Exclusive Interview: Mark Halsey

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

JR  ‘'Hi Mark, thanks for speaking to me at TSF today.  You’re the first referee we’ve had on the site but don’t worry we’ll go easy on you!  Being a ref is a thankless task, what convinced you that you had what I took?”

MH  ''I think that being a semi-professional player as I was, and playing at a high level in Non League football helped me a lot.  And obviously I loved football in any case and I am a big football fan.  I think through my playing days I was influenced by how certain referees officiated the games.  The best ones had a smile on their face, they engaged with the players, they would laugh and joke with the players, but they also were able to stamp their authority on the game when needed. 

Before I became a professional referee I worked in management at a packaging and a plastics company.  I had to manage men, and I think that it is very important that referees of today know how to manage players and know how to engage with the players.  It is about managing the game, the players and the event.  That doesn't mean to say that ex-players will make good referees, but for me it is about man management, you need to manage those 22 players off the field of play and if you can master that then I think the role becomes easier for you in the way that you conduct yourself on the field of play and engage with the players.’’

JR  ‘'I agree with you about ex players not necessarily making good referees, it takes years to gain the experience to reach the highest levels of officiating.  Speaking of which, you had a setback just as you were becoming one of the elite referees in the game.

MH  ‘’That's right.  I had made the national list as a referee and I had made the Premier League select list as well, I went on to the higher echelons and became an international referee with FIFA, I’d also refereed at the old Wembley Stadium and the new Wembley Stadium.  But looking back on my career what gratifies me the most is that I won the respect of the players, managers and fans in the way that I refereed games.  I was one for letting the games flow and giving the players a chance, but I also knew when to slow the game down and stamp my authority on it, and that was pleasing. 

The setback was that I was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009 so I had to take leave from the game, I was told by my specialist that if I survived I would never referee again at the top level.  But I used that as an inspiration, and I did come back and referee at the top level!  I think my first game back in the Premier League was at the DW Stadium refereeing Wigan Athletic v Blackpool FC at the start of the following season, that was probably the highlight of my career because really I should not have been there.’’

JR  “You mentioned that you became a FIFA referee.  I think our readers would be really interested to hear if there are any particular differences you noticed between officiating a Premier League game and an International game.”

MH  ‘'Yes, I think there is a big difference between refereeing in the Premier League and refereeing internationally.  The English game allows and wants physicality in the match, whereas when you referee abroad they want free kicks and they don't want physical challenges.  They want you to stop the game and give the free kicks and not play the advantage.  That is the main difference from refereeing in the Premier League and referring abroad.  You have to referee in two different ways because you know in the Premier League you can let the physical challenge go and you know that players will not react because you are on the pitch and you are talking with them and they will get on with it.  But when you referee abroad you are refereeing two different teams from different countries and they expect you to give the free kicks, if you don't then they start to take the law into their own hands. 

When that happens you can lose control of the game so you have got to judge when to get involved in those games as a referee.  Normally on physical challenges you allow the game to flow in the Premier League, but you would not necessarily do that when you refereed abroad. It is the same when you referee pre season friendlies in England when a Premier League team is playing a team from Italy, Spain or France, if you give cheap free kicks against Premier League teams they will react and proclaim that, “you would never give those free kicks in a Premier League game”, and then I would have to explain that the difference is the opposition expect free kicks to be given for those challenges and it is about keeping the peace and keeping control, the players would then understand and accept that and we would get on with the game.”

JR  ‘'Keeping the peace may be something you can control on the pitch, but in the stands it’s often a different story.  We have seen a steep rise in referees being verbally, and in some cases, physically abused.  How do you look back on your own experience in that regard, and do you think that enough is being done at the highest level to put a stop to it?”

MH  “I think that any referee who obviously reached the level that I reached needs to be mentally strong and mentally tough, if you have got that in your armoury then you can handle any sort of abuse that comes your way and it's part of the course being in football stadiums. People pay their money and they can shout what they want and you have to be able to handle it but when you are in the thick of things you don't really hear the crowd because you are fully concentrated and fully focused, once you drop that focus that is when you tend to make errors.  

Where I have a problem James is with social media.  My family and I were subjected to some horrendous social media abuse which wasn’t just aimed at myself, but also my wife who was battling leukemia, and also my very young daughter too.  Things were posted on social media about myself, my wife and about my daughter and things they wanted to do to her, I think in that situation it hurt me considerably and when people start having a go at your wife and daughter, then, for me that is when it becomes a no-go.  

You see now with racist abuse on social media how bad it is.  We are all one.  It is despicable what is going on at present and until the social media companies, the police and the governments come together to make it a crime, or dish out stiffer penalties and even prison terms if that is what it takes to stop it, then nothing is going to change.  Hopefully that will come very soon because what is going on right now is despicable. 

If you look at the England players after their penalty misses in the Euro 2020 Final… for me what went on was just despicable and we need to eradicate this from the game, as well as all forms of social media abuse.  As someone who suffered from abuse I know that the police were involved in both of my cases.  In the second case the social media company in question refused to give the Police the details of the perpetrators which was very frustrating for myself and the Police.  But when it happened the first time the police got the perpetrators and action was taken against them which was good.  You have got to be mentally tough and strong but sometimes it does hurt and it reduced my wife to tears, I can handle it, but when your family is involved that is a no-go, and that is when social media companies have got to be stronger and root out these morons.”

JR  “I couldn't agree more, Mark.  I really appreciate you being so open and honest today, it’s been a real eye opener.  One final question before I let you go… these changes to the modern game, and I’m thinking of VAR specifically… are we all doomed?”

MH  “Well obviously VAR is a massive change in the game and I think we saw in Euro 2020 where, for me, the refereeing standards were first class and VAR was implemented in the way that we wanted to see it implemented.  And I take my hat off for the way in which Roberto Rosetti led his team, his leadership and direction was absolutely first class and that is what we want to see in the Premier League. * 

I was working for a company called Betdaq during Euro 2020 and two weeks before the final between Italy and England I predicted that Björn Kuipers would referee the final with his team. He is a super referee and a first class official and the best in the world at present in my opinion, I thought he had a super tournament together with his team and I think he is a super referee.  He reminds me of myself where he would give players a chance to let the game flow and let the game breathe.  He didn't dish out cheap yellow cards, he gave the players a chance and it does not necessarily mean that you have to stamp your authority on the game with a yellow card.  You can do it with a verbal communication and I thought Björn Kuipers fully deserved to referee the final of Euro 2020 together with his team.’' 

*   Roberto Rosetti is The chairman of UEFA's Referees Committee and a former Serie A referee.  He received widespread praise for the way VAR was implemented during Euro 2020 saying before the tournament:

“We're working hard every day to improve the system that is in place, because there's always room for improvement. Results show that we're getting faster as far as VAR interventions on a global level are concerned. Communication between referees and VARs is improving. The full picture shows that we're getting better.

"The aim is not to investigate every small detail in a match. VAR can be very dangerous if the system is not used appropriately. There are a lot of borderline situations in football matches, and VAR can't eliminate discussions about such situations. But I'm sure that if we began checking the smaller things, people would not like this kind of football.  Minimum interference for maximum benefit.”



James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.