A fine leader of the line as a player for Bolton Wanderers, Peterborough United, and Sheffield United among others, Tony Philliskirk took the plunge and had a serious go at refereeing before accepting an offer which has kept him coaching at Boundary Park for over 18 years.
He told Alex Griffiths why he has not looked back.
You reached Northern Premier League level in 1996 as an official only to then choose a different path. Can you tell us the factors behind that decision?
When I was getting a little ‘older’ as a player I began to think about the next stage of my career path. So as well as undertaking the refereeing I was also doing my coaching badges to give myself possible opportunities for the future.
As I progressed up the refereeing ladder, the next stage from the Northern Premier League was the National Conference. As I was still playing, this would mean refereeing on Saturdays. To be able to do this, I would have had to retire from playing.
But with a wife and young family I needed financial backing and support to be able to do this. Unfortunately, this was not forthcoming from any of the parties I met with: the Referees Association, the Football League and the PFA… so therefore my ‘career’ in refereeing stalled.
At about the same time I was offered a coaching role at Oldham Athletic, so I chose this path, as financially it was the only viable option for me and my family if I was not to continue playing.
What’s your favourite memory from your time as a referee?
There wasn’t one particular favourite memory, but I did enjoy refereeing the bigger games such as cup finals, local derbies and so on.
Were you a banter man, strictly by the book or a mixture?
A mixture, but definitely a players’ referee. Lots of talk, banter etc. A few of my assessments said I was too close to the players when I refereed, but I found that I gained respect for not only being directly involved in the game as a player but also as someone who was on their wavelength.
Is the wisdom behind fast-tracking ex-professionals sound, even if it has not worked out in practice?
I think it is. Ex-players do ‘know’ the game and I felt I could tell if a player was intentionally trying to ‘do’ someone or not. Within that, you still have to referee to the Laws of the Game.
There were reportedly 15 of you fast-tracked back then, what became of them?
I don’t know. I heard afterwards that within six months I was the only one of the 15 left refereeing. I don’t know how true that was.
We were not really fast-tracked, anyway. We passed our exams then we had to join our local Referees Associations and begin officiating at the lowest levels – in my case the Middleton and Rochdale Sunday leagues. We had to prove we were good enough before we were promoted to the next level.
From our original 15 I’m not sure many continued at all. Maybe they’d thought they were going to pass an exam, then start refereeing at a much higher level. That first year was difficult, getting up early on a Sunday morning to referee a Sunday league fixture after playing the day before in a Football League fixture.
Do you expect any future initiatives along the same lines, or does that depend too much on a media bandwagon?
I think it’s been mentioned many times since I undertook it. But logistically it’s proved to be very hard to do, with all the age restrictions and limits now in place.
Did Howard Webb retire too early in your opinion?
At 43 he probably did, when you look at what other referees are achieving now at 45 and older. You really shouldn’t throw that amount of experience away and as long as your fitness is not an issue, then your age shouldn’t be either, in an ideal world.
Having said that, it was his decision and presuming nobody else has put pressure on him, who am I to tell him otherwise, after he’s reached the very top of the tree in terms of taking charge of a World Cup Final!
Do you have better relationships with officials on a match day as a result of your experiences?
I definitely understand how difficult a job they have. And now, what with all the TV coverage and analysis, it’s a far more difficult job. Every decision can now be scrutinised and highlighted, so I don’t envy modern referees at all.
So do you reckon you’re a better coach as a result?
I don’t think refereeing had any impact on my coaching career, to be honest. They are two totally different fields.
Your labours have borne fruit with the Academy at Oldham over the last couple of years haven’t they?
Yes, we passed our last Elite Player Performance Plan audit, which meant we retained our Category 3 status. As a club we can’t go any higher than that with the number of pitches we have, even though we were recommended for Category 2 consideration.
Last season we won the Youth Alliance, beating MK Dons in the final, and in 2014 we beat Blackpool in the final at Bloomfield Road to win the Lancashire FA Professional Youth Cup.
What’s your advice to former players who might consider taking up the whistle in 2016?
Be prepared for it to take time. The early experience I got at Sunday league level was invaluable. Still, I don’t believe you can go from playing to being a Football League referee in just two or three seasons.
Did you have refereeing role models or heroes to begin with, and if so do you have different ones now?
No. Until the initiative started when I got involved, refereeing was something I’d never really thought of. At that time, I was just looking at ways of staying involved in the game and the refereeing opportunity arose. All my role models now are still, or have been, involved in coaching apart from my father, who has been my role model all my life.
What chance for the Respect campaign while referees remain everyone’s first choice of scapegoat?
Refereeing is so difficult now due to TV coverage and every decision can often be analysed on screen for the public to see. People forget that referees are human and that all humans make mistakes.
How would you stage a renewed, improved Respect campaign, if you felt it was worthwhile?
Good question. I don’t have the answer. While TV pundits question decisions referees make, then criticise them for that decision, then Respect is a difficult thing to achieve.
Have you ideas of your own which might help referees do their job?
No. I’m not qualified today to give referees any advice. They know better than me and I would not expect them to give me advice on how to coach.
How soon afterwards should referees be speaking after games, if at all?
At times I think it would help if they came out to explain their decisions. It would certainly ‘humanise’ them more.
Did you give your son Danny any particular advice when dealing with officials or keeping out of disciplinary trouble?
No. Danny grew up in the football environment and appreciates how difficult refereeing is. But he is his own man and has often said if he thinks a referee has had a good or a poor game.
How far do you approve the use of technology? Are you of the opinion it could change the game too much between elite and the grass roots, or are you in the ‘more the merrier’ camp?
We have to embrace technology. I suppose if more correct decisions are made due to it then we run with it. The exact level or extent to which it should be used is the debate that’s currently ongoing.
Have you any grievances you still harbour regarding decisions from your own playing days?
Times, and the game itself, have changed significantly since the beginning of my career and I’ve no grievances. You can’t look back with regret at any point in life, I feel. That will achieve nothing.