In the latest of our Referee Spotlight series, sponsored by REFSIX, we spoke with former Football League referee turned observer, Dave Phillips.
For Phillips, his career in the middle of the park might never have come about, if it hadn’t been for his ‘lucky break’.
“I’d been playing plenty of football at Chichester High School,” said Phillips, “but one day when I was about 14 or 15-years-old, my PE teacher, Rod Gill, said that, as I was moving up through school, there would be fewer opportunities for me to play, as I’d have more exams to do.
“But he also mentioned that I could do a refereeing course, if I wanted to, which was being taught at that time by Berwyn Nicholas and Trevor Burnand, so I took him up on the offer and completed it in 1981.
“After that I was combining my refereeing with playing, but that all changed eight weeks before my wedding day, when I broke my leg playing for Whyke United!
“Eight weeks after the wedding, I was back in hospital once again, having broken the same leg! The doctor made it clear to me that if it happened again, I’d struggle to walk, so, because I still wanted to be involved in football, I made the decision then to make refereeing my soul focus.”
Prior to Phillips’ shift in direction, he’d already found success as a young referee, officiating on the West Sussex Football League aged 16.
“Looking back to those games,” said Phillips, “for me it was all about finding that resilience and making that impression.
“You’re a 16-year-old in the West Sussex League, out on the local parks, and you’ve got the old heads out here thinking ‘okay we can play around with this lad here’.
“So, from the start of the season until around Christmas, the disciplinary’s got quite high, because I had to make a stance and I had to stamp my mark, to show that strength and resilience.
“And yes, there were some rough rides, but it was all character building, and soon I started to get a bit of a reputation of being firm but fair, and as a referee, what more can you ask for?”
This good reputation saw Phillips find promotion through the Sussex leagues, onto the conference as a referee in 2003/04 season whilst also being promoted to assistant referee in the Football League.
From that point, after five seasons he was promoted to referee in the Football League where he completed a further 6 seasons ending on 3rd May 2014, but for Phillips, with each new promotion came new challenges, most notably, dealing with the added pressure.
“For me, I soon found that the tunnel was where I’d mentally prepare,” said Phillips, “when I walked out with the players that was when I would soak up the atmosphere, because that’s when it’s at its peak, because nobody’s won and nobody’s lost.
“I’d look forward, then left, then right, take a breath, and then by the time we were shaking hands, I’d be in my zone.
“But what also really helped me was working with a sports psychologist over at Chichester University.
“At the time I was the number one referee in Sussex, following on from Clive Penton and Steve Tomlin, so I reached out to them to see if they’d be interested in working with me, as this was a time before sports psychology was so integrated into the professional game.