Who'd be a Sunday League Referee?

Who would voluntarily choose to be referee in the Premier League, never mind the lower reaches of English amateur football? Dan Mobbs went to meet Mo Awill to find out

Childhood is seemingly the defining factor in what position someone ends up spending the majority of their life playing the beautiful game in. The sprinter on the wing, the disciplinarian in the middle and the big lad will play at the back.

These are formulaic standards that characterize most people’s earliest associations with football. For some people though there is a hole in this and it’s referee shaped.

Apparently not fussed by the glory of participating in the match, those who choose to be referees selflessly blend into the background so that law and order can be maintained in sometimes physically passionate circumstances.

The role of referee is in general a thankless one, just ask Mark Clattenburg. One mistake puts your position in the spotlight and the countless correct and acutely well observed ones are immediately forgotten about. After all if a referee has a good game, it isn’t back page news.

If a player makes a mistake though they’re are able to hide behind the potential successes of their team-mates, but a referee has no such safety, as if he makes a mistake he’s alone, often in a sea of disagreeing fans and players.

Thankfully some people are seemingly gluttons for punishment and are willing to accept these pitfalls and voluntarily choose to oversee games of all levels, but why? Mo Awill is one such person.

He isn’t though a Premier League referee, or even a referee in a professional division, he has the most thankless task in football. He’s a referee in London’s Southern Sunday Football League.

To make matters worse, when I go to see him it’s a bleak and cold winter’s day, pouring down with rain and it’s prematurely dark considering it’s only a little after midday.

Awill, like the players revels in these conditions and his position on the pitch, but when after the game I ask why, it causes him to pause for a moment.

He forces a smile and stares back at the pitch on which he’s just officiated, which is only a glass of water short of a marsh and pauses, mulling over the question in his head and seemingly questioning why in actual fact he has dragged himself out on such a cold and wet winters Sunday.

The man himself.

Eventually he forces a stunted chuckle of realisation and says “well ... I mean it is my job these guys they need a referee, someone who has to be impartial. For me personally I obviously want to go a long way in this, so, I mean it is a hobby as well as a job”.

The same as any player, Awill is clearly aspirational in his hobby and dreams of progressing through the ranks, but even at this level of football he is subject to criticism.

Despite overseeing the game in a clear, fair and authoritative manner, he was seemingly the punching bag for player’s frustrations, even when there was little to complain about.

The standard phrase that would echo around the vast playing field of Clapham Common was “fuckin’ hell ref” but this is seemingly a part of the game that Awill has accepted and blanked from his hearing for the overall benefit of the two teams and for the personal enjoyment of his hobby, as he refused to let the abuse get to him.

“Well as long as it’s not directed directly at me then I don’t mind. It is a game of football and emotions are running high, so we [referees] just get on with it and be adults about it.”

This ‘as seen on TV’ abuse of the ref is such a part of the game now that he even gauges a successful game by the lack of abuse he is subject to and not the quality of his officiating.

So when I ask him if making a good decision gives him a buzz, I’m surprised by the answer. “No as long as it’s a quiet game really. As long as I’m not getting any “fuck this”, “shit this” or whatever then I guess I’m doing a really good job”.

This isn’t to say that all referees don’t revel in the adrenaline of refereeing, as Martin Hansson, now infamous for missing Thierry Henry’s handball in Ireland’s decisive second-leg qualifying game for the 2010 World Cup, said quite the opposite.

When asked how he feels after a match in Mattias Löw’s excellent documentary Rättskiparen [The Referee] he exclaimed “I feel more joy than when I played myself and won”.

Hansson is equally aware of the abuse that referees are subject to from fans and the media, but he’s seemingly a wall of professionalism and simply says in response to how it affects him “I get energized and want to improve my game”.

When I ask Awill about whether he enjoys his hobby, even in the face of such adversity and unflinching criticism from players, I’m slightly taken aback by his unquestioning assertiveness.

“Absolutely” he said without hesitation “I think that’s what makes a better referee really” and thankfully so, as without him and many more similar gluttons for punishment, football as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.

Dan is site editor for the excellent ‘Three Match Ban’.  If you haven’t yet had a bash at the sticker quiz, your life can never be truly complete. You can also follow Dan on Twitter here