Referee Spotlight: Neal 'Barnsley' Saxton
In the latest of our Referee Spotlight series, sponsored by REFSIX, we spoke with “Geriatric” Senior 5 referee, Neal Saxton.
Born in Barnsley (and affectionately known as such down here in Sussex), Neal Saxton’s journey into refereeing began back in South Yorkshire, when he was still honing his craft in midfield.
“I used to play for a team called Jump United,” said Saxton, “the name came from the fact that it was in a small village with a stream running through it, that you had to jump over to get to the ground!
“At that time, Jump was run by a man called George Martin, who was actually a referee, and George used to say to me ‘look here lad, look at this young lad refereeing today, he’s quite a well noted up-and-coming ref. It’s a long way off now, but when you pack this in, you should think about taking up refereeing.’
“Well George had a point about that young referee, because he happened to be a young Stephen Lodge!”
Lodge, who was among the first group of referees included by the Premier League in 1992, would go onto to gain notoriety outside of refereeing circles when, in 1999, when refereeing a game between Coventry City and Leicester City, he attempted to backheel the ball and ended up falling face first into the turf.
“Anyway,” continued Saxton, “I ended up moving around a lot for my career, and I found myself back in Barnsley and living back at home and needing something to do.
“I’d seen an advert in the Barnsley Chronicle, ‘Referees Required’ with a course being run on a Monday evening.
“So, I went along, did the course and I duly passed the exam, but by that point I was about to head back down south for work once again.
“But it was whilst I was playing down there, I did my cruciate knee ligament, and even though I was able to get fairly fit again (though some people who saw my performances would say otherwise!) I still didn’t feel the same.
“So, I started refereeing on the Sunday, alongside still playing on the Saturday, but soon it was getting to the point that more and more people were starting to say to me that I’d be better off packing in the football and concentrating on the refereeing, so I did just that.”
Yet Neal wasn’t the first Saxton to take on the black shirt and whistle.
“When I was doing my training back in Barnsley, my uncle, Arnold Saxton, was still a local referee.
“I remember the first thing he said when I told him I was doing the course, was that I could have his kit!
“But whilst I’m no slim person, my uncle's kit was slightly larger, so if the wind came along, I’d have taken off like a barrage balloon!”
With the right kit finally found, Saxton began his refereeing journey down here in Sussex, with the West Sussex Football League.
“I remember getting the call for my first Saturday game, Kirdford vs. Wisborough Green, and as it was local to me, I even knew a few of the players.
“The game was quite intense from the start, but then suddenly a challenge went in, which saw one end up in the air and then back on the ground.
“Two of the players didn’t like it and they started to square up, and I’m shouting, ‘steady on boys!’, but it’s too late and they’re in it together and having a right old go.
“Then out of nowhere, a gentleman from the side-lines comes onto the pitch, grabs Kirdford player, pulls him to the ground, and they start tussling.
“And that still wasn’t the end of it, because then the player that had been pulled to the ground, his mother runs on with her dog, and starts hitting the spectator with her stick with the dog yapping at his ankles!
“Meanwhile I’m watching this, my first ever game for the West Sussex League, thinking to myself, ‘what have I done?’”
The other memorable game that springs to Saxton's mind, clearly stuck out for a very different reason.
“It was the sixth round of the Intermediate Cup, and one of the gentlemen playing for Peacehaven second, was the cricketer Bill Athey.
“We’d kicked-off and then, 20 minutes in, whack! The fist came around and the opposition player went down, and I thought ‘oh my God I’ve seen that.’”
“So naturally I shout, ‘come here lad’ and he gives me his name ‘Bill Athey’ and he goes to me, ‘Oh he’s been saying some nasty things to me referee’, but it was violent conduct, so off he went.
“Now I didn’t realise, but because Bill was there, there’d been photographers at the game, and the next thing I knew people were ringing me saying I’m in the back pages of magazines!
“This was seen by Tony West, who was then the Head of Refereeing, and he wrote me this spoof letter, that said ‘we’ve noted this incident in the cup... how dare you send off one of our more respected cricketers, we are now reviewing the matter regarding your promotion for next season, we think it’s best if we keep you down one more season.’”
“I thought this was brilliant, because something like that really shows the friendship and the banter within football.”
As anyone who’s been refereed by Saxton will testify, that bit of banter, and the gift of the gab, go part and parcel with his brash northern style out on the pitch. But, just how useful is it to have a good line or two up your sleeve?
“Well, what helps me, can also go against me,” admits Saxton.
“When I’d hit them with a ‘come here lad!’ or as I used to, a ‘shut your gob!’ that can sound quite abrasive, but it can also sound quite humorous, when it’s delivered with my northern brashness.
“But it does come in handy when I’m running down the lines, and you get lines from the crowd about who ate all the pies, and I’d shout back ‘cheers, not heard that one before!’”
“Or when on the days when I’m getting some torrid abuse, I’d sometimes turn and quip, ‘I thought I left the wife at home, it’s nice to see she’s here!’”
“And if lines like that are used at the right time and in the right environment, it can take the pressure off and it can warm a crowd to you.”
But of course, being a referee with such a unique on field presence, will bring with it a certain degree of notoriety, which, like that humour that brought it to him, is something of a mixed blessing.
“When I walk into a ground,” said Saxton, “I either sometimes get a ‘oh it’s Barns - good lad that’ or when you’d get into the changing room, and hear what the players are saying, it wouldn’t be anything you could repeat!”
“But as you get longer in the tooth you do begin to build up a reputation, a warmth with people that do know of you, so it can help.”
Off the pitch, Saxton has also enjoyed the role of mentor, when it comes to helping train the referees of tomorrow.
“It’s a great challenge and a real privilege,” said Saxton with a smile.
“I remember doing a County Championship match, and the two young assistants I had that day were Danny Austin and Tim Robinson!
“We travelled down, refereed the game and got our medals, and we were together for four to five hours that day, all learning from each other.
“So, when I sit down on a Sunday afternoon and see Tim Robinson on the TV, I think ‘that’s my boy!’ and it was a privilege to have played some small part in his development.
“But I’ve been doing it so long now that I’ve started to have dads, and now their sons coming through!”
So, what kind of advice does Saxton look to impart onto the next generation?
“Well, the first thing I used to do when I’d have a group for the first time,” said Saxton, “was to stand in front of them all and say ‘oh did you pick out that top? Not sure about that one…’ or ‘was it you who chose those shoes? God they’re awful! I wouldn’t be seen dead in them!’
“Then I’d say to them that, if you want to be a referee you better get used to hearing stuff like that, and you better be able to take criticism.
“You’ve also got to be able to self-analyse and keep going. You’ve got to be prepared to make decisions that are going to be unpopular, like calling off a game for example.
“It’s also key to remember that when you make a call, make sure it’s final, and always ask for support if needed.”
It’s clear from talking to Saxton just how much pride he has in his decades spanning career; but what would he say the highlight has been?
“Refereeing has given me so many great opportunities, I’ve refereed games in The FA Cup, FA Youth Cup, and so many of those matches were so enjoyable.
“I’ve also been lucky enough to work games out in America twice, with the USA Cup, and even over in Norway.
“But the highlight for me was when I got that letter in the post, telling me that I’d achieved my Level 4.
“Getting my medals through the years was certainly nice, but for me, to be able to put in the work, and get as high as I could get at the time, and to see that in my Level 4, it’s been a fantastic career.”
And with the boom of his Barnsley accent still a regular sound on pitches across Sussex, there’s no doubt he’ll still be donning the black shirt and silver whistle for many more years to come.
For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:
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