Referee Spotlight: Mike Ryan
In this month’s Referee Spotlight, in association with REFSIX, we spoke to Level 2B Referee, Mike Ryan.
“If 2B finished tomorrow and The FA, turned round to me and said, ‘right, Mike, you’ve got to go back to Level 7’, I’d still continue to referee.” It’s a reflective conversation to have with Mike who looks back on how much refereeing has given to him.
Football has always been a huge part of Mike’s life, and refereeing was certainly not a road he originally saw himself going down. It was a chance opportunity, however, that he has never looked back on.
“I had to really scratch into the history books in terms of dates and how I started. I played football from a very young age and I come from a very footballing family background.
“I played from the age of five or six up until the age of 18. I played for Rustington Otters in the Arun & Chichester Youth League before moving to Worthing United. But I qualified as a referee in 2008 at the age of 16. So last year of school, I was playing for Worthing United under-16s and the club were running a scheme where there was an opportunity for three players in the under-16s squad to take their refereeing badge.
“It was on the expectation that we would officiate some mini soccer games for the club, chip in and help out. It was me, Phil Charman, and a lad called Ali Giammattei. To be honest, I fell into refereeing really in that sense. I really enjoyed playing and had no intention of becoming a referee but saw it as a really good opportunity to get a qualification.
“Over the next two years, I balanced refereeing with playing for Worthing College Sports Academy and refereeing under-18s. It was at the point when I hit 18, and transitioning from youth football, into men's football, that I realised it was difficult to balance refereeing with playing at a competitive level.”
Mike approached the course with open arms and embraced the opportunity to further his own education. So much so, that he saw his future in the game as a referee rather than a player.
“The refereeing course has changed over the years, and for the better I feel. When I first did the course it was all theory based. I had to go to Lancing Parish Hall over an eight-week period; the tutors were Derek Mansfield and Duncan Carter.
“It was a sit-down examination at the end, and it was very much like any other qualification that it was a pass or fail. I was fortunate to pass, and you then had to referee six games before you were formally given your refereeing qualification.
“I received an email from Ray Welch asking me to identify what leagues I wanted to operate on, and another email from Keith Brisley of the Worthing Referees’ Association to invite me along to their meetings.
“As much as I did enjoy playing football, I felt that I could progress further in my career as a referee. I'm 29 now so I've been doing it the best part of 11 years, and I’ve gone much higher in the game than I would have done as a player.”
“Locally, Keith was my biggest mentor and friend. He's a legend in Sussex football! Without his guidance and support, could I have been one of the lads that stopped refereeing? Quite possibly. Dave Phillips who I now work with as a coach is another person who has had a big influence on me. He is a superb coach, and will no doubt go on to support referees that are far better than I am.”
It’s interesting to hear that Mike saw from the start that refereeing was a way for him to stay in the game longer. He got the bug straight away and hasn’t looked back since progressing up the refereeing ladder.
“To be honest, I just loved it from day one. I really enjoyed the different aspect of football that it presented; the challenges that refereeing brought. I mean, obviously I started on youth fixtures, where you're managing parents as much as you're managing players, but just really enjoyed it.
“For someone that was a fanatical football fan, it would have taken a lot to stop me playing football. But that's just how much I enjoyed refereeing and still continue to enjoy it to the same level today.
“It was very much as a hobby to begin with, it was park football. At the time, being a teenager, refereeing was providing me with an income that was more than doing a paper round or working in a minimum wage job somewhere could. There weren't too many 17-year-olds with that level of disposable income.
“I'm very thankful to refereeing for that, but it was really once I got past the age of 18 and I joined the promotion scheme that I started to take it more seriously. I thought actually, I'm refereeing, getting good feedback from observers and the teams I’m refereeing, so why not try to take things further and it’s got me to where I am now.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is my longevity, when I think back to when I first started out refereeing, I was part of the Sussex Referee Academy, a lot of those referees aren't involved in football anymore, which is very sad, especially as, at the time, we were thought of as some of the best young referees in Sussex.
“Likewise, from a general football perspective, very few people that I played football with are still involved in the game now in any capacity.”
Mike believes his love for football and refereeing has seen him remain in the game, where some others have steered away, but his love and enthusiasm for the game still remains no matter what level he is officiating at.
“[More competitive football] that's still what I enjoy today. I referee at 2B now, which is a is a good level of football, but I still enjoy refereeing as an art, the same as I did when I was refereeing on the Worthing & District League, without a doubt.
“I think people who don't quite have the stomach for it do fall away when you go into men's football, particularly when you're on the parks doing men's football, it's a hard place. When I've coached younger referees, it's described as doing your apprenticeship, the football isn't going to be brilliant all of the time, you are going to be out there refereeing on poorer facilities.
“Ultimately, you're going to be on your own. You're not going to have neutral assistants. So that's when you've really got to do your apprenticeship, you learn your trade and if you're good enough, you only spend a very small period of time at park level, you're talking perhaps one or two years at best.
“The higher you go, the harder it is to come by success. I think what most young referees find is that they'll whip through levels 7, 6, 5, some will get to 4, simply because, there's a momentum around them, people talking saying, ‘that guy’s particularly good’ and observers talk, County FA’s talk.
