As a current Scottish FA Category 1 football referee, I’ve had a very interesting journey to the top level of officiating within Scottish football to say the least!
As a youth international goalkeeper, qualified children’s and goalkeeping coach and a qualified referee, I can’t think of too many who have fulfilled all 3 roles in the game!
First steps into football
My first experience of organised football started with my local team, Renfrew Waverley, sadly no longer in existence but fondly remembered by many in Renfrew having produced several top flight players such as Barry Lavety formerly of St Mirren, Alan McManus, formerly of Hearts and Morton and former St Mirren captain, now BBC pundit, Steven Thompson, a team-mate of mine.
My dad saw an advert in the Paisley Gazette looking for players for their new under 10 team so I went along to the King George V pitches in Renfrew one sunny Tuesday night to see if I could make the team. At only 8 years old I was probably a bit young but given I wasn’t far short of the height I was now, I thought that might go in my favour! Around 40 boys turned up that night and I can recall that the prospects of making the team looked slim given there were so many there. However, after a brief conversation with some of the dads who had turned up to support their boys, the coaches managed to recruit a new set of volunteers, including my dad, and we now had a second team!
Pretty quickly it was discovered that the league could not accept any more teams for their under 10 competitions as they were full and it looked like the Renfrew Waverley U10 B Team had had a short-lived existence!! As I recall there were a lot of discussions with the league which ended up with a place being offered to us in the under 11 league instead. Now at 8 years old and along with most of the team who were at least a year or 2 younger than the players in the other teams it looked like it could be a challenging season…and indeed in was!! The second game of the season saw us take on Barrhead Boys Club, one of the leading teams at that time. Final Score…18-0 to Barrhead!! A couple of games later we drew them in the first round of the cup…final score 19-1!! It was going to be a long season and a very busy one for the young goalkeeper!
Now you would have thought that that first year of organised football may have put me and my team-mates off for life…but in fact it was the exact opposite. I found it to be a fantastic experience and one that no doubt helped my development as a goalkeeper, probably as I was seeing so much of the ball!! For example in that 18-0 match, I must have had around 15 saves in addition to conceding the 18 goals!!
In addition, the attitude of the coaches including my dad was about much more than playing football. It was about team-spirit, always encouraging us to try our hardest, never giving up no matter what the score was and learning from our mistakes. It was made clear to us that football (and sport in general) was about more than just winning…winning was important but learning valuable lessons for life was actually more important.
The promotion of these values brought about a steep but successful learning curve for all the players. By the end of the season, we played Barrhead again and it finished in a 7-2 defeat. Another defeat but we actually gave them a game!!
As fate would have it, our final game of the season came against Clarkston. A few weeks earlier we had played them and had earned our first points of the season with a 1-1 draw so we knew it might be an opportunity for us as our record our first win. As ever, our coaches encouraged us to simply try our best and to give our all and no matter what the result they were proud of us. And try our best we did. Despite going 1 goal down early in the match we managed to score 2 goals in the second half. With 10 minutes to go we were still winning 2-1. I can remember my heart pounding out of my chest, probably the first real experience of adrenalin that I had ever had!! As the referee’s watch counted down, could we hold on? How long ref was the shout…3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute and then the final whistle went! Renfrew 2, Clarkston 1…it was as if we had won the world cup!!
Courteous in victory, our coaches were clearly as delighted as we were to have secured out first win but the victory was quickly put in context by the reminder that we had achieved that victory by working hard both individually and as a team, and giving it as much effort as we could…the ethos and values I’m sure we can all relate to in our lives and lines of business. That and a little bit of luck that we all rely on every now and again!
Following that season we actually went backwards to play at under 10’s in my second year and through rivalries with other local teams such as Erskine, Bishopton, Gleniffer Thistle and St Conval’s, a few league and cup successes followed in the proceeding 4 years. I’ve got no doubt that our failures in that first season actually led to our success in the future years.
The team produced a number of ‘S’ form signings for professional teams, most notably Steven Thompson who signed for Dundee United.
The Renfrew High Years
In terms of enjoyment as well as success, I would say that my involvement in schools’ football has been a real highlight, both in terms of playing and officiating. I only started playing schools football in secondary school as unfortunately my primary school, Newmains in Renfrew, never had a school team. With Mr Macpherson, Head Teacher of Renfrew High and SSFA life member at the helm, we got together a pretty good team and went on to challenge for the league and cups in my first year.
It was always interesting to find out who we were playing and where. Mr Macpherson used to put a hand written note on the noticeboard as you walked down the PE corridor. As the goalie, I always loved it when the notice said ‘game will be played on grass at King George V, Renfrew!’ It was absolute murder playing on those red blaize pitches at the school, coming home with 3rd degree burns on your knees, elbows and thighs after flinging yourself about!
I can recall the first game we played…a Saturday morning match against Barrhead High at Cowan Park on grass in the pouring rain. No one seemed to have a suitable match ball so guess what came out…the eternal classic of schools football, a mitre mouldmaster! And an orange one to boot!! I am glad they have been outlawed like the red blaize! I think I still have the scars from getting one of those right in the face or on the leg!!!
