Owen Radley Disability Cup

Referee Spotlight: Owen Radley

Level 5 referee talks balancing career with refereeing, disability football, officiating on BT Sport and more…

In this month’s Referee Spotlight, in association with REFSIX, we spoke to Level 5 referee, Owen Radley. 

“One guy lost his leg in Afghanistan, and to an IED, another guy got hit by an underground train, then you've got people who've had cancer, more than once. Some other guys who've had birth defects and they've overcome all of this.” It doesn’t need Owen to tell us just how inspiring those involved in disability football are but you get the same feeling regardless.

Owen originally got in to refereeing more than 20 years ago as a 16-year old looking to stay in football: “I still wanted to be involved in football, and the most natural way to do it was to look to referee. I knew the Laws of the Game quite well. I was always the annoying kid who was correcting the dad who was refereeing on the law! 

“So, I looked into qualifying as a referee and qualified when I was 16. That was a long time ago, I just turned 40 this year. Refereeing was very different then, the setup, the system and the internet was very new and certainly wasn't in there in the way it was even five years later. 

“Everything was done by letter or phone call and the thing is, I lived over in Rye, so was very much on the outskirts of the county. I didn't do as much refereeing as I could have done to be honest, I did some college stuff and then drifted away from it.”

His original refereeing journey was cut short when he joined the police force and found time hard to come by. It wasn’t until 2015 that he found his passion again.

“I originally did my course at St. Leonard's Stamco which has now been absorbed into Hastings United. Eddie Potter, who's still involved in refereeing 24 years later, was the tutor.  

“I had to requalify when I came back, up at Crowborough which was the nearest one for that. I had to do my safeguarding which was at Eastbourne Borough which Dave King took. I was sitting there as a police officer of 15 or 16 years’ service, and as a police sergeant so, it was a little bit like, I know this. But, it was it was quite good in a way because Dave and I were able to give different perspectives on things. He was able to give the FA perspective and then he'd asked me questions from a policing perspective, so that was quite interesting. 

“The course up at Crowborough was run by Darren Eaton, Theo Parfitt and Lisa Benn, who is now doing incredibly well in the women's refereeing world. Lisa was fantastic. I mean, this was someone who was an active referee, refereeing men's football, women's football as well and had just returned from doing a tournament in the US. It was good to have all three tutors who were active referees at the time.”

Owen was quicky promoted up to Level 5 and we were keen to find out how he now balances it and also the challenges he faces: “I work full-time shift work, I've got children, so it's balancing the desire to be out refereeing as much as possible, doing as many games as you can at the best level that you can, whilst still wanting to spend time with family, fortunately my wife is very understanding. 

“I stick on top of my admin and that helps to balance things out. I send Ray [Welch] a spreadsheet well in advance of what I can do, he's probably sick of my spreadsheets to be fair to him! 

“It's been a bit of a challenge, managing my own development, which is reasonable and to be expected of anyone who wants to do well. I think it’s important to find the right people to listen to and the right people to learn from. It can be very easy sometimes to listen to the loudest voice rather than necessarily the best voice. 

“Another challenge I’ve found, as I'm getting older, is fitness. I go to the gym, I go running, but refereeing fitness is different. It takes so much longer to get back from injury, I tore a tendon in my foot and ankle in 2019 which put me out for several months. I'm injured at the moment because a player ran into me and smashed my knee up. Unbelievable. You think he could avoid a six-foot, 14 and a half stone referee, but no!”

Owen Radley Action 3
“I work full-time shift work, I've got children, so it's balancing the desire to be out refereeing as much as possible...whilst still wanting to spend time with family, fortunately my wife is very understanding."

Like any aspiring referee, it’s important to have peers to look up to, and Owen always makes sure he learns from those around him.

“Whenever I am a referee or an assistant, I always try to look at what other officials on my team are doing and try to take bits I like from their game. 

“I'm incredibly fortunate at the moment to have a coach as part of the development group which is Irvine Woodward. He's been there and done it at all kinds of levels in football. 

“He once observed me, this was before he was my coach, going from Level 6 to 5, and I was hit by the ball twice in the game. It was mortifying for me! We discussed it afterwards and concluded, one of them was my fault and one was because the player just wellied it at me from about five metres away. Irvine gave me one little bit of advice about positioning your run and curving your run behind the play and just little things like that you then try and build into your next game. 

