This year, 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. Below is the second part of our two-part interview. You can read Part One of the interview here, where Graham tells us about his rise through the ranks and his football league experience.
Tell us about refereeing for the first time in the Premier League.
It was very exciting, but there was something quite familiar about doing the games. Before the Premier League existed and there was just the Football League, you encountered many of these top level teams before. I had refereed live games before, but this also gave a great deal of added pressure. My first game was between Southampton and Sheffield United at The Dell. There is a moment when as a referee you are standing in the tunnel with the players behind you.
You can hear the roar of thousands of fans and there is a small lull before you finally go out onto the pitch. That one special moment is the driving force that spurs you on as an official. I remember having to send off David Tuttle in the second half and my experience over the years enabled me to take the ultimate sanction without fear. The first time that I went to Old Trafford was different again; it’s this awesome dreaming moment and you know you’ll have a tough game.
I remember the first time that I went to Old Trafford; it’s this awesome dreaming moment and you were up against it. The FA had great faith in you and perceived you to be good enough, so you had to follow the game and prove that you were good enough to take charge of games here again.
I did get butterflies before games and I know they helped ensure I was up for every match. However, towards the end the games became quite routine and I think that this is something that is causing an issue for modern referees. If referees end up seeing the same team too many times per season, it’s possible that they can get too comfortable with this role and that they may become complacent. This is key in making decisions as when an incident occurs that may be deemed as controversial, people may argue that the referee in charge is doing too many games with this one side and questions may be raised.
Very few referees are fortunate enough to achieve FIFA status- how did it come about for you?
The numbers of FIFA referees had gone down at the time, but FIFA status was only achieved by merit. You were deemed to be suitable to fill the capacity of a FIFA official and you were selected by them.
Do you remember your first international match?
Yes, it was in 1996, and following a UEFA- led course that gave me an introduction as to how FIFA operate, I went to officiate in an under sixteen tournament where France played Spain. I enjoyed FIFA status and I liked the balance between domestic leagues and international games. FIFA status meant that I could officiate in UEFA games, which was always a draw to me. As in most cases, the UEFA games such as the Champions League, produced some of the best football in the world. If you ever ask a referee whether he would rather officiate a World Cup match or a Champions League Final, they’d always pick the Champions League, because of the standard of football.
You refereed the last game at the old Wembley, as well as finishing your career at the new one. Can you tell us about the experience?
The last Cup Final at the ‘old’ Wembley was something quite special. Growing up, and even as I progressed as a referee, it was the game that everyone saw and where you fell in love with football. When you stood in the ground there was an immense sense of pride with it being the national stadium, but also you were made aware of the history surrounding it, with events like the 1966 World Cup Finals.
“If you are worried about making mistakes, then you should you hang up your whistle and never referee again”
To referee the FA Cup Final is an immense privilege, as it’s a game that you can only do once, and the pinnacle for any referee in English Football. I thoroughly enjoyed the occasion and it was fantastic to be part of the final in the old Wembley for the last time. To say that my last game was in the new Wembley stadium for the Championship Play Off Final was quite nice, as it was my way of being able to complete the picture, albeit without the history of the ground.
You said in your autobiography that the late, great Jack Taylor told you that had things been different during 2006, you would have refereed the final. This meant that you were recognised as being the best referee in the world- looking back on this statement, how did that feel?
To have someone like Jack Taylor say this to me gave me an indication of how I was rated by a person I respected, rather than how I rated myself. The World Cup was always going to be the end of the journey for me, as I would have been too old to officiate in another one. You achieve what you set out to achieve and then you move on. What he said meant an awful lot and it confirmed to me that I achieved reached the pinnacle of my career and had been the referee that I could be. If I look at my games in World Cup 2006 in context, then yes it was a high pressured atmosphere, but in the end, it was only a game. Yes, these games are shown to millions all across the world, but at time you need to step back and think that it’s only a game of football. There really are bigger and more important things to life than that.
Yes, these games are shown to millions all across the world, but at time you need to step back and think that it’s only a game of football.
What would be your advice to any young referee looking to pursue a career in refereeing and be at the top of his game?
I’d say that more than anything, you need to enjoy it. If you are going out every weekend and sometimes in the midweek, it can sometimes be a very tense atmosphere. You need to ensure that you can use the pressure to your advantage and enjoy refereeing every game. You need to be aware that you will make mistakes along the way. If you are worried about making mistakes, then you should you hang up your whistle and never referee again. We’re all human, and we do make errors, but that helps us to mature and learn as match officials.
Don’t set your targets too high. There may be a long term goal in mind, but you don’t have the knowledge you need for that straight away. The key thing that I would say is that physical fitness is essential. If you can master that, then it will prepare you better for anything and make the sky your limit.
Image courtesy of rediff.com