Those were the days, some 25 years ago, when the games were mostly played on a Saturday morning to be followed by a boys club game in the afternoon but nowadays, very few games take place on a Saturday, most are midweek. However, the vastly improved facilities in most schools such as floodlit astro pitches has made a huge difference.
Renfrew to Paisley & District and beyond…
From Renfrew High, came my involvement in the Paisley and District select squads and a winners medal in the U15 national trophy alongside my club team-mates Mr Thompson, Stuart Gilchrist (Scottish Junior Cup winner with Renfrew in 2001) and former Inverness and Morton defender Stuart McCaffrey.
The 4-1 win against West Lothian in the final at the old Love Street was an excellent performance but arguably the hardest game was the semi-final against our old rivals Lanarkshire with Andy Newman grabbing a late winner only to find out that he was suspended for the final after picking up a yellow card! Andy’s scoring record was incredible at that time having scored in every game for 2 years bar one (down at Dumfries) so understandably we were a little apprehensive about the final but it proved unfounded!!
We were really lucky to have Tony Fitzpatrick and Stuart McBean, who were both working for St Mirren at that time, as our coaches in addition to the commitment of our teacher volunteers such as Donald Stirling and Bill Beattie from the PDSFA committee.
That was also the year when I was selected for the Scottish Schools U15 squad playing in the first year of a new TV contract with sky sports where all our games against the home nations were shown live. My Paisley and District schools team-mates Steven Thompson and Andy Newman were also in the squad so it was good to have some familiar faces. I was lucky enough to play in all 3 games which started well with a 3-1 win at Wrexham v Wales. Unfortunately we then lost 2-1 to Northern Ireland and we finished off with a 1-0 defeat against England at the newly opened Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld.
My involvement in playing schools football took me all over Europe and beyond including trips to Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, France and to this day my favourite place, Israel.
The under 16 squad which travelled to Ashdod, Israel was the first schools squad to have ever done so. At that age it was quite a culture shock to travel to a very different country with a very different climate. We even managed a trip to the Dead Sea and can recall some interesting sights from both players and staff in the world-renowned mud!!
If I wasn’t lucky enough when it came to playing in and travelling the world through schools football, I also had the opportunity to become involved as the goalkeeping coach for some of the Scottish Schools teams in my early 20’s again travelling around the country and Europe, but this time on the other side of things. It was only then that I realised how much effort and work is put in by all those teachers and officials behind the scenes to make sure everything is just right for the team and I am thankful for that. Having seen both sides, I don’t think I quite appreciated the honour of pulling on the Scotland jersey as a teenager and its only now when I reflect on things that I realise how lucky I was.
The big one…Renfrew High, Senior Shield winners 1997!
By far the biggest achievement for me in schools football, over and above the Scotland caps, was winning the Scottish Schools Senior Shield final with Renfrew High in 1997. We had always had a decent team and had won the PDSFA league and/or a cup in every year but until that year we had never been particularly successful in any Scottish Shield competition. I can’t really recall our squad getting much beyond the first few rounds to be honest in any previous year but in the 1996-97 season it just all seemed to click. On reflection, there were a few key moments and the odd bit of luck which helped us along the way. For example, in the 2nd round the team we were supposed to play withdrew the day before we were due to play them. Who knows what may have happened in that game?
The quarter final was probably the toughest game against Holyrood Secondary, Glasgow at the KGV, Renfrew. A school with around 800 pupils against a school with over 2000 and a very strong reputation. The year before we had been beaten in an early round by Holyrood 7-5 after extra time with a good friend of mine, Chris Quinn scoring 5 against me that day. But a key tactical decision by the school team coaches (which again included my dad) made the difference in a 1-0 win. Recognising the strength they had in midfield, we adopted the ‘Sam Allerdyce’ approach and effectively missed them out by playing long balls to our pacey strikers, one of which resulted I that winning goal.
In addition, the semi final turned out to be almost as eventful as the final itself and ironically almost turned on a refereeing decision. It was Renfrew High v St Brides of East Kilbride. Held at Love Street, one of the assistant referees that night was a local veteran of schools football Andy McMillan, now a good friend and colleague. After a fairly dour game which finished 0-0, it went to penalties. If I recall all the players had scored their kicks to that point and it was 4-4 at the time. I took my position in the centre of the goal to face the 9th kick, knowing a save would give us the opportunity of going to Hampden. Up stepped the St Brides kicker, I dived low to my right, got 2 hands on the ball…it’s a save…YEEEEESSSS!!!!! As I got up from the ground I heard the toot of the referees whistle, looked round and there he was…Mr McMillan standing with his flag aloft indicating I had moved off the goal line before the kick was taken!! In the words of John McEnroe, “you cannot be serious!” But Mr McMillan held his flag and a re-take it was…the kicker stepped up again, I dived right again but the ball went left. Out of the corner of my eye I just managed to see the ball clip the outside of the post and go past the goal…YEEEEEEEESSSSS again!! Our final kicker needed to score and score he did…we had made it to the final, and the rest they say is history! But how different it may have been, potentially resting on that single decision…that’s where in my position now as a top flight referee you realise the responsibility you actually have!