“I've had the pleasure of running the line for Steve Hughes a couple of times, and he is up at National League level, he gave me some great guidance and I picked up a lot working alongside him.”

So how does Owen find being on the line? “I prefer being in the middle because you can run away from the abuse! No, I enjoy being an assistant referee. As I say I always try and learn from whoever's in the middle. I enjoy engagement with the benches. I enjoy engagement with the fans sometimes too.

“With what I've done for a living for a long time, I've taken most of the abuse that you can imagine. So long as the communication from the side-lines is light-hearted, you can have a bit of a laugh and a joke with people and I enjoy that side of the game. 

“I really like to line to a younger referee coming through, because sometimes you can just reinforce their confidence a little bit. They might only be 17, 18, or 19 and dealing with guys who are older than them on the field. But they've at least got that reassurance of someone that little bit older or more experienced, like me, on the line who can back them up. 

It always seems to be a match made in heaven when a police officer decides to take up the whistle. Managing conflict, handling tough situations, and Owen believes whilst his experience has helped him, it can go the other way as well.

“I think it can go one of one or two ways. I mean, one thing people always say to me is 'do you just like being shouted at?' Which I think is probably true!

“You should have those skills (as a police officer) in managing conflict, managing confrontation, empathising with people and being able to defuse things, they're vital skills, I think, for refereeing and for policing. 

“The counterpoint to that can be police officers don't generally like being told that they're wrong. With refereeing I've always tried to say sorry. So, one thing I'll always try and do with players, if I think I might have got that wrong, is to say 'yeah, I might have done sorry.'”

What’s more, Owen’s natural and easy-going approach to refereeing, he believes allows him to manage that conflict well.

“It always seems to be throw-ins that cause absolute meltdown! A throw-in where there's absolutely no danger on the pitch. I do try to talk a lot when I'm refereeing, sometimes I get told I talk too much. But my approach is that if people understand what I'm giving, they might not like it, but at least they understand where it's coming from.

“If I don't see something, I just turn around and say, ‘sorry, guys, I was in the wrong place there I couldn't see through your man.’ Just starting with 'sorry, guys,' makes a difference, or having a smile on your face when you give decisions.

“I think those things do come from not being affected by people shouting at me. I'm not bothered by people being aggressive because I've spent years dealing with it. The abuse we get, in my experience, it's not personal, it's frustration. Some people overstepped the mark and go way too far, I've had a few like that. But by and large is not personal, it's just at the situation. 

“So, you just manage it and don't lose your rag with it. Those very much are transferable skills that that come across and I have actually said to players before 'I've got 20 years in the old bill if you can say something to me I haven't heard before I'll buy you a pint after the game!'

“Most of them laugh, some take it is a challenge. Sometimes I've found if you do that with certain players, you have to be careful which players it is or which managers it is, they appreciate that more. 

“So, you might get, 'ref, your awful!' I often say, 'well if I was any good I wouldn't be refereeing you!’ I remember saying last season, 'fellas, we're at a park in Seaford on a Sunday morning. None of us are Ronaldo and I'm not Howard Webb, let's get on with it!'

“More often than not people respond well to that, apart from the odd one who gets his ego a bit dented. But I think if you can be a little bit self-depreciating with it, and accept a bit coming back your way people prefer it, and people engage with it through being human, you're not being officious.”

Owen Radley Action 4
“I prefer being in the middle because you can run away from the abuse!"

Refereeing has since gone from strength to strength for Owen, and since his return, he’s found an area of football very close to his heart.

“When I came back into refereeing, one of the things I wanted to do was disability football. I have a family member who's got Down's Syndrome. I've got friends with disabled children, and I'm quite passionate about equal access to sport and what sport can do. 

“So, I made myself available to referee on the pan-disability League, which Clare Nichols was the coordinator of at that point, and it was running at the sports centre in Hassocks.

“I was refereeing mixed disability football, which I found really rewarding. It was also challenging in its own way. You've got some people there with emotional challenges, coupled with physical disabilities, it was a big mixture. 

“Then I was approached by Sussex County FA, and they asked me if I would like to represent the county on the Amputee FA. Brighton & Hove Albion have an amputee team, one of only eight in the country. 

“Because Brighton had one, the County FA had been asked by the England Amputee FA, to provide a referee and I was put in touch with their representative, Owen Coyle Jr, son of Owen Coyle, who managed in the Premier League, and it went from there.

