Referee Spotlight: Graham Kane
In this month’s Referee Spotlight, in association with REFSIX, we spoke to Select Group 2 Assistant Referee, Graham Kane.
“Andre Marriner was the referee and he just said, ‘Look don’t treat this game any different, you’ve got this game because you’ve earned it, just go out and do everything you’ve done all season.’”
Graham makes the point later on in our interview that we should be seeing more officials from Sussex making it to the professional ranks. His own rise, however, is one to look at and be inspired by, in a career that has seen him go from the parks in Brighton to his first Premier League game last year.
Graham started playing football in secondary school but admits that, ‘my feet wouldn’t quite do what my head told them to!’ For him, he saw refereeing as a chance to be involved with a sport he enjoyed whilst earning some money in the process.
“Dave Jackson was the deputy head at Varndean School where I went, his son played in my brother’s age group at Preston Panthers, and something with that affiliation just made me end up doing a course.
“The course was all theory back then; I think it was 00/01 season I did it when I was 16. There were various Subbuteo pitches with different scenarios and PowerPoint presentations with a Laws of the Game test at the end.
“There was never an ambition to do anything more than a couple of Sunday League kid’s games and basically earn what my friends would earn over a weekend in a shop, but I got to run around for a few hours!”
It can be a daunting prospect going into refereeing at the ripe age of 16 but Graham recalls his early days well.
“I had no real preconceptions of refereeing before I went into it. It was just a case of seeing what it would be like. I passed the exam and then took each game as it came with the initial, under-8s, under-9s kids’ games that followed.
“There were probably absolutely loads of mistakes! One does spring to mind where I think I set up a goal just from it cannoning off my back. I’m positioned completely wrong, the defence has cleared it and my back has played the perfect through-ball!
“But that’s ultimately how you learn. You know you shouldn’t be in those positions or just general challenges to your authority, and just general situations where you’re going to make mistakes.
“At that time, I was part of the Brighton Referees’ Association, and I know that’s developed massively now in terms of the support new referees get.”
Graham progressed through kid’s football well and soon made the transition into the open-age game.
“I had a couple of years just doing the kids football before moving to men’s football when I was 18. That was a bit of a step up that! I think it’s probably the same now but that’s really the time where you realise whether you love it or looking to give it up.
“The standard was definitely a lot better once you got to men’s football, even at park level. I’d had a couple of years learning my trade so positionally I was a lot better by that point.
“To suddenly be refereeing men who were in their prime or making their way back down, it certainly presents you with some interesting and challenging scenarios but ones that mould you as a person.
“There’s a lot of people who would maybe not cope with that pressure and confrontation, but equally there’s another type of person who will thrive off it.
“The aim in a lot of my games then was just to blend in, not get involved too much and try and be a facilitator of the game without causing too much controversy.”
Graham’s approach to refereeing was all about communication and to not get over-involved.
“Communication is still very important and probably my biggest attribute. That and being physically fit, I was always in close proximity to play, using my voice, communicating early and also having that bit of rapport.
“That’s something you build over time with more experience. Some players need to be spoken to in a certain way and you find out what works and also who best to turn to. There’s always one on a team that’s perhaps a bit more sensible that you can turn to and calm the situation down!
“I think that’s always a good approach to take as a referee, because no one wants to be talking about the referee at the end of the game.”
Before long, Graham was approached to look into the promotion scheme. He then had clear goals and targets and started to make a name for himself in Sussex.
“An observer came to one of my games on a Sunday morning and told me, ‘you did alright today, you could have done this, you could have done that, but I thought you did well. Have you considered looking into the promotion scheme?’
“To be quite honest I really hadn’t considered it. After looking into it I joined either that season or the one after and just kicked on from there really.
“I was at Level 4 within a few seasons, and I think quite a few can do that if they’ve got a natural talent and a bit of ambition. I think once you get to Level 3, which is as far as I went as a referee, you see the calibre and you see a lot more quality that you’re up against.
“Refereeing at Level 3 and lining on the Conference as it was called, that’s when I got my first taste of proper football.
“Even at that level you’ve got former Football League clubs and certainly others that are now Football League clubs. But that was the level where I thought I could really have a bit of this! Even something as silly as a towel being laid out in your dressing room.
“It all just felt a bit more professional and then with that, the crowds are a bit bigger. Then the expectation from the crowd, players and management is that bit higher too. But those additional rewards by officiating at that level is offset against those higher expectations.”