The day of the shield final itself was unforgettable. Hampden was in the midst of redevelopment in May 1997 with a gaping hole where the old main stand had been whilst awaiting the erection of the new one. Despite being in temporary changing, it was fantastic to lead the team out onto the hallowed turf at Hampden as captain to play against Harris Academy. At that point we were only the third Renfrew High team to have reached any shield final, the first of which had ended in defeat.
The team that was defeated a few years earlier was captained by SSFA record appearance holder Iain Nicolson and by chance his younger brother Craig was in my team in the centre of defence. Maybe the family experience of defeat gave Craig and us that extra bit of determination…who knows?!
The game itself was a cagey affair, getting used to the surroundings and the massive pitch. We managed to score a cracking goal in the second half through Jamie McQuilter, a regular at hitting the net for us throughout that season but a defensive error trying to play a rushing offside trap saw us concede with only minutes to play. At that time, unlike now, the game went to extra time, during which numerous players from both teams went down with cramp having given so much to the game!
By the time we had played 120 minutes and the game had finished 1-1 I couldn’t believe anyone still had the energy to take the penalties. But up they stepped and we managed to score the first 2 no problem and I managed to save both of those from Harris Academy. Then we missed one and it was back to me again for a 3rd penalty save, 2-0 up after 3 penalties each…unbelievable! Then they scored…2-1…it was the deciding kick for Renfrew High, glory or bust…and we missed again! Harris needed to score their last penalty to keep them it in but luckily for us it went past the post giving us a famous victory. As I was handed the trophy I could hardly lift it above my head!! For the first time, Renfrew High were national champions and we were also the first team from Paisley and District to have lifted the senior shield since Paisley Grammar in 1903-04, it’s first season of the competition!!
I have managed to keep in touch with some of the team over the years and back in 2017, to celebrate 20 years since our victory, we got everyone together for a celebration dinner including all the coaches and teachers. It was great to all meet up again and reminisce about that famous day as well as to be ale to formally thank those volunteer coaches and teachers who helped us so much during our schools football experiences.
Transition to refereeing
I have got to admit that I had not really give refereeing a second thought until that same Headteacher who got me involved in schools football Alistair Macpherson was struggling to get a referee one day for a school match and asked me if I fancied it. I had a quick think and for some reason decided to give it a go. I think I did ok so I was asked to do a few more and it continued from there. I thought it might be a good way to earn some extra pocket money…play football on a Saturday and then referee on a Sunday, as well as refereeing a school game or two. I never thought at that time that I would be involved at the highest level of football and of refereeing as a Category 1 official.
I attended the referee training class with Renfrewshire Referees Association and completed my examination in December 1997. As well as refereeing schools matches, I joined my first league (Strathclyde Youth Clubs Association – SYCA) and refereed my first ever league match in January 1998.
I combined my refereeing and playing for around 5 years until 2002/03, when after spending most of my time on the subs bench for a few senior and junior teams.
My then referee supervisors (managers) in Renfrewshire suggested I should think about really concentrating on refereeing. They saw some potential but in order to really test my ability, I had to join a Saturday league. I moved to referee in the West of Scotland under 21’s and also run the line in the West of Scotland Juniors knowing that if things didn’t work out I was young enough (23/24 years old) to return to goalkeeping…but I never did.
The move to referee in Junior football came within a couple of years and I was admitted onto the senior list of referees in 2005/06. This meant as well as refereeing the Juniors, I was acting as an assistant referee in reserve and senior football. Within 2 years I had progressed to Category 2 which meant refereeing the top Junior matches as well as refereeing reserve football and continuing to run the run at Division 1 (now SPFL Championship) matches and 3 years later I made the step-up to Category 1 for the 2011/12 season. There were many highlights during this time including refereeing a thrilling 2-2 Scottish Junior Cup tie between Linlithgow Rose and Auchinleck Talbot (and the resulting replay) as well as refereeing a 2011 semi final at Auchinleck v Bo’ness United and being one of the assistants at the 2011 final, Auchinleck v Musselburgh at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock.
So far in my refereeing career, through my connections in schools football I have been fortunate to be involved in numerous schools cup finals. Three matches stand out for me so far…being the referee at the 2011 Senior Shield final at Hampden some 14 years after playing in the same match (possible the first and only time that has happened??)
and refereeing 4 schoolboy internationals: Scotland v Northern Ireland (2012 and 2020) and Scotland v England (2015 and 2017), all fantastic experiences. Also, in professional football, refereeing at many senior grounds in front of capacity crowds (here’s hoping we can get crowds back soon), being 4thofficial at over 50 Premier League games so far and most of all, actually refereeing 10 Premiership matches, makes you realise how lucky you are as very few referees ever get that chance.
Some people have a chuckle when I tell them that I still referee school matches over and above my usual weekly commitments…they ask me why I would want to. The answer is simply that I enjoy refereeing so why not!
I really hope that schools football is able to return in the near future when things are much safer.