“That was 2016 so I've been doing it five years now and gone from strength to strength with it. It's really inspiring, you go and see these players and their stories are incredible.”

Since his involvement, Owen has become very passionate about the level of coverage and support disability football gets. 

“Some of their skill level is incredible. What these guys can do on one leg, you'll see guys in Southern Combination Football League struggle with! Their fitness as well, I've been on crutches the last couple of weeks, and it is hard work. 

“They're incredible, real genuine athletes, and it's a privilege to officiate them. They're very competitive and as a referee, you make the slightest mistake, and they let you know about it! 

“It was huge for amputee football to be on BT Sport; I mean that was the first time it's ever been shown live on UK TV. The England men's team actually got to the European Championship final in 2017 in Turkey playing against Turkey. The final was held at Beşiktaş' Vodafone Stadium in front of 35,000 people. There wasn't a mention of that, it wasn't shown in this country. When Gareth Southgate’s team got to the final this year, we were told it's the first time an England men's team has been in a European final for X amount years. 

“Actually, these guys did it four years ago, and in Turkey it's huge. They have a couple of leagues; they have a television programme showing highlights of it. So, to get these guys some of the recognition that they deserve is a huge thing. 

“I'm very, very vehement about that, they've got the European Championships this year in Kraków and the guys are having to fundraise themselves to be able to go and represent their country, which with all the money that's in the top level of sport, I find really, really poor, to be honest.”

Officiating at the Amputee Cup, live on BT Sport, meant national television coverage for Owen which was a surreal moment for him that came with added pressure.

“Firstly, it made me want to hold my stomach in for most of it! It was at St. George's Park, the home of England football, it's on television, family and friends can watch it. People can pause it, they can slow it down, they can tell you everything you've got wrong. I just tried to focus on what was in front of me to be honest and not think about that so much. 

“Although it was quite difficult because I was the senior official on the game. It runs a little bit like futsal, you have two referees, one on either side of the pitch, you have a senior official, who's in charge of timekeeping, making decisions, things like that. 

“Behind me, though, I had the producer for BT Sport. We weren't allowed to kick off until he said go. It's sort of a little bit of an introduction into why when I'm watching the elite referees on Premier League holding on blowing the whistle, they're listening in there ear because that's exactly what I had. 

“We had to do a minute's applause for a referee, who'd recently died and was heavily involved with blind football. Then there was the taking of the knee to show respect for all ethnicities, and no discrimination and things and that all had to be timed to suit the television.”

Owen Radley Action 1
I'm not bothered by people being aggressive because I've spent years dealing with it. The abuse we get, in my experience, it's not personal, it's frustration."

The future for Owen, could involve the experience of a lifetime with future amputee tournaments coming up, as long as he avoids more injuries that is!

“I just need to get myself back on both legs, because I've discovered that I could not be an amputee footballer! I'm hoping, barring COVID and any more injuries, that I should be officiating at the European Championships for the amputees in Kraków in September, which is going to be massive, playing in some big stadiums. 

“Robert Lewandowski is the tournament ambassador. Amputee football is big in Poland so it would be great to go and represent the country and Sussex County FA as a referee in an international tournament. 

“As long as I don't disgrace myself there, then there's the Amputee World Cup next year, which is something to aim for. My goal is to try and complete my Level 4 promotion, get myself fit, pass the fitness test to get that final observation. 

“Then I'd like to go into referee observing and mentoring. I don't want to do it unless I get to Level 4, because I think then you've got that level of credibility behind you. 

“I use refereeing as like my mental health circuit breaker if you like. For two hours, all I do is focus on the game in front of me. I don't have to think about work or things that are going on at home. I just go out, blow the whistle, or stand with the flag and focus on that for two hours.”

Stories like Owen’s make you realise many things. Refereeing really can be for anyone, even with a 20+ year hiatus in the middle of it. Also, just how far you can go in different areas of football, for example disability. He has the potential to create lifetime memories and as the conversation comes to an end, he offers advice to aspiring referees. 

“My advice would be to enjoy it, and always do it because you enjoy it. Don't do it for any other motivation than that, don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for advice from people. 

“Then just make sure that the advice you're being given is right for you. That the people that are guiding you are the right people. If you're ever uncomfortable or unhappy with anything, ask for some help with it. If you ask for that support then people will give it to you, don't feel that you're on your own.”

For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:

Refereeing
T: 01903 768573
E: Referees@SussexFA.com

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