Referees are often the unsung heroes of Cambridge football in spite of the time they put into their craftLevente Koroes

Some of you have been playing football for a good 15 years and can’t take a throw-in –it  completely kills the game.” This is what college football league referee Alex Mann says is one of his pet peeves of the job. He continues: “The difference in the confidence teams have in their own linesman compared to the opposition’s is also amusing, given most of the time neither one is particularly good.”

Mann mostly got into refereeing because, as he got older and found himself playing less football, it was a fun way to stay involved in the game. Alex Eaton, another college ref, expressed a similar passion: “I enjoy giving back to the game and I can’t play too much because my PhD involves a lot of travelling around. Plus, refereeing is fun.” Eaton is FIFA qualified and has previously officiated games in the north-west of England and across the pond at the University of Chicago, whilst Mann has taken charge of youth games in his local area.

“If there happens to be a mistake, it’s genuine and there’s no agenda”

Of his time in the US, Eaton shares: “The Americans didn’t accept my English FA referee accreditation, so I had to do the FIFA test again in the US. I annoyingly had to sit through two days of ‘the basics’ before sitting the test at the end, and getting the highest score of everyone there, but it was worth it to experience grassroots football in another country, especially the standard of girls’ soccer which is so high in the US.”

Both are largely complimentary of Cambridge in comparison to Sunday league or youth football. The lack of parents raging about minor decisions certainly helps but, of course, things do occasionally boil over, as would be expected when college pride is at stake. Eaton recounts once having to send off a player from each side in an MCR Cuppers match after a fight threatened to break out: “They had had an ill-tempered league match the week before which I didn’t know about until the game was about to start, and clearly there was no love lost between them in the cup game the following weekend.”

To combat dissent, ten-minute sin bins were introduced by the FA as a standard procedure across grassroots football, a fact Mann says many players are still unaware of despite the policy being two years old. Both have rarely had to use them but Mann advises: “We don’t have a go at players for mistakes, so don’t have a go at us! If there happens to be a mistake, it’s genuine and there’s no agenda.”

“The difference in the confidence teams have in their own linesman compared to the opposition’s is also amusing, given most of the time neither one is particularly good”

On refereeing style, Mann describes his ideal game as one in which he’s more or less invisible. Both place a lot of emphasis on being vocal and explaining decisions to players in order to set the tone and maintain control of games. Eaton cites Howard Webb as a good example in this respect, whilst Mark Clattenburg’s notorious shambles of a match in 2016 between Tottenham and Chelsea, from which Leicester were handed the title, is a perfect example of what not to do.

The biggest career highlight for both has unsurprisingly been being involved in Cuppers finals. Mann took charge of the 2021 final between Fitzwillam and Homerton, where the former took the victory, whilst Eaton ran the line during the 2019 clash. Mann recalls: “It was a great atmosphere and luckily there were no contentious decisions. My friends actually came to watch me and told me after that there had been some [hostile] chants from the crowd, but honestly I didn’t notice at all during the match.”

On a light-hearted note, each ref has strong opinions on the best pitches in Cambridge. Although both agree the quality is generally excellent, particularly good things are said about Queens’ and Robinson pitches, as well as Corpus, Pembroke, and Downing. But ultimately, Clare comes out on top, perhaps unsurprisingly given that League One side Cambridge United train on there. By contrast, Eaton added: “The John’s pitches can get a bit muddy at times”, and in Mann’s experience “the ball always seems to get lost in a bush at Trinity Hall’s pitches.”


Mountain View

Fitzwilliam progress to Cuppers quarter-final

Looking ahead, Ele Forsdyke is hoping to become just the second female referee to officiate in college matches. She cites a chaotic Homerton IIs game from last year, with a lot of back and forth between players and the referee, as her inspiration to get started. As someone looking to get back into playing football more, officiating serves as the perfect opportunity to brush up on the rules, and she would certainly wish to keep a tighter lid on things than in the match that sparked her interest. Despite there being a slight worry for her about how she might be received in the men’s league, Ele hopes getting involved might also encourage more women to give it a go. She adds: “A few people have said I’ll need to learn a lot of rules, but lacrosse is much more complicated than football so I think I’ll be fine.’

Ultimately, having high quality and impartial refereeing is a large part of what makes college football as enjoyable as it is and, given that referees are often only noticed when things go wrong, it’s high-time that the students donning the whistle and coloured cards get some due appreciation.