AFTER hanging up his whistle, retinig ref Dave Phillips it feels strange to think he’ll never be the man in the middle at a Football League match again.
But it’s a feeling that’s offset by two things – the fact he has no regrets about his years as a referee, and that he’s now looking forward to a new role as an assessor.
Phillips, also known to many as a Chichester city centre police officer, retired from the professional game at the end of the season – fittingly, officiating in his last game at the same ground, Brentford’s Griffin Park, where he had run his first league game in the role.
He started refereeing in 1981 aged 14 while still playing football. He progressed through the Sussex football ranks, becoming an assistant referee on the Football League list in 2003-04 season before moving up to the referee list in 2008.
During 11 seasons in the pro game, he has officiated in more than 320 matches in the Football League, the Premier League, where he has been fourth official, and the FA Cup. Some 183 of those matches have had him as the referee.
Now he is continuing his work in ‘the trade’ as FA national level four referee development co-ordinator and coach for the south-east as well as Sussex FA referee coach and tutor.
And he will be using his experience of the professional game after being accepted as national-list referee assessor with Professional Game Match Officials.
Phillips told the Observer: “I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet that I won’t ever again be standing in the tunnel at a Football League game waiting to walk out with the teams. Being an assessor will be very different but it’ll be a new challenge for me.
“I felt the time was right to retire. We all want to go on forever but my aim had been to last til I was 48, and I will be next birthday.
“I’m still fit – I never came off from a game injured and always passed fitness tests – but I was finding it was taking longer to recover.
“I’ve been coaching referees and my ultimate goal is to work for the Football League and FA as a referee coach – that would be after I retire from the police. Assessing will be a good step towards that.”
Phillips, who is married to Debbie and has a son Christopher, 23, and Lauren, 19, says the pressure on referees – the amount of scrutiny they come under – is growing. But he reckons they are responding well: “The scrutiny these days is higher-profile and there’s more outside pressure, but I’d say 95 per cent of the time, refs are proved right.”
He said part of him would have liked to have given it a go as a Premier League ref but that is a full-time occupation. “I’m glad I didn’t have to make that call in a way,” he added.
“But I feel I’ve over-achieved. If someone had told me when I was 14 that I’d be a ref in the Football League, officiate at Premier League games I’d have laughed at them.
“I’ve had some big days. Starting and finishing at Brentford was great – they were celebrating promotion in my last game. I did Stockport’s last game in the Football League and was fourth official at Swansea for the first Premier League game staged outside England.
“I ran the line for Morecambe’s first game in the Football League and was fourth official for AFC Wimbledon’s first home game in the league, which was on TV.
“I was there for Brighton’s first game at the Amex – a friendly versus Spurs – and was back there when they played a friendly which was Chelsea’s first game back after winning the Champions League. They had £230m of talent in their team that day!”
Phillips has, of course, provoked the ire of players and managers from time but generally has found them to be reasonable once situations have cooled.
One goal he gave for Northampton against Plymouth brought a public slating from then Argyle manager John Sheridan – followed by an apology when the boss saw a replay and realised the decision was correct.
“You have to go with your gut instinct when you see something – you don’t have the benefit of replays,” he said. “You trust your own judgment but at the same time you never stop learning.”
As an assessor, he said, he’d be poacher-turned-gamekeeper.
“I’ll have empathy for referees because I’ve been there. I’m current in terms of the football at which they’re officiating. I’ll be firm but fair and support them wherever I can.
“Refereeing is in a good place because of the opportunities that exist for refs at a yojng age. My advice to youngsters would be that refereeing can be a career, not just a hobby. The structure is in place now – as is a support network, which wasn’t always there.
“It can take a long time to get into the professional games but good refs can make it. Good refs are the ones who can come back from disastrous games where they’ve made high-profile mistakes.
“You need enthusiasm, mental toughness, a clear focus and you need to know what you want. You must be resolute.
“I can look back with no regrets. It’s been fabulous to be involved in the game at the level I have been – I’ve met people and players I’d never dreamed I could meet and work with. I can walk away knowing it’s been a job well done.”