MAYHEM on the field, chanting in the stands, provocative gestures, trouble in the tunnel, accusations and denials… all in a day’s work for Eversheds associate Gareth Planck, who is a qualified football referee.
“It’s fair to say I have in the past given referees a hard time on the pitch, so I decided to take my medicine and try it out for myself,” laughs the 26-year-old, who works in Eversheds’ development regeneration group.
Planck used to play amateur football for his home town in Northern Ireland as well as for Queen’s University Belfast during his undergraduate years. But in 2005 he sustained an injury to his cruciate knee ligament that effectively ended his dreams of playing the game professionally and certainly any more 11-a-side fixtures.
However, after moving to Birmingham to commence his training contract with Eversheds he began to read about the shortage of referees in football at a grass roots level.
“I can remember playing matches myself and there not being any referees available, so one of the managers from one of the teams would usually end up doing it,” he relates. “There’s nothing better than when a referee turns up who is both neutral and qualified.”
The FA estimates that in some areas of the country around 20 per cent of games are played without a qualified match official.
“I began to see that there was a genuine need for some younger people to be involved too,” says Planck. “I also thought that younger refs might get more respect because they might be seen as fitter and a bit more in tune with the game generally.”
So following a 12-week induction course on the laws of the game at Birmingham County Football Association’s headquarters he passed his referee’s exam, which has both written and verbal elements.
Planck subsequently registered with the Referee’s Association (RA) as well as with the Birmingham County FA, which means he can preside over amateur games.
He reveals that he is currently in the “midst of a double promotion jump”, meaning he can then begin to officiate over semi-professional games.
Promotion is usually decided through assessment, further training and obtaining positive feedback (which comes in the form of ’marks’ from opposing teams) spread over 20 matches.
“I’ve been refereeing in Birmingham now for four years and have enjoyed every minute of it,” Planck says. “The season runs from August to April and my games are always on a Sunday morning at 10.30am, which isn’t great on a wet morning in November, but it’s part and parcel of the commitment.”
He says the RA in Birmingham is lucky enough to have Premier League referee Andre Marriner in frequent attendance.
“This is always encouraging to the younger refs seeking clarification on technical points regarding the laws, ’what if’ scenarios on the field of play and general fitness queries,” he says.
Planck believes his skills as a solicitor and his experience of playing the game to a high level make him more than qualified to make the right decisions on the pitch.
“Becoming a good referee has a lot of parallels with being a solicitor in that you have to be dedicated, always keep your feet on the ground and be prepared to learn and listen at every turn from the coaches around you,” he explains.”I suppose ultimately, when it goes well, there’s the satisfaction of having successfully managed 22 people in a challenging environment where everyone wants to win.”
But in a game that often runs high with emotion, has Planck ever found it difficult to keep control of a match?
“In truth I’ve never experienced any major problems other than the usual differences of opinion, which I always seem to win thanks to the red and yellow cards in my pocket.
Then again, being 6ft 3in, 15 stone with a Northern Irish accent does tend to help in the leafy suburbs of Birmingham,” he laughs.