As part of our ongoing #ThisIsSurreyFootball campaign and ahead of Father’s Day this week, we spoke to Surrey’s very own father and son team who are both making strides in the grassroots game.
Steve Ferris and his son Dominic are both at very different stages of their refereeing careers. Steve has been refereeing in Surrey for over 15 years, whilst 17-year-old Dominic has been officiating for just three years. Both are actively involved with the Referee Academy, as a mentor and refereeing respectively.
We asked them about their journey paths into refereeing and the benefits it has offered to Dominic who has Asperger’s. The pair also provide their advice for new referees as well answering whether their paths have crossed on the field of play. They also tell us how plans for Father’s Day this year will result in a slightly more comfortable day for Steve.
Steve, when did you start your journey in refereeing and why did you want to get involved?
‘I have been refereeing for about 15 years. I’m from Sussex originally and played a lot of football there as a kid. I decided that having been a player in park football for a few decades in Sussex I didn’t want to be manager as I felt it would difficult to basically run the whole club, but I didn’t want to be out of football.
So, I thought, I’ll try and see what it’s like to be a referee and see if I could manage the kind of people that I became when I was a player! Back then [refereeing courses] were run by referee societies rather than the County, so I took the course run by Barry Cundy and Tony Ireland.
I really enjoyed it and got through those nervous first few games where you think that all you’re doing is making mistakes and stuck to it. It also helped me to keep fit. I still do it now because I enjoy it, I enjoy the camaraderie that comes with it, and the teams. When you’ve been officiating on a league for a while, a lot of the teams know you and you earn the respect from the players over time.’
Steve, I understand you encouraged Dominic to take up refereeing. What were the reasons for this?
‘I realised that for me, it helped me to get a lot more confident as a person. Dominic was diagnosed with Asperger’s from year five in school and was then taken out of mainstream school and went to a specialist school for kids with autism. He missed a lot of what you’d consider as building rapport and friendship groups as many of his peers came from far and wide and did not live local to us.
With autistic children that social interaction [is very important], working out how to interact with people without, for want of a better expression, flipping out, which were the first traits which we saw from Dominic at primary school. Autistic children are brilliant with being black or white, so if you were to give them the Laws of the Game, they can understand them completely and administer them properly.
But the bit that he would be missing was that untold law of being able to interact with players and coaches. It would also allow him deal with stressful situations in a calm manner and working out how people tick. When you give a decision [as a referee], 11 players will think you’re fantastic and the other 11 will think it’s a load of rubbish – especially when you’re young and refereeing open-aged football.
Also, as a kid, it’s quite lucrative! But as with any kid, if they don’t like it then you don’t force them to carry on. He has to make his own career in refereeing.’
Dominic, how has refereeing helped you develop your social interactions and wider skills as a whole?
‘Refereeing has been great for me. I was 14 when I took the course, and when I was doing younger age groups, I would focus on building interactions with the managers and the players. What I think I have developed is that almost becoming second nature to me. It’s almost as if I can focus more on technical aspects of my game and what I find is quite good for my self-esteem is that I don’t now need to worry about talking to the managers or the players in the correct manner because I feel my refereeing has helped me quite a lot in gaining their respect. But if not, I can now deal with that well within the game as I develop those interaction skills more.
That’s obviously great outside of refereeing too. As you get older you speak to more people, get to know more people – and must get along with them. Refereeing is great at helping me do that.’
Dominic, what have been your stand out moments as a referee so far?
‘Getting picked for my first County Cup final must be a big one. For a lot of referees early in their careers, County Cup Finals can be a defining moment. It shows that you’ve been recognised for your hard work by referee secretaries, the county, leagues and players. Even if you’re not sure yourself if you’ve had a good season, that certainly confirms it.
Also, my first U18 women’s game at Chelsea’s training ground at Cobham through the Referee Academy against the U18 Norway Women’s team was big for me. It was my first taste of international football! It was good to referee players for whom English isn’t their first language. Dealing with players who are talking another language is an aspect that I might be able to encounter as I go through my refereeing career.’
Dominic, how has the referee academy aided your development as a referee?
‘It’s great as what it provides is a good standard of football, you’ve got good quality players and what that allows you to do is manage the game a bit more easily and refine your technique. You know more or less what the players are going to do, that it’s not necessarily going to get booted in one direction. You can aim your diagonals better and different elements like being able to focus on your hand signals. Probably the defining feature of the academy are the mentors which go along with it. On almost every single game you do at the academy, you get a mentor who will come and observe you and at the break, they will come over and tell you what you’re doing right as well as pointers of what you could improve on.