Graham is now an Assistant Referee for Select Group 2 on the Football League, after making a big decision as a Level 3 official.
“I really enjoyed the aspect of doing a dual-role, I was quite sad that had to stop. I understand the rationale behind getting people to specialise and commit to one pathway but for me, I liked the idea of one week refereeing and one week running the line.
“I got to a point where I’d been refereeing at Level 3 I think for 8 seasons and by that point I was running the line on the Football League and then they said right you’ve got to pick a pathway.
“Whilst I thought I was a solid Level 3, I kind of had to think well if I go down the lining route then I’ll be on the Football League every week. So, it was a no brainer really, I hung up the whistle and went down the assistant refereeing route.
“It’s not something I’ve regretted. When I first came into football, I’d never have thought I would go down that pathway. When I first started lining and people would ask where I’m going, I’d say, ‘Oh I’m only running the line this week!’
“But I definitely learnt to love it. Personally, I think it’s a harder skill to do than referee. As a referee you’ve got more scope to even things out. But when you have the flag, you might only get one key decision to make in the match.
“When you’re in the middle you can almost run away from it! When you’re an assistant, you are stuck on that touchline for 90 minutes with fans giving you words of encouragement.
“I think you learn to block it out though and once you get to the Football League you get the comms kit so that’s an ear blocked up listening to your colleagues. When your focusing on that conversation and getting your breath trying to catch up with play, you don’t really notice what someone behind you is saying.”
In terms of who Graham looked at for support and inspiration, there’s one man who came to mind.
“I always worked really closely with Martin Bodenham. He was my Level 3 coach for a number of seasons, that was my first experience of having a dedicated coach.
“He would come to my games and he’d make all sorts of observations that he’d write down in his notebook. The amount of times he’d be watching, and I’d think, ‘I really hope he hasn’t noticed that!’
“Nothing used to get past him though. You’d often look over and see him in the stands having a natter so you’d think he really can’t be picking up everything, but nothing would get past him!
“It was always pretty spot on though, Martin would never give you feedback on something for the sake of doing it, there’d always be a valid point. So, in that sense, that was brilliant to be able to tap into that.”
Despite Graham’s fantastic rise to the Football League, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t always work out like that. When asked about the challenges he’s had, he’s keen to remind budding officials to be realistic.
“Every time you step up there’s always a challenge to embed yourself within that new level. You’ve obviously proved yourself because you’ve got the promotion and got to the next level up.
“With that though, you can sometimes get a bit of self-doubt. Then you also know you need to consolidate that position and blend in as best you can.
“The challenge is securing the promotion, consolidating at the level, and then developing yourself further. I think it’s just setting those small but realistic goals.
“It’s all well and good having the aspiration to referee on the Premier League but you’re never going to go from parks football straight to the Premier League. You’ve got to break that down into small tangible steps that are achievable and realistic.
“You’re not going to go through season by season, get promoted every year and go park to Premier League in 10 years. There’s going to be setbacks along the way, and you need to have that sensible mindset.
“I know some colleagues that have been at a certain level for years and once they’ve kicked on they’ve had another burst again. It may sound a boring answer but those little realistic aims, reflecting on yourself, it’s really important.”
It’s fascinating to talk to a match official at the elite level, and Graham gives us a great insight into the training and development that they go through.
“Being part of Select Group 2 at the moment and being with those Championship officials, we have a training camp once a month, usually at Loughborough University or St. George’s Park.
“We go through a lot of what went well in certain scenarios but also a good amount of time on what didn’t work as well. It’s important to do both because you don’t want to dwell on the things that went wrong and ignore the things that actually went really well.
“It’s expected that we get things right so you do tend to ignore the good things at times, so because of that it can cause a skewed focus on what didn’t go well.
“Equally, on the back of that, there’s a desire to want to do things better and to improve. I really enjoy going to those camps and having an open and honest discussion. Sometimes it can be a bit uncomfortable if it’s a game you’ve been involved in, but if you open up about it, there’s a trust that what’s said will stay there.
“I think that’s really where you do your learning and make those improvements because you’re open and honest to that feedback that your own peers are providing to you. But equally you know whether you could have done more in a certain scenario or not.”
Graham anticipates the next question and smiles knowing it was going to be unavoidable. During a game at Charlton in the Summer of 2016, he was filmed in the tunnel practicing his flag signals, in a video that soon went viral making national news.