“Then suddenly you get past 4 and you go into a huge cohort of Level 3s nationally, and now you're being required to go to Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, to referee.
“So perhaps the reputation you have built up in your county doesn't quite carry, you've got to rebuild that, and it gets harder because you're in with just as many young hungry referees as what you are. There aren't as many cup finals to referee and there aren’t as many opportunities to get promoted so it does get harder.”
Mike credits much of his early development to Worthing RA where being a member allowed him to be around older and more experienced referees and learn from their wisdom.
He was also an employee here at the Sussex County FA, which he says aided him as he progressed up the refereeing ladder: “I worked at Sussex County FA for four years, between the age of 21 and 25. The support network was great and Ken Benham (CEO) was happy to give me the flexibility to go out and referee around working commitments.
“I think working life was a big contribution to my progression. People that have got jobs that aren't particularly flexible around football tend to fall by the wayside quicker than those that do.”
From the outset, Mike set his sights firmly on performing at the best of his ability as a referee. The fact that it has gone beyond just a hobby and reached the level he has, is an added bonus.
“I'll be honest, I never held any huge aspirations to go and referee in the Premier League or turn it into a career. That's never been why I've done it, it's just more been a case of it was a hobby that I really enjoyed.
“If I do anything, I try to do it to the best of my ability and that's taken me to this point of where I am. Whether I've hit the ceiling now, I don't know, but I've never thought, ‘right, I'm at Level 5 or Level 4 now this is how I'm going to get to the Premier League.’ That's never been an aspiration of mine.”
He does add, however: “I've still got aspirations to get beyond 2B and 2A; if I ever did get there, I’d then revaluate and say, ‘right, let's see if we can get to the Football League.’ It's one step at a time, but it’s interesting that as I've progressed with refereeing, the level of commitment requirement has increased dramatically.”
From match officials that we have spoken to in the past, the stage of specialisms, choosing whether to referee or be an assistant, has always been open to discussion. For Mike, however, refereeing is where the passion started and where he knows it will end.
“So many things have changed over the last 11 years. I forget the year, but it was about five, six years ago now where The FA introduced specialisms.
“In the past right up to the Premier League, you could do what's called a dual role. So, you could referee and you could assist, the idea being that you would referee a level below what you assisted so you could learn from higher level referees and it worked quite well.
“Under that regime we produced Howard Webb, Mark Clattenburg, so something was obviously right about it. Six years ago, they introduced specialisms whereby after your fourth year at Level 3, you had to decide what you wanted to do, whether that was as a referee or as an assistant.
“In my four years at Level 3 I spent three years as what's called a Panel Select Assistant operating on the National League Premier Division and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the variety of refereeing and lining, I did several games on BT Sport, which was a brilliant experience. But if I'm being totally honest, my heart has always been in refereeing.
“It was an easy decision for me to go down the refereeing route, more so because I looked at it at the age of 26 and thought I've probably got another 15 or 20 years at a fairly decent level in football. Now, do I really want to do that on the line? The answer was no.
“My last ever game on the line was Sutton against someone, I can't quite remember who they were playing, but the game finished and that was it really. I had no kind of emotions about it, whereas I think if that would have been my last game in the middle, I would have been gutted, absolutely gutted.
There’s been several proud moments for Mike in his career thus far; officiating on the Isthmian Premier Division Play-off Final between Tonbridge Angels and Merstham, which was also the year he was promoted to Level 2B. On top of that he’s officiated, FA Cup games, FA Trophy and Vase games. He does add, however: “But for me, as I said, the proudest achievement, is longevity.
“In a world where people tend to do things for a couple of weeks now and give it up, to continue to do it for 11 years, seeing a lot of good referees come and go, I think that's an achievement in itself.”
Mike is a frequent user of the REFSIX app, our official refereeing partners, and believes technology at grassroots level will only help the game: “I think it's a sign of the times and it’s good to see that technology is having a positive impact on the grassroots game. I think the beauty of REFSIX is you're giving grassroots referees access to data, which was previously only ring fence for the elite.
“Back when I started refereeing, to get distance covered, heart rate, heat maps, that sort of thing, it was only available for the pros and not anything below that. But to be at a stage now, where data technology is widely available to Referee A, refereeing on a public park on a Sunday morning, I think is real testament to how far we've come in that 10 years.
“I'd certainly recommend the REFSIX app to any referee, I don't think there is a reason not to use it, to be honest. I don't know why you would turn away from something that would ultimately benefit your refereeing.”
It’s been a fascinating journey for Mike who has got to where he is just by trying to the best he can be. If success comes with it, then great, but he still enjoys refereeing the same as if he was on a park field on a Sunday which is something to admire.
As the conversation draws to a close, he adds his advice to aspiring referees in Sussex: “You don't have to want to be the next Howard Webb or Michael Oliver just to get into refereeing. It’s brought me so many benefits that aren't football related and taught me skills that have gone on to benefit me both socially and professionally.
“It also gives you an income at a young age that doesn’t require you to have to get up at four o'clock in the morning to deliver papers, so without a doubt, just do it. If you're lucky enough, like I was to really get hooked on it, then great, it will take you on a brilliant journey.”
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