Dave Phillips HERO: Credit- Paul Hazlewood

Referee Spotlight: Dave Phillips

The former number one in Sussex talks making it to the Premier League, handling the pressure, and observing the next generation

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.

Senior Cup Final 2005 (Dave Phillips third from left)

Phillips (third from left) preparing to referee our Senior Senior Challenge Cup Final in 2005 

“Working with them really helped my development and challenged a lot of the practices I’d been doing for years at that point.

“One example of this was at half-time. They helped me understand the value of that time, and to use it in a similar way to the players, by asking myself three or four questions to reset myself ‘How’s the game going? Where’s the game going? Do I need to step-up? Can I continue?’

“Doing this allowed me to re-focus and to slightly adapt my game if needs be.

Phillips went on to add: “The other trick I had was a 15-minute check. I’d split each half into three, and simply ask myself ‘Is the game on track? Am I on track?’ after that I’d either continue as I was or make an adjustment, but it allowed me to refocus, give me that reality check and keep me in the right frame of mind.”  

“I think it was Rudyard Kipling who said in his poem something along the lines of, ‘when everyone around you is losing their heads, and you can keep yours, you’ll be a man my son’ or in my case, you’ll be a ref!”

But of course, in refereeing, like any job, you can have off days, and it’s after these games, in Phillips’ opinion, that you’re really tested.

“The most important thing to be able to do after a bad game, is park as soon as possible after you have reviewed it before you next match,” said Phillips.

“We all have them, where you come away thinking ‘what could I have done differently?’ or ‘what should I have done?’ even though sometimes, regardless of what you did, it might not have changed the outcome.

“It’s important, after reflecting, that you don’t make any major adjustments in your performance, or that’ll throw you off; it’s all about the small little changes.

“With the frequency of games that referees are working, you can’t be going into another match still holding onto baggage from the last one. You need to have parked it.

“Each time I had a bad game, I went into the next one with the mentality that I’ve got to start from scratch, reset, and use the experiences I’ve got to perform at my best, because you owe that to the clubs and the players.”

Having gained invaluable experience working on the Football League, Phillips found himself getting the call-up to fourth official on the Premier League for several matches, where he soon found himself interacting with the likes of Howard Webb and Michael Oliver.

“It was such a privilege to be among referees of a high calibre,” said Phillips, “not just to work with them, but to just be in meetings with them, or on discussion panels, it was a great learning experience.

“At that level, contrary to what some people may think, there isn’t a bad referee, they’re all there for a reason, and the margins are so fine, between your Michael Oliver’s and your Graham Scott’s.”

Aside from the privilege of working with the county’s best, what other highlights from his time at the top stand out for Phillips?

“Being on the officiating team for the first Premier League game outside of England (Swansea City vs. Wigan Athletic on 20 August 2011) was a real privilege,” said Phillips.

“Others that stand out, are refereeing Chelsea’s first game back after winning the European Cup in a preseason match at Brighton. Another highlight was refereeing the opening game at the Amex Stadium Brighton vs. Tottenham will always be something I’ll look back on with pride.”

Brighton Spurs July 2011- Credit: Paul Hazlewood

Phillips calling the shots at Brighton vs. Spurs in 2011, the first game at the Amex Stadium (Credit: Paul Hazlewood)

Yet after 438 games officiating, for Phillips, it was time to look to the next challenge.

“When it came to retirement, I knew it was the right time,” said Phillips.

“Every good thing has to come to an end, and I got to a point where I thought to myself ‘what else was I going to achieve?’ I was never going to do a Wembley cup final, and combined with my work as a Police Officer, it was just starting to make life more challenging.

“I simply put things in perspective, and looked at my career, not as ‘what I could achieve?’ but what I have achieved.

“If I went back to 1981 and my PE teacher told me I’d go on to referee in the Football League, and be a match official in the Premier League, I’d have probably just laughed!

“For me, I’d exceeded my own expectations, so I knew it was probably time to move on.”