“I was totally unaware I was being filmed! That game was on a Tuesday and the Wednesday evening it had gone viral. The other assistant on the night phoned me up and said, ‘Graham you’re on the Daily Mail!’
“After being quite confused he sent me the link and I just thought, ‘Wow what a slow news day it must have been!’ Charlton at the time were quite notorious for taking a while to come out the dressing room and I just thought well there’s no movement so I’m just going to run through a few of my signals.
“Unbeknown to me there was a camera filming everything in the tunnel and amazingly, someone at Charlton thought that was worth releasing into the wider world on Twitter! I really couldn’t believe the traction that had.
“I had a habit of practicing a few signals if I’m waiting for a team to come out and I suppose the learning from that, is once you start getting involved in professional football, you never know when you’re being filmed!
“Luckily in this circumstance I wasn’t doing anything I shouldn’t have been doing! But looking at the comments that were submitted I was happy it was pretty positive around just taking my job seriously. If it’s my claim to fame, I’ll take it!”
Officiating in the Championship, Graham has been progressing well and last season, when football restarted, he was rewarded for his performances.
“It’s my biggest highlight so far, making my Premier League debut. If I don’t do anything else in football I’m happy I’ve got that Premier League game.
“It was last year after project restart; I’d had a pretty solid season in the Championship and where I was in our merit table. I’d just done Brentford vs. Barnsley on a Tuesday then the fixtures came out and I’d seen I was appointed for Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham.
“It may have been Palace-Tottenham with no fans, but it was still a Premier League game, and to just do that game, have the Premier League badge on my shirt, that was a very proud moment for me actually.
“Luckily it went well the game finished 1-1 and no one was talking about us. I was working with colleagues I wasn’t used to, and I just hoped everything would go swimmingly and I couldn’t have asked for a better game from that perspective.”
Whilst on the subject of project restart, we wanted to get an insight into exactly how match officials dealt with the strange scenario of no fans.
“I was a bit apprehensive about going back. Because of everything that was going on, they wouldn’t let us do any friendly fixtures.
“My last game was the weekend before it seemed like the world was falling apart, and I hadn’t properly held a flag in months, nor had I done my tunnel routine!
“I’d have hated to have ruined a really good season for me through just being rusty. I knew physically I’d be okay but mentally I knew I needed to be switched on.
“It was definitely a weird time to come back, you’d gone from the huge noise in a stadium to all of a sudden you can hear everything that the players are saying.
“The advice we were given was to not overreact to things because potentially you’re going to hear more than in a sold-out stadium. The players got wise to that pretty quickly, that you might become influenced by their behaviour.
“But equally, the players become less influenced by the crowd as well so there were good and bad bits, but it took some getting used to once stadiums were full again.”
As much as the Premier League will be the pinnacle achievement for Graham, we know deep down that his biggest highlight is refereeing the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup Final in 2013.
“Officiating the Sussex Senior Cup Final in 2013 was definitely a proud moment. As a Sussex referee, that’s kind of the pinnacle of what you can achieve.
“It was a proud season all round for me really because I’d had a good year and on the back of it, I’d been promoted to run the line on the Football League, so it was a nice way to round off that season.
“But then also with grassroots, there’s the highlight of your first game at every new level. When you reach Level 4 and you have your neutral assistants, that’s quite a big step.
“It’s a big deal that for most referees, when you suddenly become part of a team and you’ve got two others who will have your back.”
It’s been a fascinating insight that Graham gives us into the life of an elite level match official. He’s officiated all through the Football League, Play-Off games and finally topped it off with the Premier League, not forgetting the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup also.
Officiating at Wembley is an ambition that he looks on to and you can tell, talking to him, that it would be the icing on the cake.
Finally, he leaves us with words of advice for aspiring match officials: “There’s so much time that you give up with refereeing, so you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing, especially at the start.
“I think a lot of people lose that enjoyment, especially when they go up the pyramid, things can get more pressurised, but the rewards get greater.
“As soon as you stop enjoying it, it becomes a bit of a chore, and you have to question where the motivation comes from, if you aren’t enjoying it as much to when you started out.
“Don’t referee with fear, just give what you see, give what you see as right in that moment. We can always reflect on things from different camera angles, and everyone becomes an armchair critic, freeze framing things, but often you’ve got one chance to make that decision and potentially from not the best angle.
“Do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. That’s a motto we use in Select Group 2, back yourself and the decisions you make.”
For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:
T: 01903 768573