. The old system of refereeing saw you go through three steps, class one, two and three. Within four years I had already reached class one, meaning that potentially I could officiate at the highest level of football. The County FA became quite excited by the prospect of a talented official for Hertfordshire. Until that point there had not been a successful referee for quite a few years and soon I was being pushed further up the ladder towards professional leagues.
You were still very young when you became a Football League assistant- how did you deal with this at such a young age?
In all honesty, to begin with I did deal with it quite badly. I was at the time the youngest referee to ever officiate on the football league and I think it was the sudden success that made me appear too loud and excited. I remember that at the end of my second year as an assistant, I was on the line to Neil Midgely at Swindon, who at the time was one of the finest referees in England. Essentially I was told by him that I needed to calm down, otherwise I would ruin my career and jeopardise my chances of progressing any further. I wisely took on board what he had to say and progressed in a far better way throughout the League because of it.
“the sudden success made me appear too loud and excited”
Do you think that you represented a change in English refereeing?
I’d say that it wasn’t me directly that caused the change in refereeing, as I came up through the ranks some five or ten years before there were an increasing number of young referees pushing through. As a young official, you were an oddity to be on the Football League line at such a young age, and then moving up to the middle showed that English refereeing was no longer a place for old men, but that there were new and exciting opportunities for young officials to come through.
If we look at modern day referees, there are some that set out simply for the goal of becoming a professional referee. Stuart Atwell, who became a Premier League referee at twenty-five, began refereeing with the aim in mind to become a full time professional and to make a career out of it. Personally, I don’t think that refereeing should be about you setting your hope on making it your career, but rather it’s the process in which you can give something back to the game that every referee loves.
The issue we face at the moment is that there aren’t enough good referees coming through into the semi-professional and professional leagues. Some people are coming through too quickly and then being found out and dropped back down. I think we need to consolidate the training that we give to our young match officials and ensure that if they do have the potential to become a world class referee, then they can be given the right amount of training and support so to prepare them for the biggest stadiums and high profile teams.
The issue we face at the moment is that there aren’t enough good referees coming through into the semi-professional and professional leagues.
What was it like becoming a football league referee?
I think that becoming a League referee was probably the turning point of my career until that point. It was a big step up from the running to the line, but I had previously spent five years as an assistant as well as four years refereeing in the middle for Football Conference fixtures. I felt prepared and ready for the League. I had already seen many of the teams in the League whilst carrying out assistant refereeing duties. The luxury at the time was that during my first season in 1991, there was no ‘Premier League’ system and referees were able to do a really wide range of games at that time. I felt that I was ready for the step up and I enjoyed the pressure of having to push myself further to raise my own game.
Part Two of the article will be published tomorrow, where Graham tells us about the World Cup and offers some advice for young referees.
Images courtesy of The Telegraph