The future of Norfolk referees is in safe hands
- Credit: Archant
After implementing a new system of appointing referees, Norfolk FA has embarked on a recruitment drive looking for the next Howard Webb. GAVIN CANEY reports.
Norfolk FA chiefs insist their new system of appointing referees will be even more successful when they have extra officials to choose from.
For decades, five appointment secretaries had assigned referees to grassroots matches in their respective districts during every weekend of the season. However, that set-up was scrapped in the summer to centralise the process of organising football officiating across the county.
Mark Goldsmith was installed as Norfolk FA's referee appointments officer and has since been allowed full control, from Norwich, of deciding who will be taking charge of fixtures on a Saturday or Sunday.
It was a move that came under criticism by many initially. But the chief executive at Meridian Way, Shaun Turner, believes the sceptics have already been proved wrong.
The boss of Norfolk FA said: 'The local element was fine for many years, and the guys did a commendable job, but football and life has now changed. There was a limited use of IT and in today's world we need to be embracing the next generation and be more transparent.
'We've found our feet with this system. There were some teething issues at first. There were some IT limitations, like confirmations not being sent to referees. But we've overcome it. Our main problem was re-educating refs but I think we've done that now too.
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'Mark deals with everything so is aware of all the local issues and knows if clubs have issues with certain referees. We've cut out the middle man effectively. The new system is streamlined, modernised and centralised. We're trying to make everything as easy as possible for those who want to be involved in football, be it as a player, coach, manager, referee or spectator.'
Ensuring there are qualified referees to cover matches in leagues as far apart as King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth clearly isn't an easy process.
But the facts suggest that Goldsmith is doing a pretty good job. With only 452 officials currently registered in Norfolk – 170 of which are available on average on a Saturday and only 94 of which tend to be free on a Sunday – as many games as before are still being controlled by a qualified man or woman in the middle.
Some months have seen a slight increase in coverage rates, while some have seen a slight decrease, and Turner concedes those facts and figures are sometimes simply out of the county's control.
He said: 'There are external factors. In September and October you have the better weather, people are on holidays and referees are needed for the early rounds of the FA Cup – where the FA pinch our referees.
'There are so many factors too such as late call-offs. You can't get much better than the figures that we've got but how will you ever regularly get 100pc? As soon as a ref calls on the morning or afternoon of a game and says they're ill, or their car won't start, then there's nothing we can do about that. Sometimes people forget that.
'The numbers are pleasing. In year one, the coverage so far is pretty much exactly the same as it was. People said we wouldn't be able to cover as many games due to removing the local element but we've quashed that theory.
'This time next year we'll also be able to draw comparison and see how much bearing say Norwich City home games have on our coverage. We can review figures and look to enhance them. And we'll then know which referees are willing to travel further from where they live to cover matches. We're already a long way ahead of other county FAs who don't even record these statistics.'
Norfolk's next challenge is creating a new generation of officials. Half-price courses for the first half of 2013 are trying to tempt people into picking up the whistle. And publicity campaigns, such as kitting out a 'GoGoGorilla' in a referee's kit as part of a partnership with charity Break, are all tools being used to raise awareness of the need for more referees.
Taking charge of 90 minutes of action can commonly bring in £20, plus travel expenses, of income for a newly-qualified referee but Turner believes the lure of following Norfolk official Darren Cann into the professional game is equally appealing.
Turner said: 'We're aware of the need for more referees. The more we have available the easier it will be to cover matches. So we're trying to recruit more. And if we do that, in turn it will also help us raise standards.
'At the moment we're getting 75pc of trainees out onto pitches. You can earn money from reffing and we won't shy away from that. I'd rather educate a ref so he or she can earn £20-£30 rather than working in a department store on a weekend. It's all about a mindset and a certain number will have it.
'There's no upper age restriction at a local level. We have some refs in their 70s and some in their teens. But we need a conveyor belt as the game evolves to keep ensuring we have referees – without them there is no football. It's a good way of getting fit and it can be a career path.
'If you progress through the levels, and go through the fitness tests, you will improve as a ref. It can become a career when you develop your own personal goals. Darren admits he was never going to be good enough to play football at a high standard. But how many other people can say they've actually been involved in a Champions League or a World Cup final?'
- If you are aged over 16 and want to become a referee, you can. Norfolk FA are holding regular courses, which include six training games (for which candidates are paid and can claim expenses for) and a full starter pack including kit, for £67.50. Visit www.norfolkfa.com or call 01603 704050 for more details.
- Click on the related link to read an interview with an up and coming official.