The first chapter of Your Show by Ashley Hickson-Lovence, published by Faber & Faber in April 2022
It’s a double celebration tonight, not that many will care about your starring role. You carry the weight of the occasion on your shoulders, take it in your stride. You’ve worked hard to get here, earned these palpitations, the dry mouth, these uncontrollable jitters: short breaths, thumping chest. You’ve dreamt of this moment for years now – and what a night to make history. Here, in this, the first competitive fixture at Derby County’s shiny new stadium. You, the first black man to referee in the Premiership. You must be the proudest man at Pride Park.
You strut up and down, make your face known, act like a regular at this level, as players from both sides mill about in the tunnel, loiter outside their dressing rooms, laughing and joking, basking in the pre-match buzz before it all kicks off.
Shaking a few hands, muttering a few hellos, you look the tracksuited players dead in the eyes, show them that you belong here, that you’re the man in charge.
You look calm, but the nervous energy simmers within, your unsettled stomach a sack of stress, a little uneasy, feeling a little queasy – to be expected of course, becoming the history-maker you are.
Time to get in the zone, get your mind and body ready for the ninety minutes to come. You change from your suit into your training gear in your changing room and head out onto the pitch for a pre-match warm-up as the new all-seater stadium begins to fill up with wide-eyed burger-stuffing Bovril-slurping fans.
The glare of the floodlights is a spotlight and you are the per- former about to put on a show.
To start, a light jog around the perimeter of the Pride Park pitch, flanked by your two linesmen tonight: Neil Hancox and Ray Oliver. As a trio, you do a few shuttles and drills to get your bodies match-ready: sidestep star-jumps, high knees, ‘open the gate’, ‘close the gate’, skipping, ankle circles, hamstring walks.
Muscles gradually loosen.
First-team coaches in baseball caps, pulled-down socks and Copa Mundial boots bellow throaty instructions at players in fluorescent-coloured bibs who zig-zag through fluorescent-coloured cones. Goalkeepers launch balls from the penalty area to the centre circle. Plump stewards get into position. Everyone has their role.
It looks the part, Derby’s new ground: modern, square, neat corners, shiny black and white seats. The playing surface too is in pristine condition, everything seemingly in order already for the Rams to assert themselves as a proper Premiership football club.
You end with a few stretches and then a gut-busting sprint from the goal-line to halfway to show off your speed. You are meticulous with your routine because the devil is in the detail.
You have learned a lot from doing martial arts: By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
The words have stuck.
Up to thirty thousand fans will flood into the stadium, you’ve been told, to see their boys in their shiny new surroundings for this historic Wednesday-night game. Derby have left the old Baseball Ground with all its history, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, title wins and European nights, they’ve packed up the boxes, loaded the removal vans and have relocated here to the shiny new Pride Park across the city.
You try to play down the occasion, keep a lid on it, but this isn’t just another game. It’s taken you eighteen years to get here and you’re determined to make the most of it, you’re determined to make a good first impression.
Back inside your changing room, kick-off nearing, you thumb through the match programme, see your name at the back in glossy print: U. Rennie (Sheffield). The nerves gush through you, the razzamatazz of the occasion, the first game in this spanking new stadium and you at the centre of it.
You change, you think, you pace, you pretend.
An outer coldness, an inner quickening of the pulse.
Same pre-match spiel to your two assistants, new significance.
Heart pounding, head fizzy.
There’s a knock on your door, it’s somebody from Wimbledon, he tells you one of their players, Alan Kimble, doesn’t have a shirt to play in, they’ve forgotten it back in London.
You’ve got to be a people person as a referee, fix things, think fast, think on your feet, be quick off the draw. Not ideal but a plan is hatched, a decision is made, you pretend you have everything under control.
The Dons’ kit man goes on the hunt, returns again shortly after, has borrowed a top from a travelling fan. It’s a blank shop-bought replica, no name or number on the back. Not ideal but it will have to do.
You’ve changed, you think, you pace, you pretend.
