Refereeing round the World – Arthur Ellis


A typical example of a 1950s biography: short chapters in which the writer (assisted by Kenneth Wolstenholme, a well-known sports reporter from the time) looks back on the highs and lows of his career. Although it serves the readability of this consequently short book (195 pages only), it does mean Ellis’s account does not go into fine detail. That, however, would be at odds with the purpose of this book, which was meant for people who did not read often but still wanted a nice book to adorn their shelves.

Arthur Ellis was arguably the first referee to enjoy a popularity that went beyond the chalk lines of the football pitch, spending many years as the referee of the popular television show It’s a Knockout and Jeux Sans Frontières. But that’s not what this book is about.

Ellis starts off his memoirs with an account of how he experienced the FA Cup Final, which he reffed in 1952, then the youngest referee ever to be appointed to the final (he was 37). He tells how the news reached him, how he prepared himself and how he experienced the match itself. In subsequent chapters he recounts his career prior to the FA Cup Final. Like many of his contemporaries, Ellis saw his career broken by WWII. He was just making steps on the ladder, when the war broke. And Ellis was just one of the many civilians who put his efforts into defending his country. However, his superiors allowed him much leeway to ref as many matches as possible, especially matches between the various units of the British army, wherever he was stationed. The problems he had travelling and finding accommodation are hard to grasp for us in the 21st century, but that makes his story all the more interesting to read.

In later chapters Ellis tells of his run-ins with well-known and less well-known footballers, managers and administrators of the day. Special mention should go to the chapters on his experiences at the World Cups of 1950 (he ran the line in the Brazil-Uruguay final) and 1954 and the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, and to the chapters on his travels through South America, where he had been asked to referee volatile matches.

Arthur Ellis

Value for active referees

Could be worse. Ellis devotes many a word to his approach to players, which he divides into three categories: they who need a strict approach, they who need but a word, and they who need to be tackled with a bit of humour.

He also notes that at some clubs it was simply impossible to have a good match. Very recognisable; I have it too and I assume many of my colleagues too. Another funny anecdote was that Ellis – or rather his wife – started the trend of wearing white sleeve cuffs and sock cuffs. This trend held sway until very late in the 1970s. When Ellis’s wife had trouble making him out on the badly lit or foggy fields of play in those days, she lengthened the sleeves of his undershirts, so they could be rolled back over the sleeve ends of his black referee shirts. She also made cuffs for his socks. Because of these white accents she could spot him from the terraces.

Some time after the war, relations with the Soviet Union were resumed. Sporting matches, too, but these were often preceded by lengthy, difficult negotiations, including about the refereeing system to be used. Rather than the diagonal system, the Soviets ran the following system: the two linesmen run on one touch line, each taking charge of a half. The referee runs the other touch line, which enables him to view the entire field of play. The Russians claimed that this system would take less of a physical strain on the referee, that he would not be in the way of play and that his view of offside and other matters was much improved this way. Also, the officials were constantly facing each other, so no signal could be missed. Moreover, by picking the right touch line, the referee could avoid being blinded by the sun, and there could be no incidents behind his back.

Ellis tried the Russian system, but he didn’t think much of it. His objections were:

– where circumstances, such as fog, impeded view, it would be possible not to see the officials across the pitch;

– if something happens on the field, the ref is too far away, which undermines his authority;

– the ref is no longer part of play, because you can no longer hear the banter (or worse) being exchanged on the pitch. Any – smouldering – tension could thus be missed;

– the referee would have to be darn sure of his linesmen’s decisions. And it would require the players to accept those decisions as well, which might be much to ask of them. Essentially, he said, this was a system with three referees.

Starter referees will enjoy the chapter in which Ellis explains that refereeing is no picnic: training, the long way to the top (not necessarily the same any more), troublesome travel (should be better these days), terrible facilities and reception, and above all the loneliness. Fortunately, Ellis also doles out tips for those who have yet to make the first step to being a referee:

  1. Start when you’re young, and don’t get discouraged easily
  2. Do not move up the ranks too quickly; make sure you learn new things at each stage
  3. Remember: it is just as important to be able to administer the Laws of the Game as it is know them!
  4. You are promoted on your merits as a referee, not on your ability as a linesman
  5. Never refuse an appointment. Even the lowliest of matches is an opportunity to show your love for the game and to gain experience
  6. Join a local referees’ society
  7. Make sure everyone knows who is the boss when you go out on to the field
  8. But don’t be officious or theatrical. A good referee is the one who goes quietly about his job and keeps the game under control without ever being noticed
  9. Don’t play solos on your whistle. People pay to watch football, not to hear a referee blowing a whistle.
  10. Never try to show players up
  11. Look smart and keep fit
  12. Never break your word – if you threaten anything, do it
  13. Carry a spare whistle, watch and pencil
  14. Never forget there is always something to learn
  15. Never, never, never get discouraged

And for spectators, club officials and players – never ever think that the referee’s job is a sinecure. It is a long, hard, often discouraging road to the top, and once you are at the top it is difficult to hold your position and you are always the target for criticism.

This piece of advice still holds true. Which is why I wanted to include the whole of this valuable text from this booklet, which fails to be boring. As it was a popular title, you should not have too much trouble finding a secondhand copy.

Final say

An easy read, this memoir of a jovial man includes some solid recommendations for aspiring referees which haven’t lost their validity even after 60 years.

Title Refereeing round the World
Author Arthur Ellis (with Kenneth Wolstenholme)
Year of publication 1956
Publisher The Sportsman Book Club
Pages 195
4 / 5     


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