The Story of a Referee: James Knowles

Level seven grassroots ref James Knowles (pictured centre) is next to be in the spotlight as part of our refereeing column. James talks to us about how and why he took up the whistle, admitting mistakes are all part of the learning curve of becoming a referee.

As a grassroots referee, I often get asked why I referee. Every so often I ask myself that same question! Ask any referee and they will give you a myriad of answers; to remain in the game they love, to keep active, to earn some extra money or to progress through the ranks as a profession, the list continues. For myself, it was a mixture of the above. I loved playing the beautiful game but as I got older, a lack of pace took me further back on the pitch until I eventually ended up between the sticks as a goalkeeper. Gradually, I grew weary of throwing my fragile, aged body around and I decided to call it a day – as a player.

At the age of 34 and going through the motions of going for promotion from level seven to six on the refereeing ladder, I am a member of the Yeovil Referees’ Association. Meetings are held on a bi-monthly basis, offering useful advice and training. Somerset FA also host a couple of cup games where refs get together, watch and analyse the referee for said game. For junior referees, hearing the de-brief is also a great insight.

My transition from player to referee was relatively seamless. I enrolled onto the Basic Referees’ Course in December 2016, midway through the season. Shortly after, I was playing football on a Saturday and then officiating at least one game on a Sunday, and any I were offered midweek.

Its safe to say that my refereeing ‘career’ (or journey) got off to a rocky start. In my first adult’s game, I cautioned a player but completely forgot to wave the yellow card! I later issued a second yellow and subsequent red card to the same player, leaving his manager up in arms, claiming I couldn’t send him off as I hadn’t shown the first yellow card. The following games were almost as erroneous, but with each new situation encountered and mistake made, I took it in, learned from it and embraced it as a learning curve. I still make mistakes (as the players will more than happily remind me). However, I see it as part of my development, and I’m sure it will make be a better referee in the future.

As a player, I have seen many different styles of referee. From the strict, no-nonsense type that leaves the field as public enemy number one, to the placid referee that lets most things go. Every referee, player and coach have their own style, which makes the game as diverse as it is. I personally like to use psychology in my game; using my own experiences from my playing days, I like to understand players and communicate with them in the most effective way. For some that might be by acting as if you are their friend and getting them ‘on your side’, whereas others require the authoritative dressing-down mid-game. Sometimes I’m spot on with how I address players, yet on other occasions I’m wide of the mark, but more often than not I get it right and match control is a lot easier. Communication is key to control games and often at the end of the game, the players say, “you’re the best ref we’ve had in ages!” That is apart from the ones that come away with a caution and subsequent fine.


‘Preparation is key’ is a phrase commonly used in many situations in life. Whilst this is true, on the whole, I believe every aspect of pre, post and during the game to be equally important.

For a standard Saturday League game, I will get an email confirming my appointment typically on the Tuesday of that week. Familiarising myself with the location, and directions if I haven’t been there before, the email shows me the teams, division/competition, kick-off time and location. I also note the distance so I can advise the home team of any match fees. The home team are instructed to contact the appointed ref in plenty of time; they have access to the referee’s phone number and email. It can range from a quick call to an email with a formal letter attached. A day or so before the match I will ensure all of my equipment is ready. This means charging my fitness watch, putting a new match sheet in my card wallet, putting masking tape on my red and yellow cards (so I can write player names directly on them) and preparing my kit. I will wash my boots and only when they are dried, apply dubbin. This leaves them virtually waterproof and soft.

Game Day

Game day starts with breakfast. I would love to tell you that I eat a healthy porridge and fruit meal with fresh orange juice, but I’m afraid I’d be lying. I have tried many different things to fuel my day, but most leave me feeling peckish and empty half way through a game. So, in the morning of my Saturday games, I have leftover pizza! I am sure it will sound horrendous, but the carbs leave me full throughout my match and I swear by it. I normally do grassroots football for now, so I dress accordingly. I wear an all-black FA branded tracksuit with black trainers and a black bag, so that when I arrive at games everyone instantly knows who I am. I even have a black car! I wear my kit underneath as sometimes facilities are ‘limited’. I have to dress in anything from a derelict barn or a cupboard to the dizzy heights of an actual changing room with a shower, which adds to the ‘charm’ of grassroots football. I don’t take a change of clothes and washbag unless I have been there before and remember that they have a functioning shower.

