When you make assistant referees your new hobby…

Date published: Friday 25th January 2019 9:14

The Premier League currently uses 28 assistant referees. How many can you name?

(Waiting. . .)

(Still waiting. . .)

(Taking the time to fry an egg. . .)

I got only one – Sian Massey – and even that was wrong, because her name is now Sian Massey-Ellis. If you got five or more, I’m really impressed. If you got all 28, I worship you, but you might want to rethink your life a bit. Besides, how many of those names can you match with their faces?

For central referees, in contrast, names and faces are no problem. For a short while I confused Andre Marriner and Neal Swarbrick, and I still occasionally think Paul Tierney is Stuart Attwell, but even when they all shave their heads, we know Lee Mason from Anthony Taylor from Mike Dean from Roger East. (Simon Hooper’s the new baldie on the block, and I think I’ve got him straight now.)

Of course, the reason we recognise the guys with the whistles is that we hear/see their names/faces all the time. Television commentators mention the ref’s name several times a match: “Michael Oliver says no penalty”, “He’s given Kevin Friend a decision to make”, “Craig Pawson gets us started”, and so on. The name is usually accompanied by a camera close-up. On the other hand, assistants might get their names mentioned once at the beginning, where we see them as a pair, not as individuals. Even with two hours of match coverage, we’re almost never told which is which. One senses they’re not actually people, just bipeds with flags.

To show you how far this can go, take last weekend’s match between Watford and Burnley. With the score 0-0 in the 92nd minute, Dwight McNeil of Burnley took a hard shot at goal. Ben Foster spilled it, and Chris Wood put in the rebound for the winner. But the assistant referee had raised his flag, and the goal was chalked off. Replays showed that in fact Wood had been onside. The erroneous ruling had decided the match.

Surely this was an appropriate time, if ever, to consult the media guide and reveal the responsible party. And yet, the television commentators never mentioned the assistant ref’s name, even when the camera showed him close up. What’s more, none – that’s right, none – of the published match reports mentioned his name either. Even the two Burnley papers, both of which gave prominent place to the decision, were silent. Were they above such petty details? Too lazy to look it up? Protecting someone’s secret identity?

For the record, it was Simon Bennett. I know this because I found the assistant refs’ names on the official Premier League report, and used Google Images to find the right one. Even then, I had to scroll down through several Simon Bennetts, one of whom was a confessed murderer, before I found the recognisable face.

The Premier League itself connives with this anonymity. At the beginning of the season, the league issued an online press release announcing two new referees, David Coote and Simon Hooper, and two new assistants, Neil Davies and Dan Robathan. The release was accompanied by big pictures of Coote and Hooper, both looking extremely referee-like. Davies and Robathan? Nowhere to be seen.

It seems unfair, somehow. These guys have to stay in shape just like the central refs, and have to pass just as rigorous tests to get to the top flight. We’ve seen enough tight replays to know how hard the job is, and they do get most of the close calls right. The least we can do is find out who’s helping to bring us the football we so enjoy.

At the same time, the average football fan mainly wants to know a ref’s name so he’ll know exactly who he’s barracking. The local papers generally tell you the referee for the upcoming match, whereupon the message boards fill with appropriate expletives for his repeated failure to award stonewall penalties. So maybe the assistants are better off in the shadows. And luckily for them, we seem to be content with slagging off the main men. Let’s face it: if the names of the assistant referees really mattered to us, we’d bother to learn them.

And while we may not have the names, we do at least have the faces. There they are, looking stern or assured or sorrowful as they flourish their flags at rigid angles. I’m sure you have your favourites just like mine. There’s the guy with the beard like Mephistopheles, the young guy with the squarest chin in England, the bald guy with the bright eyes, the guy who you can’t tell apart from Lee Probert, the short guy with the receding hairline and chipmunk face, and the tall thin guy with the grey hair who inclines his head severely, as if to give the call an exclamation point.

So maybe the names aren’t important. And maybe in a world where we’re drowning in information, a little ignorance can be a pleasant change of pace, even a blessing. And if all else fails, there’s always Sian Massey-Ellis. Still, now that I know the name Simon Bennett, and which one he is (the guy who cocks his head with a harsh, satisfied stare, like a policeman who’s caught a major drug dealer) there’s that temptation to go a bit farther, you know what I mean? Not all 28, of course, but just a few more here and there?

Okay, I’ve got the Premier League Official Select Group List and the browser set to Google Images. Mephistopheles is Stephen Child, the chin guy is Ian Hussin, bright-eyes is Simon Long – I can quit any time I want, really…

Peter Goldstein

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