Interview with Mr. Ian Blanchard, Head of National Referee Development for the Football Association

Images courtesy of Ian Blanchard and the English Football Association.

Soccerlens is extremely pleased and honored to welcome Mr. Ian Blanchard. He has a very important and integral role at the FA.

Sometimes as players, coaches, writers, and supporters, we do not appreciate the rigors, training, and qualities necessary to referee a game at an elite professional level. Mr. Blanchard is entrusted with the significant responsibility to train and develop referees for the Football Association. We are fortunate that he can describe his journey to us.

“I am 51 years old. I am married to Wendy and I have two children, Damien aged 27 and Stephanie aged 25 from my first marriage. I have just become a grandfather for the second time and I have three step daughters Samantha 20, Grace 18 and Rosie 15. I started my work career as a Psychiatric Nurse in 1971 in the East Riding of Yorkshire. I then joined the Sussex Police in 1977 and served for 22 years as a detective or within a training environment. In September 2001 I joined The Football Association in September 2001 as a Regional Manager (Referees).

I commenced my refereeing career in January 1988 with East Riding CFA and progressed through the local amateur football leagues onto the Northern Premier League as an assistant and after one season gained promotion to the middle of the same league in 1990. After one season I was promoted to the National List of Assistant Referees and in 1992 I was promoted onto the newly formed Premier League. I served at this level until 2000 when I retired at the ripe old age of 45. I appeared at Wembley on five occasions, FA Vase and Trophy finals and 3 play off finals. I also had five trips abroad visiting Croatia, Spain, Switzerland and France in Champions League and UEFA Cup games.

I qualified as a FA Licensed Referees Instructor in 1993 and I have considerable experience with all levels of referee training both at home and abroad and I have also served on a number of training committees and held a number positions of office within refereeing.

As Regional Manager (Referees) for the North West and Armed Services, I had responsibility for the following CFA’s, Cheshire, Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire, Cumberland, Westmorland, Army Royal Navy and Royal Air force. The purpose of my role was to identify with County FA’s and Area Training Teams in the region the current numbers and activities of referees at each level against the number of referees required to fulfill the departments aim and to follow the progress of referees in the region and provide training, development, support and encouragement.

I was also the National Manager for Referee Education and Training. The purpose of this role was to ensure quality programmes of training are in place to make sure all referees have an opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills.

An exciting new development is practical referee training. Recognising that the art of refereeing takes place on the field of play I have developed a practical on field basic referees course looking at key skills and techniques as well as the knowledge and application of the laws of the game.

On the 1st September 2005, I became the Head of National Referee Development at the FA. I now have responsibility for the recruitment, retention and development of all referees involved in the National game through to Supply League level. I also manage the seven Regional Referees Managers.

Mr. Blanchard’s Portfolio:

  • 1988: First refereeing experience in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
  • 1989: Promoted to Class 1 or Level 5.
  • 1989: Promoted to Northern Premier League Assistant referees List.
  • 1990: Promoted to Referee on Northern Premier League.
  • 1991: Promoted onto the National List of assistant referees.
  • 1992: Promoted onto the Premier League as an Assistant referee.
  • 1994: Qualified as a FA Licensed referee Instructor.
  • 1999: Joined FA Staff as a Group Instructor on the National Course.
  • 2000: Joined FA Staff on the International Referee Instructor Course.
  • 2001: Employed as a FA Regional Manager.

Mr. Blanchard made 5 visits to Wembley to officiate in the following memorable games:

  • 1995: FA Vase Final Oxford City v Ardsley Utd.
  • 1996: FL Div 1 Play Off Final — Crystal Palace v Leicester City.
  • 1998: Div 2 Play Off Final — Man City v Gillingham.
  • 1999: FA Trophy Final — Southport v Cheltenham.
  • 2000 FL Div 1 Play Off Final — Barnsley v Ipswich Town.

As he mentioned above, Mr. Blanchard also made 5 trips abroad for UEFA competitions.

For further information, I would encourage you to visit the FA.Com – Refereeing web site.

Football Association Referees at FA Cup.
Mr. Blanchard, please accept a warm welcome to Soccerlens.

When did you decide to become a referee, and who were some of the early influences on your career?

I played county football until I was 32 after which I picked up a persistent knee injury. My son started playing in a youth team and as is the usual case only about 50% of the games were covered by a qualified referee. I think it was because I was the youngest dad that I was often to take on the role of referee. I quickly realized it was not an easy job nor did I really understand the laws of the game. I took my basic entry course in 1987 and refereed my first game in January 1988. My biggest early influence was George Courtney who happened to assess me on return from refereeing in the World Cup in America. He had pose, confidence and terrific communication skills. For me he epitomized the “perfect referee”, just like Collina the modern day version of George. The important thing was that he was approachable, a great human being.

What was your weekly training regimen to stay match fit, and what types of fitness standards are required from the professionals under your training and supervision?

At the time I was active my general fitness routine consisted of running round the streets three times a week, just keeping a fairly good standard of fitness. As games came thick and fast the less I spent running laboriously around the same circuit the better.

