Livescore Thursday, April 25

The officials’ dressing room can be found at the end of the St Mary’s Stadium tunnel, and an hour after the full-time whistle, there have been no knocks at the door.

Good Friday’s 1-1 draw between Southampton and Middlesbrough in the Championship had not prompted either manager — neither Russell Martin nor Michael Carrick — to chase explanations or vent frustrations. The cordial handshakes with the refereeing team would suffice.

It is the unwritten endorsement of a decent day at the office, free of controversy and recriminations.

“We’re very happy with how that went,” says Matt Donohue, the 35-year-old referee. Assistants Lee Venamore and Matthew Smith agree. “We’ve tried to be a positive influence on the game today,” adds Donohue. “We don’t expect pats on the back from players and staff but you get a gut feeling when it’s been a good afternoon.”

The Athletic was granted access to Donohue and his refereeing team over 24 hours, witnessing first-hand the preparations, protocol and logistics of overseeing a crucial Championship fixture in front of 30,000 supporters.

This is a snapshot of life as a professional referee.

The night before

Donohue claims to know the best Italian restaurants in the vicinity of each of the Championship’s 24 grounds. It is something close to a superstition of his to eat pasta on the eve of a game and a suitable option is found close to their chain hotel on the outskirts of Eastleigh, six miles north of Southampton.

Friday nights are typically hotel nights. Donohue, raised in Essex but based in Manchester, is one of 22 Select Group 2 (SG2) referees employed full-time by Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the body that oversees the development and appointments of officials across the English game. SG2s effectively look after the Championship, the layer beneath SG1, the elite team responsible for taking Premier League games.

There is increased movement between the levels, with Rebecca Walsh among the SG2 officials handed a chance in the Premier League this season, becoming the first female official to take a top-flight game in England when appointed to Fulham against Burnley in December.

The closest Donohue has come to date, though, have been duties as a fourth official. Those were awaiting him again the next day for Aston Villa against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.

“The ambition is to get to the Premier League,” he says. “It’s about knocking on the door as much as possible and hoping you get the opportunity.”

Donohue’s story is a typical one in this world. A limited footballer, he took a refereeing course at 14 and progressed from there once bitten by the bug. The ladder was climbed through non-League football, gaining enough recognition to be given games in League Two and then League One as he juggled his role teaching at a primary school in Greater Manchester.

Then, five years ago, came the opportunity to become a full-time referee when appointed to SG2. “As passionate as I am for education, the chance to dedicate myself to full-time sport, being a professional athlete, was a no-brainer,” he says.

John Busby, Donohue’s fourth official at St Mary’s, is another full-time employee of PGMOL but Venamore, an insurance broker, and Smith, who works for the NHS, are only assistant referees on a weekend. They receive a flat fee for every fixture and are among the 600 officials working under the umbrella of Howard Webb, head of PGMOL and referee for the 2010 World Cup final.

A career as a referee is not for everyone. You become the scrutinised and, often, vilified; a punch bag for managers, players and supporters. One wrong decision and all the correct calls are forgotten. The same extends to most referees in self-appraisals. Fulfillment is never guaranteed.

“It’s the long, lonely drives home when games haven’t gone well,” explains Donohue. “If I go back to last season there were games when I felt pretty low. There was a game, Stoke against Blackburn on a Friday night on Sky, and I made at least two key errors in that game.

“I then refereed the midweek, Sunderland against Sheffield United, and again I made at least one key error in that game. You can be going so well for a long period and you can feel like form has been sucked out of you.

“You have to pick yourself up and I can remember going to Middlesbrough the next week and I’ll openly say I walked out of the door on that Friday afternoon, driving up there, with some anxiety and trepidation. You’re thinking, ‘Bloody hell, this has got to go well’.

“My wife, especially, has to take those low moments as much, if not more than me. That’s where you get your inner resilience I suppose, you build on that and draw on it. It’ll be like the form of any club or player but the only difference is that we’ve got the responsibility where you might’ve messed up someone else’s game.”

That is where any unease will always be rooted. An anxiety in becoming the story.

“Those are just the ups and downs of being a ref,” he adds. “It is a tough job. The standards we set for ourselves and the standards the public set are hard to achieve simply because human error exists in any form of life.

“But being a referee can give you a real buzz and a sense of achievement. The Championship is a massive league and the games can be rocking. You’ve got to take it in now and then, try to enjoy the moment.”

Pre-match preparations

The short journey from the hotel to the ground is made at midday for a 3pm kick-off and, unlike officials in the Premier League who must go to and from a stadium together with a driver, Championship officials are usually free to travel in their own cars. “Chalk that up as my first mistake of the day,” says Donohue, after he is turned away from the north car park at St Mary’s and told to head instead to the south.

Donohue spent part of his morning at the supermarket, stocking up on fruit, protein bars and energy drinks. Referees, broadly speaking, are left to fend for themselves on matchdays. Venamore, one of the EFL’s most experienced assistants, has brought a malt loaf from home wrapped in tin foil.

The officials’ room at St Mary’s is not particularly welcoming. The white walls include a plaque from the local FA and a clock that has stopped working. There is a fridge and a mounted TV, showing Leicester City’s damaging loss to Bristol City live.

One of PGMOL’s referee coaches Gary Willard, once a FIFA-listed and Premier League official, beat everyone there to offer his quiet support. Willard, now 64, is a popular figure and is continuing his treatment for blood cancer. All SG2 referees completed the Three Peaks Challenge last summer in Willard’s honour, climbing the highest points of England, Scotland and Wales and raising more than £26,000 ($33,000) for Leukaemia Care.

