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The hungry new generation of referees: 'I was never going to make it in Premier League as a player - but I could as a ref'

Premier League referees Kevin Friend and Anthony Taylor helping to guide new youthful crop: "I was never going to make the Premier League as a player, I accepted that... but refereeing gives me that opportunity and I love it"; Watch full feature on Soccer Saturday

Kevin Friend leads a training session at Warwick University. Pic: Johnny Phillips
Image: Kevin Friend leads a training session at Warwick University. Pic: Johnny Phillips

Who would be a referee? Soccer Saturday's Johnny Phillips joins a pre-season training camp to see how a hungry new generation of refs is coming through the ranks.

Four new referees have been added to the Premier League list for the 2020/21 season by Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL).

John Brooks, Jarred Gillett, Michael Salisbury and Tony Harrington have all been promoted to Select Group 1. All in their 30s, the four represent a younger generation coming up behind the established names.

The route to the top of refereeing in this country is a competitive and challenging one.

For the past month, FA CORE - the Football Association's Centre of Refereeing Excellence - has been running pre-season training programmes for a select group of officials from steps two to seven who have been identified as having the potential and opportunity to progress to the higher levels of the game. Soccer Saturday spent a day with more than 50 of them at Warwick University on one of their intensive courses in July.

"Referee recruitment for us as an association has never really been a challenge," said Dan Meeson, Head of Refereeing Technical and Development, who led the course.

"Ninety per cent of the referees we recruit are below the age of 25. So that gives us a really youthful pool of referees to work with to try and nurture, educate and develop so they get to the elite levels of the game quicker."

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With Premier League referees Kevin Friend and Anthony Taylor, who had just returned from the European Championships, in attendance to support the aspiring officials alongside Meeson's coaching team, there was no shortage of experience.

"We're looking at the next generation coming through," Friend explained. "The help, advice and support we can give them to help them move on and improve their game both on and off the field is of key importance. Seeing what they do and their work ethic in these sessions is brilliant."

New handball rule in focus

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Jamie Carragher sits down with Premier League referees to discuss the changes coming to VAR for the 2021/22 season. The refs go in-depth into the reasoning behind the changes which include changes to offside, handball & contact in the box

The morning technical session focussed on the changes to the handball law for the 2021/22 season, with a goal scored after an accidental handball only being penalised if the attacker scores directly or immediately after the ball touches the arm.

A ball accidentally striking a team-mate's arm prior to that will not be penalised. Aside from the new application of the rule for goals, not every contact with the arm is an offence but making the body unnaturally bigger increases the risk of being penalised.

Meeson showed the young referees several video clips with some incredibly tight calls to be made on decisions in relation to the changes. He was relieved to find that there was a solid consensus on how the new laws should be applied.

"We deliberately planted some handball clips early on in the day because that has tied in nicely with the laws of the game changes for 2021/22, so it was really interesting to hear some of the analysis and dissection of the clips," said Meeson.

"We do an enormous amount of work with leagues, clubs and managers and coaches to establish their understanding of the law changes, just to increase their empathy sometimes to judge how difficult it can be. That can be quite powerful on the matchday - that's not to say coaches and players won't still be critical of our decision-making but at least they understand."

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Premier League chief executive Richard Masters explains how changes to the handball rule and VAR protocols will improve the game for fans this season

For supporters, the law changes will be aimed at improving the flow of a game and minimising an area of decision-making that had become over-analysed and, at Premier League level, made more frustrating by VAR.

Last season, a West Ham United equaliser in added time against Sheffield United was overturned by VAR because of an accidental handball against Declan Rice, who supplied the pass from which Robert Snodgrass scored. This season, the same goal would stand.

"It's only if you score directly from the accidental handball that we'll disallow it or if the player accidentally handles the ball and immediately scores a goal," Friend confirmed. "Bar that, we won't be intervening with it. We've cut a lot of it out now, we're going to make it simpler."

The word "immediately" is part of the new terminology in the handball law and Meeson acknowledges that referees will always have to interpret the meaning of words like this. But the changes and modifications made by IFAB around handball ahead of the new season now make things far simpler and clearer for the referees.

"Establishing the right words and right terminology is really critical for IFAB, who put the laws of the game together and make any subsequent changes" he explained.

"It will always be a challenge. There are certain things we say in life that you might have a different opinion of what that might mean to me. To get absolute 100% clarity and consistency on certain aspects of football will be a very difficult task, but training camps like these give us a real opportunity to make sure there is consistency in our understanding, interpretation and on-field application."

'I wanted to be a better ref than I was as a player'

"These are incredibly valuable sessions," said Taz Alli, a Level 7 referee based in Sussex.

"It will mean starting the season in a better place, mentally and physically. I used to play, not at a very good level, and I wanted to be able to referee at a better level than I played at."

That was a common theme amongst many of the referees we met on the day. "I want to achieve my end goal which is to make it as high as I can in the Football League or Premier League," added Lewis Sandoe, a Level 3 official from Wiltshire. "I was never going to do that as a player, I accepted that. I knew that, as a 16-year old, however refereeing gives me that opportunity and I love it."

Friend continued: "A lot of people say to us, 'Oh you don't play football, you've never played football, you're not a fan.'

"But we are true fans at heart, and we all love the game. It is important that while we are fans and have played football that we have knowledge and know exactly what we need to do on the field of play, because it's different to playing football. We need to know exactly what we need to be doing at any given opportunity and get that right."

With supporters back in stadiums for 2021/22, perhaps the officials in the Premier League will have a slightly more pressurised environment to work in than last season. For those coming through behind them, Meeson is confident that the future of refereeing is on the right path.

"We are seeing some of our FA CORE graduates now operate within the echelons of the Football League but of course we always want to see more. So that places a greater emphasis on the programme evolving, expanding and growing in the next five or 10 years," he added.

"FA CORE remains a strategic priority for the organisation. We are very fortunate to be backed and supported by the executives and wider organisation because they know the merit and power in investing time, money and resources into these referees. We have that responsibility to service the game for many years to come and it all starts here."

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