‘WHO’D be a referee?’ It’s a saying that often comes up when criticism comes from all areas to the man in the middle of a football pitch on a Saturday afternoon.
The job of the referee and his assistants is widely regarded as the hardest in the harsh world of football, especially at the top level where so much is on the line and managers are given every mouthpiece they want to sound off about officials or any other subject.
So, what’s it like being a referee in the Barclays Premier League?
Well, here in Northants, we are lucky enough to have someone who can answer that question.
Having played semi-professional football for Rothwell Town, Peter Walton turned to refereeing on a Sunday morning in Northampton.
What has followed in the 25 years since is a glittering career that has seen him officiate in the top flight for the past eight years.
At the age of 51, he is now looking forward to a ninth in what is regarded as the best league in the world.
But it was actually the lure of a £10 match fee that got him into it – a far cry from the big-money world he is now part of as one of the country’s 16 professional referees.
“I played for Rothwell for four-and-a-half seasons and it’s probably down to them that I took up refereeing,” Walton said.
“At the time, I was in and out of the first team and it was a great time with some great people and the manager was Jack Murray.
“He dropped me and I finished playing. I was 24 or 25 at the time, I had just got married and bought my first house and I didn’t have the time to train on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“I took the refereeing course for something to do on a Sunday morning and the rest is history.
“It was the lure of a £10 match fee and having Sunday lunch and a drink at my local pub that made me do it, that’s the honest truth.
“I had fallen out of love with the game at that stage because playing football was all I had pretty much done with my life and I just wanted to do something different.
“I didn’t take up refereeing straight away but this lure of £10 was dangled in front of me.
“I can remember my first game – it was in Lingswood in Northampton on a Sunday morning.
“I got changed in the car and I knew both sides who were playing. They knew me as a player and I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was my first game.
“I think I realised in the first season of doing it that I enjoyed it.
“Having played the game I think it helped me as I understood the players’ frustrations and their mentality because I was one of them.
“I had a certain empathy towards them and my decisions were probably based on that rather than the laws of the game at that stage.
“But I started to enjoy it and I wasn’t getting all the hassle I was warned of on my training course. Nobody had a dispute with me, I just told them to shut up and get on with the game and that’s what they did. The early days were quite good and then I had a guy who did the appointments on Sunday mornings. He gave me the chance to move up at that time and I refereed in the league’s premier division in my first season which was a decent achievement.
“In those days you had ‘three, two, one’ in terms of classification and I got my two at the end of the first season.
“Then I moved away to Coventry and became a member of the Birmingham County FA. Nobody knew me there and I got my class one at the end of my second season.
“But it was only then that I realised there was this big pyramid and a line towards the Football League.”
So often you hear managers say of referees ‘how can they understand if they have never played the game?’
Well, Walton has played the game – albeit at a lower level – and he believes it helps, although he insists it will never stop him from officiating games to the law.
“Having played the game still helps now,” said Walton, who also played for ON Chenecks. “I try, at every opportunity, to let the players know that I did play.
“I remember a game at Liverpool. Steven Gerrard scored an absolute beauty, it rocketed in from about 40 yards, and as he was coming back for the kick-off I said to him ‘Steven, I used to play and score like that’. I won’t tell you exactly what he said but it was something like ‘oh go away Pete’.
“So I try to get it in every now and again and it’s important.
“But, of course, nowadays I have to be a standard bearer of the law and sometimes I do things that I don’t necessarily agree with but the law means I have to do it.
“An example can be sending a player off for a goalscoring celebration.
“I had one this year in the game between Everton and West Ham. Frederic Piquionne had been booked and he scored a delightful goal at Everton that could have given West Ham some vital points.
“He ran over to the fans and embraced them but the mere fact that he had done that, in the law, meant he had to be cautioned.
“So I knew I had to caution him for a second time and send him off. It’s not the best thing I have ever done but you have to do it because I am seen to be a standard bearer for the law.”
The pressures of the modern game for players, managers and referees is great.
Walton firmly believes that pressure mainly comes from the media. And while he has respect for journalists, there is a clear frustration when wrong decisions are highlighted.