I try and find the home team manager or secretary and introduce myself with a handshake and a smile before asking to be shown to the changing room – if there is one. I then put all my equipment on my person, including cards, card wallet, pencil and spare, coin, the all-important whistle and fitness tracker watch. Before heading out to conduct my pre-match pitch inspection, I put my boots on and pick up my flags. I also have an airtight box of random equipment that I bring with me to games; it’s a very important bit of kit for myself, containing spares of most of my in-game equipment – watch, cards, coin and pencil along with a pump with a gauge. It allows me to keep team sheets dry, should I need to refer to them at any point, or if I get given them close to kick-off. The pitch inspection includes checking the goals and other essential equipment before indulging in a pre-workout drink. I introduce myself to the away team manager, then asking for the club assistant referees from each team. Collecting and checking the match balls, calling the players in for a boot and equipment check before the respect handshake. My next task is to brief the captains and flip a coin at the coin toss to decide ‘ends’ and priority of kick-off. My brief to the skippers of each team has evolved from my first game where I didn’t even say anything. I now have a 30 second chat which I use to try and influence them to help, outlining what I expect from them and finally to gauge their responsibilities, so I can alter how I talk to them accordingly.

At half-time, I go to my box of tricks, have a drink and wipe myself with the towel that I carry in my bag before heading out for the second half. After the final whistle, I hopefully shake everyone’s hand, collect my flags and head back to the changing room. Sometimes teams will invite you into the clubhouse or bar for food or drink after, and unless I have other commitments, I like to oblige as I feel it brings officials and players closer together. Most clubs pay referees after the game, so sometimes I could be waiting around while the manager scrambles to collect the subs from players, while others may have secretaries who will find and pay you promptly. I can remember the time that I had to follow the manager to a local cashpoint to get payment!


Only quitting playing football a couple of seasons ago, I understand how players feel and their frustrations when it comes to certain decisions. That is why I only tolerate a small amount of dissent. With that said, I stamp out any behaviour or comments that cross the line. In my pre-match chat with the captains, I ask them to be a conduit between myself and their respective teams, helping to control their players. If they play their part and there are no issues, the game can flow. Otherwise I tend to use a stepped approach, where I briefly tell them that I do not wish to hear any such comments. I then escalate it as necessary. Unfortunately, some players are unresponsive until the caution is issued; and even then some keep going!


After a game I will go home and fill out three different reports. The first one for the County FA, which includes any cautions, sendings off and any other misconduct through a central online reporting system. Another is a more detailed report that I sent to the League that includes feedback on several points, such as if the match kicked off on-time, any notable misconduct, pitch markings, assistants, conduct of teams and their officials and sportsmanship amongst others. Finally, my third report will also be sent to my County FA, who need to know which games I have officiated in for promotion purposes. I then remove my match card with scores and substitutes used from the card wallet and staple it to the team sheets, filing them away in month order in case they are needed at a later date. I will then check my fitness tracker, wash my kit and clean my boots ready for the next game, which is usually the following morning, and possibly one or two in the afternoon too!

Probably the highlight of my refereeing journey thus far was being appointed to the cup final of a Military Cup, for which I was observed on and arrived two hours early for. The game was an U21s cup final that was played at the Royal Navy sports and training complex in Portsmouth, HMS Temeraire. There were about 200 watching on. Sure, I was nervous, but I thought it went very well.

Will I keep refereeing for years to come? I’m not sure, I’ll keep refereeing as long as I enjoy it. The minute I don’t, I’ll think aout throwing in the towel.

Are you a referee? From a cup final appointment to dealing with the trickiest of situations, we want to hear from you. The next feature in our refereeing column is coming right up! In the meantime, be sure to like our Facebook page and give us a follow on both Twitter and Instagram.

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