In the modern game fitness has become more important then ever. There is an expectation that our top referees when making key decisions are only 15/20 meters away from the incident. This expectation has meant a huge change in the way we train, record data from fitness sessions as well as identifying the importance of resting.

Two Sports Scientists work with the top referees operating in the Premier and Football League who prepare weekly training regimes for all referees and Assistants operating at that level.

Referees have a polar heart rate monitor to record activity during games and fitness sessions. This data is analyzed and individual training regimes are provided based on the needs of the referee. The modern game dictates that match officials need to be fitter than ever and I believe we are doing a great deal of work to meet this demand.

In your opinion, what are the key attributes that a modern-day referee must have to be successful domestically and internationally?

This same discussion came up in a workshop I was running in Malaysia for AFC Elite Referees.

It’s interesting that wherever you go in the world the general characteristics crop up as being essential to be a top quality referee.

You need to be a good communicator, not just of decisions made but equally important have the ability to get your message across to players, managers and spectators. You need to be a salesperson, just like selling a cart. You have to convince people you are confident in your ability to control the game and that your decision making is accurate. A high level of confidence is required, coupled with good knowledge on the laws of the game as well as the dynamics of football.

I also think you need an inner strength to cope with the pressure and expectations of the game. In adversity it is important you shake off negativity and concentrate on the positives of your performance.

As I stated fitness plays an important part as does mental fitness. Referees are required to remain calm, controlled and develop high concentration levels to be successful.

“The crux of astute refereeing is to be proactive, and not reactive. Prevent the problem from happening, rather than just dealing with it when it does.” Ian Blanchard, Summer 2007 FA Magazine “Refereeing.”

Would you be kind enough to expand on your theories of game management and practical referee training?

To be an effective referee manager you have to lead the players in direction taking into consideration the laws of the game. Referees need to develop a real feel for the game, an empathy, which will be recognised by participants. Verbally encouraging and applauding players goes a long way towards managing a game. If players see you being positive, assertive when required they will respond in like. Good referees are aware of things happening around them, the little verbal contests between players, the comments made between team mates are all clues that need to be logged. By doing so you may be able to prevent the silly challenge or the confrontations that have built up.

The simple concept of practical training refers to actually teaching, coaching referees on the pitch where they perform. For example by taking a referee into the “workplace” and dealing with the practicalities of the penalty kick you bring alive the situation and more importantly they are doing it. You stimulate all of the senses, the referee visualizes the dynamics, applies a hands on approach and are verbal encouraged to do things right.

In England, Practical Training has become a huge part of our educational programmes.

I have noticed that some referees appear very close to the ball, while others are farther away. During a game, where did you position yourself, and how did you learn what worked best for you? How do you teach this aspect to younger referees and assistants?

I firmly believe that effective positioning and movement develops through experience. I remember in my early years of officiating I just ran to keep up with play. The diagonal system was drummed into you but as the game has development, become a lot quicker, positioning at crucial times of a game is so important. It’s true what they say in that proximity gives you power.

We now teach something we call zonal positioning. It’s not an exact science but offers referees a good position to be in at any time of the game whether for a set piece or in open play. So for an example a referee operating with neutral assistants may stand just outside the penalty area in or around the arch for the taking of a corner kick. However, this is only a starting position and we recommend referees remain on their toes ready for the quick break.

The most important aspect of positioning and movement is to ensure you are in the right place at the right time to make that big decision accurately.

Could you describe the formal evaluation system for English referees, and how often are they evaluated?

Graham Barber quote.
At the top level every game is assessed by an independent qualified assessor. They look at two key area’s: technical aspect of the performance and managing players. Thereafter they are asked to identify 3 strengths in the performance and if seen 3 areas of development, areas that the referee needs to work on. A mark is awarded out of 100 with the average mark expected as 69. Marks are deducted for any major incidents not correctly identified and dealt with.

Within the National Structure at grassroots level we have a competency based system which assesses the referee as to 7 key areas. These include positioning, fitness, managing the game, application of law, communication, advantage and overall match control. Again in this system a mark is awarded out of 100.

At this level referees apply for promotion at the start of each season and they then have to referee a minimum of 20- games, three of which are assessed. Due to the lack of assessors club marks are taken into consideration when offering promotion.

Last November, Pierluigi Collina, the referee designator for the Serie A, and a former world-class official, said in the Gazzetta dello Sport:

“Il regolamento dà molta discrezionalità agli arbitri – dice il designatore – ma riuscire a giudicare in modo simile episodi simili è fondamentale. Gli assistenti alle porte? Sono una delle persone che studiano il progetto per volere di Platini.”

“The laws of the game give much discretion to the referees — said the designator — but to successfully arbitrate in the same manner similar episodes is fundamental. The assistants near the goal mouths? I am one of the persons that are studying this project due to the wishes of Platini (UEFA President Michel).”

(Note: Mr. Collina has since given his support for two pitch referees).

FA Cup Officials.
How does a referee develop the type of consistency as expressed by Mr. Collina, and what are your impressions about the proposal to add additional assistants and/or another referee on the pitch?