But Phillips didn’t have to move on very far, as he took up a role as a referee observer within the Football League.

“Football’s been a part of my life ever since I’d been able to kick a ball, and that was never going to stop,” said Phillips.

“So, when the opportunity to move into observing came up, I knew it was the right next step for me. I certainly did miss refereeing though when I was observing those first few games,” said Phillips.

“Pre-match we used to go in, see the referees and then you’d go down to the dressing rooms and go in for the team-sheet exchange, and then they’d go off and warm up and I’d head upstairs for a cup of tea!

“But you do miss that changing room atmosphere, and the adrenaline that goes through you just as you walk out through the tunnel.

“And that was hard to start with, because a part of you always wants to be there, but as time went on, I got more comfortable in my new role and knew I’d made the right decision.”

However, whilst moving away from the middle of the park had brought an end to Phillips’ days of having to leave the stadium out of the back entrance to avoid certain supporters, the new role still came with its share of pressure and challenges.

“In my role, you sometimes find yourself sitting in directors’ boxes, which puts you in the firing line for some very passionate Chairs and Directors,” said Phillips.

“So, when something happens down on the pitch, you often get a few comments of, ‘no wonder you’re here today’ or ‘hope you’ve got that down’, and you have to say, ‘yes thank you very much’.

“Being down on the pitch, you’re completely detached from that side of things, but up in the stands, you’re not able to get away from it.”

And of course, whilst the fans and owners around him might view the actions of a referee in a certain way, in observing his former colleagues, Phillips is always able to put himself in their shoes, in a way that others in the crowd are simply unable to do.

Dave Phillips calls the shots

A smiling Phillips during his Football League days

“It does help to be able to view a game from the match officials’ point of view,” said Phillips, “you’re able to have that empathy with them.

“But then I’ve also got to remember that I’ve got one of the best views in the ground, and I’ve got the time to look over the incidents again.

“Whereas down on the pitch, the assistant for example will only have a channelled view of the action, because they’re so close.

“Yet at the end of the game, I still have to go down and give my opinions, and at that time, the most important thing is to be open and honest.”

As challenging as the role is, Phillips is clearly still enjoying it; indeed, he recently celebrated game number 300 as an observer in the professional game.

“It was certainly a nice surprise getting that award in the post,” said Phillips.

“If you’re a player, you get awarded for your number of appearances for a club, so it’s the same for match officials they get recognition for when they reach those milestones as well.

“It’s been a great experience, with highs and lows, like with any job, so to be recognised in that way gives you a real boost.”

So, with such a wealth of experience under his belt, what advice would Phillips give to the next generation of officials coming through?

“It’s always important to be open and honest with yourself,” said Phillips, “and in doing so you’ll gain that determination and resilience.

“Then listen to every bit of advice, whether or not you take it on board is down to you, but every bit of advice is golden and brings with it a chance to learn and improve.

“And finally, I’d say to keep smiling, because when you’re enjoying the job and enjoying the game, that's when you’re performing your best, whereas if you let it get to you, then your performance is going to suffer as a result.”

And for Phillips, just what does he think the future holds for him?

“I’d like to get into referee coaching, and there’s a lot more opportunities going forward for referees now to move into that area,” said Phillips.

“But I’m also enjoying being involved with the FA Centre For Refereeing Excellence (FA CORE) where I lead a group of nine other coaches for the Southern Region looking to progress referees further up the leagues, hopefully into the professional game, unlocking their future potential.

“In doing that, by helping develop referees, it gives me great satisfaction because we’re seeing some really good youngsters starting to come through and get the opportunities they deserve.

“We’ve got a lot of talent here in Sussex, so to be a part of helping bring through the next Tim Robinson is something I take great pride in.”

Indeed, with Phillips and the other coaches at CORE helping guide the next generation, the future certainly looks bright!

For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:

T: 01903 768573
E: Referees@SussexFA.com

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