However, looking at newspapers the day after a game is an art he has learned to deal with.
“In terms of the pressure, of course there is pressure in terms of getting decisions right,” he said.
“But if I think about that then I won’t perform naturally so if I make a mistake I am aware of it but I can’t do anything about it.
“That pressure is applied by the media who hype it up.
“I am a professional referee and journalists are professionals in their fields.
“They are far better at their job than I will ever be.
“What does frustrate me is that every Premier League game is covered by 24 different angled cameras.
“I have got one pair of eyes and one chance.
“I have that one opportunity and one chance and sometimes I get it wrong.
“Most of the time I will get it right, and it’s that one time you get it wrong that is highlighted and that frustrates me.
“But when I first started in the Football League my daughter, who must have been eight or nine at the time, and I used to go down the local newsagents on a Sunday morning to see if ‘dad was in the newspaper’.
“And after a period of time, the penny dropped with me that the only reason ‘dad was in the paper’ was because I had either made a mistake or there was some controversy in the game.
“It was never ‘and Pete Walton was brilliant’.
“So nowadays, if it says ‘Pete Walton, Northamptonshire’ – that’s a good game.”
With the Premier League being what it is and with all those cameras surrounding one football pitch, the subject of video technology continues to crop up.
And Walton would certainly welcome goalline technology but is wary of the role any further video evidence has to play in football.
“If video technology helps me make a big decision then bring it in,” he said.
“But you have to be very careful in my opinion.
“In cricket, rugby and tennis there is a natural break in play. In football it’s a fluid game.
“If it’s to do with the Geoff Hurst incident in 1966 or the Frank Lampard one last year with the ball crossing the line, that is a fact. It has either crossed the line or it hasn’t – help me out.
“There is equipment around that will allow a buzzer to go that will indicate the ball has crossed the line.
“I would like it to be brought in for factual things only, not to open debate.
“If it’s to do with ‘was it handball?’ or ‘was it a foul?’ that is opinion and that’s the reason why when we all go to work on Monday morning we can debate it and everyone will have different opinions.”
With another season done, Walton had the honour of being asked by former Manchester United star Gary Neville to officiate his testimonial with Juventus – a sure sign of the respect this particular referee has.
And he firmly believes he is part of what is the best team of officials the world has to offer.
“As a body of referees we are the strongest in the world and there aren’t many leagues that can turn out 16 referees week in, week out and put in the displays that we can,” said Walton.
“I think that is testament that we have evolved along the way and not stood still.
“I have refereed in the Premier League for eight years and that one just gone is probably the best season, collectively, we have had.
“I think it’s been a great season for the product because right to the end, you had eight to 10 clubs involved in some sort of issue.
“I would say it has been my best season personally because I didn’t really have much controversy. I refereed 27 or 28 games and I feel I maintained that standard all the way through.”
No sooner has the season finished than the new one is being planned.
Walton will have his own pre-season just like the clubs, although there will be a trip to Ecuador in July where he will be coaching and giving talks before the new campaign gets underway.
His latest season finished at Everton’s Goodison Park for the Toffees’ 1-0 home win against Chelsea, and Walton revealed that particular stadium is a tough one to officiate in.
“My favourite place to referee is the Emirates and that is because it is a new stadium that has been well thought through,” he said.
“The facilities for officials, players and fans are second to none. The pitch is like a carpet and it’s just very nice.
“Likewise, I would say Goodison Park in Everton is the hardest place.
“It’s an old style stadium, the fans are very close to the pitch and the stands go up vertically so the noise is kept in there.
“If you have made a poor decision, it doesn’t take long for people to let you know. It’s a tough place to referee but I love it there because you know what you are in for.”
The final word, however, goes to his family – the ones who keep him grounded and/or lift his spirits when he walks through the front door.
“When I walk through the door I realise I am just Pete Walton and Jo, my wife, lets me know that.
“If you start believing your own publicity then you can fall on your sword.
“My dad Roy has been really supportive and comes to most games and that’s comforting to know there is someone within the ground who is actually supporting me.
“But it’s just important that I can come home and be Pete Walton.”