There is much speculation about referees being consistent; however, I believe this is almost impossible unless you want robots to control games of soccer. However, I do believe referees can be consistent in a game of 90 minutes of football. As an example, if a player commits a tripping offence early in the game and a similar foul is committed later on, players will expect you to deal with the situation in a similar manner. The laws of the game need to be applied in a fair and equitable manner, this is the only way that players will gain respect for the referee.

I am not supportive of additional referees or assistants in order to control a game. Can you imagine the uproar if one referee gives a foul and cautions as opposed to the other referee in the other half just giving a foul? In my opinion this would breed inconsistence and confusion. The same can be said for assistant referees. In one half you may have a very competent official whereas in the other half the assistant is not so good.

Since we are discussing innovations in the role of match officials, technology enters the equation. At the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru, goal line ball chip technology by adidas was used for the first time. In December 2007, it was used at the World Club Championships in Japan. What is your opinion on developments such as this, along with video replay monitors, similar to ones used in American gridiron football, during the game itself?

One has to understand the cultural makeup and history of football. At its roots lies the passion of the game, the excitement, and free flow passage of the ball quickly making its way from one end of the field to the other. The commitment of players challenging for the ball, the battle to dominate and keep possession are all attributes of this fantastic game of ours.

Of course when it comes to high profile wrong decisions, when relegation or promotion is at stake, questions are asked whether technology could play a part. In my mind we need to be open to anything that assists the match officials in getting those big, crucial decisions right. Provided of course such technology does not interfere with the fundamentals of our game as described above.

The electronic chip has still to be developed effectively but I do think it has the potential, provided of course that it is of benefit to the referee and aids the referee’s decision making.

As we saw in the introduction, you have visited many venues in your career. Could you please discuss some of the most difficult atmospheres to work, and did any particular ground hold a special significance for you?

I have had the pleasure to visit many grounds but for me my 23 trips to St James Park, the home of Newcastle United, were special. The supporters are so passionate about their club that each game is so special. Many hours before kick off the fans are there to see their idols. The noise coming out onto the pitch is deafening and boy do they get behind their team. I have a picture on my study of Peter Beardsley, the then captain of Newcastle with Stuart Pearce, the captain of Nottingham Forest, in what I feel was a golden era of English Football. Two giants of the game but also two players who I thought epitomized everything good about our game.

If I may expand on that last question, which players, British and foreign, gave you the most challenges and/or surprises during a game?

The game of football from a refereeing perspective should be viewed as a challenge, and before each game I always used to ask myself am I ready to meet this challenge.

I believe any player has the potential to challenge you, your authority but it depends on what you do during the game. The game can at times surprise you, if you’re not prepared to encounter the surprise it has the opportunity to bite you.

I remember being an assistant referee at Everton when they scored a goal. Just before the restart I clearly saw an Everton player spit in the face of an opponent. I realized that the match referee was not watching and it was my duty to bring this to his attention. The player was rightly sent off and justice was seen to be done. This was a surprise but fortunately I was alert and concentrating on players reactions.

From your dual perspective as a former professional referee, and now as the one entrusted with training and development, what are the best and worst aspects of being a referee and/or an assistant?

For me there are no bad things about refereeing. I still referee on the local parks on Sunday mornings and I still get the adrenaline rush and buzz of participating. To me you never know what you are going to be faced with, no matter how many times you have refereed the same teams. Being involved in this great game of ours is fantastic, almost a privilege to be involved. Referees are an integral, important part of the game. It is important that we are seen as such and respected for what we do. However, respect has to be earned by our performance on the field of play. It is important that in the role I am in we not just maintain standards but in fact improve standards of refereeing at every level.

In a recent survey in England the number one priority for all players was having a qualified referee for every game. The game needs more referees and through the strategies we have put in place, together with a substantial investment we are looking to increase the number of active referees by 8,000 by 2012.

What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the refereeing profession by coaches, players, fans, and the media?

I still think in a lot of cases there is a general lack of understanding of the laws of the game. I have attended pre-season meetings and been totally surprised by managers’ interpretations and mis-understanding of certain laws such as Law 11 covering offside. I think that raising awareness of everyone involved in the game concerning the role of the referee, how they go about there business, would go some way towards developing a degree of empathy.

What advice would you give to anyone who desires to referee as a profession?

Currently the opportunities to progress are better than ever. We have a uniformed structure of promotion aided by experienced mentors and coaches who offer support and guidance. There is a massive range of Continued Professional Development programmes aimed at assisting referees to develop there skills. We have a succession programme which identified talented referees early in there career and offer a long term development programme. Constant monitoring by qualified assessors enables referees to improve.

Hard work, dedication and at times total commitment are required to be successful. Not everyone will become a professional referee; however, if you instill the above virtues you give yourself the best chance to be a top quality referee.

Since we first communicated, Mr. Fabio Capello has taken the helm of the England National Team. Have you met him yet, and what are your impressions about his appointment?

I haven’t met Mr Capello yet but I like his style and I look forward to England being successful.

Mr. Blanchard, thank you very much for your kind and insightful contribution to our column, and all the best wishes for you and the FA.

Steve Amoia is the author and editor of World Football Commentaries. He also writes for Soccerlens.

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