Sugary snacks and swigs of your sports drink. Liquid courage. One deep breath, then it’s time to ring the buzzer, let the players know it’s showtime.
You give it a minute, then march out when both teams are lined up and ready. They must wait for you, not the other way around.
In the tunnel, the stench of the occasion consumes you, soaks into your bones: sweat and Deep Heat and bravado.
Take it all in, Uri, quash those butterflies, say your little prayer, not many have made it this far up the footballing pyramid coming from where you have, being who you are. It’s all down to you now; at this level, they’re expecting you to be good and that you will be, undoubtedly.
The echoing thud, thud, thud of the Wimbledon keeper, Neil Sullivan, bouncing the match ball, mirrors the thud, thud, thud of your heart. He spits on his gloved hands and claps three times. The sound reverberates: thud, thud, thud.
Last rallying calls from the two captains: rituals and superstitions rife. Everything throbs, new yearnings invade the fibres of your skin, infiltrate your consciousness, as you take those first few steps and saunter out of the tunnel, lead the two teams out of this shiny new stadium. Floodlights glaring.
Your heart pulsing and pulsating.
The roar all-consuming
……………………………………as you blow that first whistle.
Lots of eye contact and furtive waist-down gesturing to your assistant as the ball bounces out of play; getting it right downstairs before lifting your left arm up fully to signal for an attacking throw.
Ray on the line duly follows and hoists his yellow flag up cleanly and clearly. Setting out your stall, singing off the same hymn sheet already. A small thing but a good start: synchronicity. Cogs in a well-oiled machine, one thing leading to another, letting the players know who’s running the show.
You use the dead ball time to get into your next position, anticipating where the ball is going to bounce next. You can’t give what you don’t see, and if you’re not in a position to see, then you’re not refereeing right.
You swivel, you spin, you sprint, you swagger, you strut.
The Derby keeper, Mart Poom, launches the ball upfield and you keep shuffling to make the right angle. Ambling and then scrambling along the turf to give you the right vantage point.
Always on the move, always needing to get ‘side-on’, crabbing left to right to get into a position for you to see the nudging and tussling and shoving, the excessive physical contact, the battle between two opposing players. One desperate for the ball, the other desperate to keep it. Legs and feet scrapping.
No foul, no foul. You play a running commentary of the action as it unfolds in your head, keeping your brain alert, keeping you on your toes, ready to respond at any second.
Wimbledon midfielder Vinnie Jones has a moan, of course he does. Welcome to the Premiership, Uri.
You shuffle into position. You are always shuffling into position to see the next foul, reacting to the next phase of play, spotting the next offence, following the trajectory of the ball as it balloons from place to place.
You break into a sprint, pump your arms and legs like it is a race.
You swivel, you spin, you sprint, you swagger, you strut.
Derby possession, Derby pressure: pushing and probing and passing and . . . goal.
Poise, patience and penetration paying off.
Derby County lead. Ashley Ward scores the game’s first goal, heads it past Sullivan. The Pride Park crowd celebrate wildly, make themselves at home. Twenty minutes gone: one–nil.
Wimbledon corner, you get into position, get yourself somewhere to see.
The Wimbledon centre-back, Chris Perry, rises to meet the ball and heads it into the back of the net. The famous ego-deflectors Wimbledon have equalised straight away, a minute or so after falling behind, the score now one–one.
Derby possession, Derby pressure: pushing and probing and passing and Eranio slides in to put Derby back in the lead.
A frantic first thirty-two minutes: two–one Derby.
For a foul, you book Kimble, you know it’s him, no name or number on the back of his shirt.
You blow for half-time on the forty-five, swagger and strut down the tunnel, your heart pulsing and pulsating.
A fifteen-minute respite: sugary snacks and swigs of your sports drink.
So far, so good, you think.
Ten minutes into the second half and you reassure yourself you’re doing just fine, settling into the rhythm of the second half, the rhythm of top-level football.
Positioning seems solid so far, you’re in the right place to make the right decisions. You’re getting through your first game as a Premiership football referee with little controversy so far, no hiccups of note here at Pride Park, in this shiny new stadium.
