Ade Willoughby

Referee Spotlight: Ade Willoughby

Level 5 referee talks learning from mistakes, giving back to the game, Black History Month and more…

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

“It made me feel human and that mistakes can happen. As long as you walk off the pitch and you can own up to it then you’ll still feel good about yourself, just making sure you leave those mistakes on the pitch.”

You understand the respect Ade has in the game, with how seriously he has taken his own personal development. If he makes mistakes, he wants to know why and will always look to how he can improve.

It was a late journey into football for Ade who, after moving to Nigeria at a young age, came back to England, eventually moving to Eastbourne to start a family. His kids interest in the beautiful game, is where his journey began.

“My kids started playing football for Sovereign Saints where I started to help out coaching. I really enjoyed it and so decided to take it up properly.

“I did my Level 1 coaching and managed one of their sides from 2008 to 2015 when my kids stopped playing. It was a shame, but I didn’t want to stop myself, so I thought about what else I could do in football.

“I looked into refereeing and decided to get qualified. I haven’t really looked back since then and I’ve loved every minute of it!”

Ade Willoughby
“I looked into refereeing and decided to get qualified. I haven’t really looked back since then and I’ve loved every minute of it!”

Ade qualified as a referee in 2015 under the stewardship of Paul Jeffery and Dave Jackson and he gives us an insight into how he transitioned into refereeing.

"I’m happy to say I’ve never really had any bad incidents so far, but I think that stems down to how I manage a game before it even starts. Like a lot of referees, I try and talk to everyone when I arrive, give them a feel of the sort of person I am.

"I’ve always found that makes my games flow a bit better. You’re always going to get complaints whether the decision you’ve made is good or bad.

"I try and referee with a smile on my face, and if I get someone say to me that I’ve had a good game, then it makes my day.

“When I was a coach, I’ll hold my hands up and say I used to give referees a bit of stick! I could have stayed in coaching and was helping out at Eastbourne Borough, but I wanted to do a bit more and give a bit more back.

“I thought I could give a bit back to kids football starting off. Refereeing at that age isn’t just standing there with a whistle, you’re teaching them things and helping them learn different rules.

“It was a bit daunting at first doing the course, because I knew I could be one of the oldest there. When I first went out and refereed it was also very daunting, because I knew I’d make mistakes.

“Thankfully I learned from those mistakes, and I always followed the advice that Dave Jackson gave me, which was to take two whistles with you!

“The more games I did, the easier it became and the more confidence I got. It doesn’t matter what level you are; you’re constantly learning.” 

As Ade said, he’s lucky not to have experienced any negativity in refereeing but tells us how he deals with his mistakes.

“I had a game recently where it was pouring down with rain and I could barely see! I gave a free-kick for a goalkeeper handballing it outside the box and I forgot to raise my hand to indicate it being indirect.

“I was questioned on it after the game and I just held my hands up, apologised and explained that I lost my concentration. That’s one of those things I’ll learn from, that no matter the environment, or situation, you have to remember to do the basic things correctly.”

Ade Willoughby
“The more games I did, the easier it became and the more confidence I got. It doesn’t matter what level you are; you’re constantly learning.”

Ade is currently a Level 5 referee but doesn’t think he’ll go further. There’s a lot to be said for maximising your enjoyment and he’s reached a level he’s happy at.

“At my age it’s difficult to have the aspiration of going for promotion all the time. It would perhaps be different if I was 20 years younger! For me, it’s been about finding a level I’m comfortable with, that suits me as a person, and my family life also. 

“I enjoyed Level 7 enormously, doing kids football, but I decided I wanted to make a step-up and experience some new leagues.

“I was also advised to sign up to be a County League Assistant Referee to get some more experience, and after doing that I thought I could go a bit further.

“I was promoted to Level 6 and my first year doing that I got a message to say I’d been voted best referee for the Sussex Sunday Football League. It was a huge shock, but I was very excited about that and it spurred me on to go a bit further.

