BIG INTERVIEW: Northampton flag man Stuart Burt is on top of the world!

"It was epic, a dream realised."
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The words of Northampton assistant referee Stuart Burt, now home from his stint as a match official at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Burt spent close to five weeks at the action-packed tournament as part of referee Michael Oliver's officiating team, and ran the line in three matches - concluding with the quarter-final clash between five-times champions Brazil and Croatia.

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It was a special time and tournament for Burt, who wouldn't have been thinking about sharing the world footballing stage with some of the best players on the planet when he started out as a referee at the age of just 15, taking charge of matches in the John Henry Youth Alliance League.

Northampton's Stuart Burt (right) made his World Cup debut in Costa Rica's 1-0 group win over Japan last monthNorthampton's Stuart Burt (right) made his World Cup debut in Costa Rica's 1-0 group win over Japan last month
Northampton's Stuart Burt (right) made his World Cup debut in Costa Rica's 1-0 group win over Japan last month

But that's exactly what happened as Neymar's Brazil were stunned by their penalty shootout defeat to Luka Modric's Croatia, with Burt, Oliver and fellow assistant Gary Beswick in charge of proceedings.

And his World Cup experience is one that Burt, who has now been an assistant in the Premier League for more than 10 years, is certainly never going to forget

"It was epic, a dream realised," he declared.

"It's not something you think about when you first start refereeing, 'oh, I am going to referee at the World Cup', because that's not realistic.

Stuart Burt lines up with Michael Oliver and his fellow officials ahead of the World Cup quarter-final between Brazil and CroatiaStuart Burt lines up with Michael Oliver and his fellow officials ahead of the World Cup quarter-final between Brazil and Croatia
Stuart Burt lines up with Michael Oliver and his fellow officials ahead of the World Cup quarter-final between Brazil and Croatia
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"But I suppose when you get to the Premier League, and then you get on the international list, you kind of start thinking 'right, that is a possibility'. So it was something I have dreamed about doing.

"I remember sitting on my sofa, watching Russia and Qatar being announced as venues, and you can't help but think 'I would love to be involved in that'.

"Obviously, Russia never happened for me, but as an experience to actually got to a World Cup as a match official was incredible.

"There has only ever been 10 assistant referees from England participate at World Cups, because up until 1994 in the USA, it was referees that ran the line. So to be on that exclusive list of 10 assistants from England is a nice little stat to be proud of."

Stuart Burt (far right) had a close up view of the Croatia players' celebrations after Marquinhos' missed penalty saw them beat Brazil in QatarStuart Burt (far right) had a close up view of the Croatia players' celebrations after Marquinhos' missed penalty saw them beat Brazil in Qatar
Stuart Burt (far right) had a close up view of the Croatia players' celebrations after Marquinhos' missed penalty saw them beat Brazil in Qatar
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Burt, whose dad Rodney was also a referee, is a Northamptonian and hails from Kingsthorpe.

After becoming a referee he progressed through the local parks leagues and then senior levels, and by the time he was 25 he was refereeing in the Southern League and also running the line at National League level.

A year later he was an assistant in the Football League, before he was promoted to what was called the 'Panel List of Referees', which qualified him to run the line in the Premier League.

A job he did so well that he was soon selected to be on the FIFA list of assistant referees.

Stuart Burt (right) has been an assistant in the Premier League for more than 10 yearsStuart Burt (right) has been an assistant in the Premier League for more than 10 years
Stuart Burt (right) has been an assistant in the Premier League for more than 10 years
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Burt decided it would be best to concentrate solely on running the line, and gave up being the man in the middle.

That is a decision that has certainly paid, and continues to pay, great dividends.

Burt has to date been assistant at more than 400 Premier League and 160-plus matches away from the domestic scene.

He has ran the line in two FA Cup Finals (2012 & 2022), two League Cup Finals (2013 & 2017), two UEFA Super Cup Finals (2014 & 2022) at the 2020 Euros Finals, and has now made his debut in the biggest competition in world football.

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Burt travelled to Qatar in mid-November and set up camp in a hotel in Doha City along with the rest of the match official fraternity, with the 124 referees and assistants joined by support staff, physios, managament and others.

That was all part of the tournament experience, with Burt stating: "It's not just the football side of it. We were there for five weeks, short of a day, and we did three games.

Stuart Burt regularly works alongside referee Michael OliverStuart Burt regularly works alongside referee Michael Oliver
Stuart Burt regularly works alongside referee Michael Oliver

"So it is also about being mentally strong and resilient. You are training every day, doing debriefs every day, so there is a lot going on.