Still over half an hour to go. You give a corner and get into position.
Then . . .
………….Silence sharply followed by ironic cheers . . .
………………………………………………………… boos and jeers . . .
All black. Pitch black. Black as the night sky.
Only silhouettes remain. Confusion surrounds you. Players wonder what the fuck’s going on. The managers and the fans too. Wonder what the fuck has happened to the floodlights. You’re supposed to have all the answers. You wing it. Pretend to be in complete control. Pretend you know what to do.
It goes with the territory that you’re going to be a talking point as a referee but this wasn’t meant to happen, this lack of light.
You pace and pretend. Speak to your linesmen, speak to the two captains, speak to the two managers, groundstaff and security.
There’s only one thing to do, you get the players off. Off the pitch, out of the black and back inside. You have to.
An announcement is made over the tannoy, the fans grumble, puzzled. More boos. The stadium shrouded in nervy confusion.
Twenty-two bodies like baddies in a video game, trudge off the pitch and down the tunnel.
It’s nine o’clock now.
The Wimbledon manager, Joe Kinnear, asks what the plan is. The Derby manager, Jim Smith, asks what the plan is. You’re expected to know all the answers.
The referee is all things to the players and managers, the wearer of many hats: the police officer, the parent, the teacher, the therapist, the social worker, the confidant, the nurse; judge, jury and bloody executioner.
You pace about, pretend you have everything under control. You’re surrounded by hi-vis Derby groundstaff. Staff that barely know their new stadium themselves, trying to reassure you that this is nothing to worry about.
You’re told there’s an electrical issue.
Someone else says they heard a bang.
Derby: Five minutes, ref, got an electrician looking at it now. Generator problem.
9.15 now. It’s getting late, it’ll start to get dangerous. It’s Wednesday night, fans will need to get home, kids will need to be tucked into bed. The players’ legs will stiffen and their muscles will seize up.
They’re trying to keep warm and limbered up, you hear them jumping up and down and running on the spot, metal boot-studs peppering the concrete.
Derby: Just five minutes, ref, two failed generator problems.
You give Derby more time, some leeway to sort it out on their special day, provide the light needed to resume the game. You try not to ask too many questions; instead, remain assertive with a series of statements. This is not the time for wishy-washy words, long-winded explanations or beating about the bush. This is not some drama being watched on tele, this is you, right here, right now, with a big decision to make.
Look, you pause to formulate your words clearly . . .
You: 9.30 cut-off.
……..Derby: Or what?
You: Or it’s postponed, abandoned.
Pace and pretend and wait.
Pace and wait.
You loiter. Club officials from both sides at your ‘Match Officials’ door.
Wimbledon: Any news? What’s happening now? My players are getting restless, ref. Just call it off, this is fuckin’ ridiculous.
……..Derby: Don’t be so hasty, any minute now, we’ve got a good team on it.
Wimbledon: This is getting silly, how much did this stadium cost to build again?
……..Derby: The maintenance men have nearly fixed it, we’ve been told.
Wimbledon: What a joke.
……..Derby: You can delay it another five, ten max, can’t ya, ref?
9.27 – nothing.
9.28 – nothing.
9.29 – nothing.
9.30. You tried, gave them a chance. 9.30 cut-off you said and it’s 9.30 now.
Decision made, match abandoned.
Derby: Really, ref? Come off it, we’ll get it going any minute now. Just give it another five.
9.33 – light is restored, you hear the ironic cheers from the fans who have remained, but it’s too late. Turning back now would make you look weak. You are now a Premiership refer- ee, with Premiership referee responsibilities, you must remain strong, unfazed.
Wimbledon: Well done, ref!
……..Derby: Rash decision, weak, been bullied, ref, bullied.
Wimbledon: Had to be done. Your hands were tied.
Derby County are embarrassed. The celebratory champagne will have to be put back in the fridge.
It had to be done though; it’s hard to be seen as a black man, even in the best of lights.