“I got promoted straight away to Level 5 where I still am now, and I’m really enjoying it here. I do a mixture of refereeing and assistant refereeing, which I still do on the Southern Combination Premier Division. 

“It’s great being on the line and working with higher level referees. I’ll always pick things up when watching them and try to take in as much as I can.

“I think I do lines quite well and it’s always tough because there’s fans there on your back waiting for you to do something wrong. But when I get told I’ve had a good game on the line that’s a highlight for me.

Ade is thankful to have had a good support network around him in refereeing, which is always there if you experience problems. He tells us how it’s helped him, and who has inspired him along the way.

“Whether it’s referees I work with or through social media, there’s always a support network there for you.

“There’s also a website called RefChat which I’m subscribed to and that helped me out a lot in my early days. It’s essentially a platform to talk to other referees, and read up on situations that have been similar to yours, and you’ll have more experienced referees on there giving you advice.

“Early on, a guy who helped me a lot was Martyn Milligan, and a few others as well, but I wouldn’t say I took inspiration from them because as a referee you have to try and manage a game your own way.

“You can take bits here and there from other referees, but you have to put those bits together. I did always like to watch Premier League referee, Kevin Friend, whom I had the pleasure of meeting once.

“I sat there and listened to him talk on how he makes mistakes which was an eye-opener for me, to see a top-level referee sit there and explain how he made mistakes. It’s nice to understand that even guys at the top level can hold their hands up and admit to making mistakes.”

Ade Willoughby
“It’s great being on the line and working with higher level referees. I’ll always pick things up when watching them and try to take in as much as I can."

With it being Black History Month, Ade tells us the importance of it and what it means to him.

“It’s an important time for myself and the BAME community to standout and show what we can do and what we strive to do. Racism is there, even if you have to go looking for it, to find it, but I’m thankful to have not experienced it in football.

“I don’t expect to experience racism first-hand in football because I trust who I am officiating and those spectating. I manage the game as best I can before kick-off, and they can see I’m no different to anyone else just because of the colour of my skin.

“There hasn’t been many BAME referees in football in the past, but I think they are starting to come through now. I think there needs to be more targeting to those communities, it’s fine to target everyone but if you want more BAME referees then they need to be targeted specifically.”

Whilst Ade might not aspire to gain promotion, he’s always looking to give back to the game and outlines his future plans.

“I want to start going into local football clubs as a referee, take the flags, and just give kids an idea of the sort of things a referee does and give them an insight. 

“I think it would help in gaining more respect for referees, to do this kind of demonstration in front of kids, coaches, parents and show that we are actually human!

“It would hopefully entice young kids to want to do it as well. Importantly though, you have parents who often run the line on a Sunday, let’s educate them a bit more and encourage them to get qualified. 

“I just want to give anything back that I can, and I see myself going into referee coaching if possible. I’ve signed up to the Sussex RA-FA Youth Council to be an observer to young referees. 

“I’ve been doing that a couple of years now and I really enjoy it. I’ve seen some great young referees start to climb the ladder, and it’s always nice to know you’ve had a hand in their progress.”

The passion that Ade has for refereeing is extremely refreshing to see. Off his own back, he wants to give back and look for any ways he can improve the trade for the better. 

He closes our conversation with words of advice for aspiring referees: “My advice to any new referee is do not do it for the wrong reasons. The referees I observe I often ask, ‘why are you doing this?’ If it’s just for the money, you aren’t going to be focused enough to take it very far.

“As soon as you start enjoying it beyond that, you’ll start looking at the game differently, understanding the laws and taking it more seriously. 

“Just do it for the right reasons and make sure you enjoy it because if you don’t, you’ll be finding it very difficult. It took me a few seasons to find the right balance, but you’ll get there. Choose your leagues wisely, one’s that suit your ability.” 

For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:

T: 01903 768573

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