In this month’s Referee Spotlight, we turn our attention to Damith Bandara who has, this summer, received his promotion to the English Football League (EFL) following success in the National League.
Damith’s journey started 11 years ago in Surrey, officiating on the Surrey South East Combination League, and later joining the Redhill & District League.
He soon started to climb the refereeing ladder, enjoying the challenges that come with it: “I achieved Level 6 to 4 promotion and spent four years as a Level 4 which was a learning curve to be honest! It’s a big step up and you just think ‘wow’, it was a real baptism of fire in my first year at that level.
“You’re getting used to players that are experienced and have been about, so it was a big learning experience for me.”
It was, however, eight years ago when things really picked up: “I achieved my Level 3 in I think 2012 and I was delighted at that point. My first two years as a Level 4 I was still learning but as a Level 3 it was time to push on.
“I was still in the middle as a referee at this point with aspirations to go as far as I could as a referee but after a couple of good years, I had a bit of a decision to make.”
It is as an Assistant Referee that Bandara has seen his promotion to the EFL after success in the middle of the park, and believes he made the right decision to turn to the line: “Things were changing at The FA, the training was getting a lot better and I was thinking ‘do I want to be an assistant or do I want to be a referee?’ I was now officiating on the National League and I had to decide which I was going to do.
“In my first year in the National League I loved it. New grounds, bigger crowds, my first game was at Leyton Orient and in non-league it doesn’t get a lot bigger than that!
“I stood there on a Tuesday night at Leyton Orient when there’s 4 or 5,000 fans and thinking ‘wow I could get used to this!’.
“So eventually I decided to go down the lining route and spent three years in the National League as an assistant and last year was a brilliant year albeit a strange one finishing in March.”
Damith speaks to us openly about the “big decisions” that you sometimes have to make as an official and getting those right make you stand out.
There was one in particular that turned out to be massive for Damith last season: “I started last year off flying and got some fantastic marks. The last game before lockdown happened, I gave a no-penalty to the referee and he decided to go with me and not give it.
“We’re then sat there after thinking ‘have we got this wrong?’ the manager was fuming with the decision but thankfully when they looked at the DVD, they saw we got it right.
“That decision all but confirmed my promotion really which ultimately has always been my dream when I first started out.”
Despite being a challenging “learning curve” for Damith in the National League, a promotion to the EFL was what he described as “the holy grail”, so just what did it mean to him?
“It was the longest wait ever (when the season ended)! Because the season finished in March, we didn’t have the standard process of the season finishing, play-offs happening and finding out in May.
“At one point I was thinking about how hard I worked and got in a good position all for there just to be no promotions this year which was being talked about.
“I ended up finding out in the first week of July. I’m a teacher, and I’m sat in class looking through my emails and I get one through saying ‘Congratulations’ and I was absolutely buzzing!
“All my kids are looking at me celebrating and I said: ‘I’ve just been promoted to the Football League!’
"As well as I thought I had done, nothing is guaranteed in this game and you’ve got to keep working hard.”
Damith joins just a handful of Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) match officials in the EFL, something he is immensely proud of: “I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a BAME representative in the EFL - it’s a very small minority.
“I was born in Sri Lanka, although spent most of my life here in Surrey and Sussex, but who knows if there’s ever been another Sri Lankan assistant in the EFL.
“Racism isn’t something that even crosses my mind when I’m out there doing what I’m doing. I’m a BAME official from Sussex and it’ll be great to see more make their way through the pyramid.”
Lastly, he added words of support for aspiring officials in Sussex: “Any young officials coming through, you’ve got to be headstrong, you’ve got to believe in yourself. It’s a great way to get into professional sport.”
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