"It was great to have the opportunity to mix with people and to learn from them as well."

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Burt had to be patient to make is World Cup debut, with a week of the tournament having been played before he and his team were appointed to officiate the group clash between Japan and Costa Rica.

But once he found out from FIFA referees' boss Pierluigi Collina that he was going to make his tournament debut, he didn't have too long to think about it.

"The game was on the Sunday and we were told on the Friday night, so in essence we only had about 38 hours' notice.

"But to be sitting in that room, with Pierluigi reading the appointments out, and to hear your name saying you are going to be doing a World Cup match was obviously a moment that will stay with me forever."

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Burt, Oliver and Beswick were also given another group game as they oversaw the clash between Saudi Arabia and Mexico, before landing the plum appointment of that high profile last eight clash between Brazil and Croatia.

And that was a very special moment for Burt - with things really hitting home as he read an online article in the Chron!

"I actually read an article in the Chronicle & Echo, and it stated that I would be officiating at a Brazil game, and it kind of just struck me then. I thought 'this is actually a big deal'," he said.

"I know it's a big deal anyway, but sometimes you are just going day by day and it's not until someone says something or does something and you see it and think 'yeah, this is really something'.

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"It was nice to read the article, and nice to have the support of people back home, wanting you to succeed and achieve things.

"It was great to have that and know going into the game that you are not on your own, that there are people back home wishing you well.

"To get Brazil in any game would have been surreal, but to go into a World Cup quarter-final was special.

"To be appointed for a quarter-final was beyond our wildest dreams anyway, and to then get Brazil as well, was great. You can say they are just another team, but they are not.

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"Fortunately the game went really well for the three of us."

The match did go well for Burt, but sadly for him and his team-mates, it was also to prove their final action at the tournament - and the trio had to join the Brazil team in packing their bags and heading for home as they were told their tournament was over.

So was there any hint of disappointment for Burt, Oliver and Beswick that they didn't get the nod for the final?

"Well, we never went with the dream of doing three games, we never went with the dream of doing a knockout game," said Burt. "There was only one referee that did four games.

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"There were 33 referees out there for 64 games, so to get three matches is pretty good.

"You also know if you get a quarter-final, you're not going to get a semi-final, so then you are asking 'are we going to get the final', but it was our first World Cup so is that realistically going to happen.

"So there was no disappointment, and there was definitely no disappointment from back home - when I told my wife she was well chuffed I was coming home!

"It was the end of the journey, but it was an amazing experience to be part of it.

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"It is a little bit weird when they tell you that you are going home, because that's it, the tournament is over for you, but there can't be any sadness, especially when you look back at what we achieved."

And there wasn't too much time for putting his feet up when he got back home either, with Burt quickly back into Premier League action on Boxing Day.

He ran the line for Arsenal's 3-1 win over West Ham United at the Emirates, winning plaudits for an eagle-eyed and correct offside spot to chalk off a first-half strike for Gunners striker Eddie Nketiah.

Which is exactly the type of decision that has seen Burt rise to the heights he has in his chosen profession.

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He is back on Premier League duty at Crystal Palace versus Tottenham Hotspur next Wednesday, as his domestic career resumes in full.So what ambitions are there left for Burt to realise in football?

"I do have different things I'd like to achieve," he said. "I am currently on 415/420 Premier League games, so I would like to reach 500 because that would be an amazing milestone.

"I think it's only Darren Cann that has done 500 Premier League games, and you look at Darren's career and what he achieved, which included a World Cup Final. I don't think there will be many that will get to 500.

"You have also got the European Championships in 2024 in Germany, and then there is the World Cup in 2026.

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"You have got that in Canada, Mexico and the USA, and if I am being truthful that will be the aim now. That is something I really would like to aim for.

"It's going to be a bigger World Cup, you'll have more teams participating, and I would assume there would be more referees selected, but at the end of the day you need to keep performing domestically.

"What I do domestically will give me the opportunity to do European games, and what you do there will then influence what you do on the international side of things.

"So, reaching 500 Premier League games, then European-wise you aim big and look at the Champions League final or the Europa League final.

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"We were fortunate enough to be involved in the European Super League final this year in Helsinki, but a European final would be great.

"The final dream of the international career would be 2026 and that World Cup, because after that I don't think there will be many more opportunities.

"But I know I have three-and-a-half years of hard work ahead of me to achieve that dream."