The locations change weekly but those hours before a game seldom differ. There is a mandatory visit from a home club official to deliver a short safety briefing, following up on the email sent out 48 hours before kick-off.

The aim is to inform the referees of potential dangers, such as pitch invasions and pyrotechnics. Middlesbrough’s visit, with 2,000 away fans making the long journey from Teesside, has been classified as a medium-risk fixture, largely because of the Bank Holiday date bringing a tendency for alcohol consumption to rise. There was no need to worry, with a capacity crowd bringing no issues.

Donohue leads the testing of the goal-line technology and the shared communications at 1pm. The ball is placed in front and behind the goal line at both ends, ensuring the software is operational. All four officials wear a watch, which vibrates and flashes with “GOAL” once the ball crosses the line. The same message is relayed by a robotic voice through their earpieces.

The Hawk-Eye technology is brought to the ground by a young technician but the rest of the officials’ equipment can be found in Donohue’s pull-along bag. Whistles, red and yellow cards (which have acetate sheets placed on them for bookings to be written), the substitute paperwork and two flags for the assistants all come with the referee. “Who’s one and who’s two?” asks Donohue of Venamore and Smith, numbers that decide the colour of their flag and which side of the pitch they will run up and down.

Things begin to build from 1.45pm. Donohue heads out to the tunnel to meet with Martin and Carrick, with both managers obligated to hand over teamsheets this season, rather than just a member of the coaching staff. The two captains, Jack Stephens and Jonny Howson, are also present to be told by Donohue that all must be ready for 2.56pm — not a minute later — when the bell sounds. That is a small switch, just like for the lights in the referees’ room, pressed to signal it is almost time to go.

The officials have their own team talk after a structured 12-minute warm-up on the pitch. The talk is of focus and clarity of thought. It is also the time the butterflies begin to flutter. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little bit nervous,” says Donohue.

The game and the ‘buzz’

It is estimated that a referee, on average, will make 300 decisions a game. The majority are inconsequential and plenty are straightforward — a corner, a throw-in, a foul. It is the pivotal ones, such as penalties, red cards and offsides, that shape the reputations of referees and assistants.

Donohue can count himself fortunate enough to have been handed a straightforward contest between two Championship teams fond of passing football. There is no real edge between Southampton and Middlesbrough. The intensity is there but scarcely any aggression.

Martin takes particular umbrage with one call on the far side of the pitch, feeling his winger Kamaldeen Sulemana has been wronged late in the first half. The Southampton manager waits for Donohue at half-time but complaints directed at the officials, often through Middlesbrough assistant Jonathan Woodgate, are only ever minimal.

The threat of losing control only really belongs to Southampton, who fail to build on Adam Armstrong’s opener and miss a hatful of chances in an open second half. Middlesbrough eventually punish them through Emmanuel Latte Lath’s 90th-minute equaliser, dousing their hosts’ hopes of chasing down the automatic promotion places.

A GPS monitor worn by Donohue indicates he has run just under 10km during the game. The fitness demands placed upon full-time officials by PGMOL have increased, with body fat measured twice a month during training camps at Loughborough University. Strength and conditioning sessions are also mandatory at least twice a week, with that figure often higher depending on schedule.

Everything is measured, including the major decisions made by Donohue. Those are known as ‘key match incidents’ (KMIs) and are assessed by an independent panel.

The early assessment, one that can be increased by the feedback from both teams, was that three KMIs were noted in the game — two possible handballs waved away in the Middlesbrough box and an offside call that ruled out a Che Adams goal. There was confidence that they were correct but a three-person panel will be the judge of that.

Every KMI is deemed to be either correct or incorrect, with a spreadsheet of all those made available to the 24 Championship clubs. The EFL published its outline numbers just before Christmas and said that just under 85 per cent of KMIs in the 2023-24 season had been correct — and all without the supposed safety net of video assistant referees.

“It felt like we had a positive influence on the game,” said Donohue. “That doesn’t mean everyone will agree with every decision that’s been made but we’ve allowed for a good game of football to take place, end to end and entertaining.

“Seven cautions in the game (two for Southampton and five for Middlesbrough). I’ll think driving away that I’m happy with them all (being the right decisions). It didn’t feel like a seven-caution game but that’ll be part of the review process.”

The aftermath and analysis

Donohue and his team do not get a visit from either manager and leave St Mary’s shortly before 6pm. Walking through autograph hunters awaiting Southampton players without heckles is another measure of a competent day.

It is the first of four games in five days for Donohue, working as fourth official at Aston Villa and Wolves on Saturday, and Sunderland versus Blackburn Rovers on Easter Monday, where roles were reversed with Busby. Burnley at home to Wolves completes the run this evening (Tuesday, April 2). Venamore and Smith headed to West Bromwich Albion vs Watford and Plymouth Argyle vs Bristol City respectively on Monday.

The congestion of Easter allows little time for immediate analysis but Donohue — along with all SG1 and SG2 referees — will watch the full game back to pick apart the things done well and inadequately. Clubs can also send their own feedback directly to officials on a match form accessible through a PGMOL portal.

The good, the bad and the indifferent are laid bare, though a merit table of officials no longer exists under Webb, who has introduced a “holistic” approach to rewarding referees. Donohue will go through his performance with referee coach Phil Gibbs, who is among the first to call when driving away from the ground.

Then it is on to the next one.

“Our appointments come out on a Tuesday for the next weekend and hopefully, I’ll be back on the teamsheet in the Championship,” says Donohue. “That’s how we all look at it. If you’re on the teamsheet then you’re on form. It’s a good barometer that the management team trust what you’re doing.”

(Top photo: Phil Buckingham/The Athletic)

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