During my development in the last 2-3 years, the Academy is one of the main reasons why I have improved. My technical ability improving owes to the mentors giving me different strategies. Different mentors offer different titbits that allow you to develop your strategies. I’ve taken a lot of advice from them, as they’ve been in the game a long time and must have been doing something right to still be enjoying it.’
What do you both think are the most enjoyable aspects of refereeing?
Steve: ‘I enjoy being able to give something back to the game and being part of the game. Whether or not you’re refereeing or mentoring as I have been this season. On day one of this season a player ran into me and broke my arm which kept me out of the game for four months. So thanks to Peter and Gordon [who oversee the Referee Academy], I went and mentored at Chelsea and Fulham academies to give back my experiences to other referees.
Without referees you don’t have a game. I enjoy giving back to the game in that sense, but also [through my involvement in the Referee Academy], helping your referees get off to a good start and being as well-equipped as they can be.’
Dominic: ‘[I] could certainly echo everything my dad has said. I certainly enjoy giving an advantage that leads to a goal. Nobody recognises it on the field but when you have given an advantage that leads to a goal, you’ve done something right and it benefits the game. I’m sure most referees give themselves a pat on the back for that!’
What advice would you both give to referees who might be just getting started in the grassroots game?
Steve: ‘You’re out there, you’re new and you’re learning. So, don’t let one game define how you approach your refereeing career. You need to be able to get through the mistakes which we inevitably make. If you call it as you see it and are honest with yourself then that’s it. Remember, players will always make more mistakes in a game than you. Don’t let a mistake define it, but also don’t chase it – just move on and learn from it. Also, take advice from other referees. We all want everyone to succeed. If you start out well, with a good attitude then you’ll go far. There’s a good community who will support you if you wish to have that.’
Dominic: ‘To build on my dad’s points, I’ve only been refereeing for three years but have had lots of games where I’ve struggled. There’s probably been one or two where I think, why did I even go out there in the first place? But you sometimes have to detach your emotions from it, especially when assessing yourself after the game. The best way to improve as a referee is to take responsibility for the mistakes you’ve made.
As dad says, everyone is going to make mistakes, the players certainly make them a lot more than you. But you also want to recognise when you get things right to appreciate that and make sure you do them again. Sometimes as a referee it’s not about being naturally talented, if you’ve worked harder to get good at it, that’s almost better than being good at it in the first place – if you’re struggling at first then that’s a reason to be encouraged rather than discouraged.
If a game has been difficult, that isn’t a bad thing. You may not have enjoyed it, but what it has done, is give you lots of information on what you can work on to improve. When you nail it in the future, then you will appreciate that moment even more.’
Have you ever been appointed to the same game?
Steve: ‘We were appointed to two games together this season. One was the Under 18 County Cup Floodlight Cup between Camberley Town and Met Police which went to penalties. That was great because it’s the only time he’ll listen to me, and he had to listen to me as my assistant. It makes a change for him to have to abide by what I say for a change! We also did an Under 16 County Cup Semi-Final between Guildford Saints and Aldershot Town. It was a decent game to do and thoroughly enjoyable because if you’re the referee and you have a team of neutral assistants, it’s great to work as a team. We did enjoy it didn’t we?’
Dominic: ‘Yes! I think it’s quite good because we’ve both been to watch a lot of each other’s games over the years. So, I think getting to not just watch each other referee but also taking part in it and interacting with each other while we are refereeing and seeing how that impacts your own performance was also quite interesting. It’s good to be able to work together and show eye contact and hand signals to indicate decisions. It’s [the equivalent] of watching my dad play but being even more involved.’
And finally, how will you be spending Father’s Day this year?
Steve: ‘For a few years we have done the London to Brighton Cycle ride for the British Heart Foundation, which is always on Father’s Day – we’re up at Clapham Common for 6am. We then ride down to Brighton where my wife picks us up and drives us to Guildford. It’s great spending it with Dominic but it’s not relaxing, and you get a very sore backside after cycling all that way!
With the pandemic, the ride’s not on this year so for once I’m going to sit back, get spoilt and hopefully if the weather’s kind to us, have a nice family barbeque.’
To find out how you can start your own journey in refereeing, click here. If you’d like to find out more about the Surrey FA Referee Academy and express your interest in joining, click here.
To find out more about our ongoing #ThisIsSurreyFootball campaign, click here.