Andy Townsend was talking to Alex Griffiths
I know full well that, as a subject, it seems to come around every few seasons, but I want to nail my colours to the mast as an advocate of fast-tracking former professionals into the upper ranks of match officials.
I make no apologies for giving the former player’s perspective here, either, because it is the one I have lived. No one can tell me there is no advantage to having been exposed on a professional, daily basis when it comes to sensing control problems and grasping the dialogue you need to manage players, just to give you two examples.
I well remember Neale Barry as a stocky authority figure from my own days in the Premier League and, as the FA’s head of referee development, he’s the latest to be grappling with a process where the setting of targets can be a thankless task.
He will be the one carrying the can next time we ask ourselves have we done enough to see fast-tracking through. To be fair, we really should have made it work by now, not least because the amount of pros who can walk into a job in the media, for one, will always be limited. The infinite number of potential causes of aggro along the way should not be putting us off, however.
Barry promised a cohort up and running for 2018/19 when he spoke last March, and I sympathise with some of the complicating factors that will no doubt combine to make delivery a tall order.
I don’t mean, by the way, that I believe the ex-pro’s pathway should be so much as halved, but what I do mean is, when I did my UEFA ‘B’ license back when I packed playing in, as many do, something felt odd about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed doing it, but doing it with members of the public from a 9-5 background, without running down their contribution in any sense whatsoever, left me feeling, even if I did choose not to continue down that road, that I should have been starting a bit further down that road than they were doing.
Again, I should stress I know all about what people in general and managers in particular have brought to the game from the outside world, and I would only ever want to get behind the kind of solution that was discrimination-free and was able to give credit for valuable, relevant time served in the fairest possible of ways.
Ultimately it seems to me that to ask all ex-pros, or even those starting out in the twilight of their playing career, to begin at the very bottom of the ladder is an unnecessarily penal approach.
It stands to reason they will have a better understanding of some of the things we need all our top refs to improve on, but that does not mean I see fast-tracking as a panacea.
One limitation might be fitness, and it can’t be taken for granted that a 35-year-old can run all day long at the end of a career with its fair share of injuries, injections and so on. They must be in top shape for this to work.
Another very real issue might be the number of clubs in their past, clearly.
Reasons should be identified why previous attempts have failed, chief among them, perhaps, that there’s no one already in place, since Steve Baines, to encourage others in their wake.
Another is quite possibly knowing exactly how difficult it is, having shared the same goldfish bowl experience as the ref over a period of time. I also feel that higher rewards will duly come along with higher levels of competence, and the remuneration on offer has a way to go before it’s in accordance with the unrivalled monitoring and scrutiny that comes with the job these days.
The pathway up to this point has been seen as too complex and laborious, and understandably so.
I suggest your ideal trailblazer or role model would probably be a one-club man from the Championship or League One, with a relatively unblemished record on and off the pitch.
Bear in mind that referees must already declare any interest which sees them ruled out of certain fixtures, but the last thing we need is more cases like that of Jason Jarrett, who gave up the ghost in his thirties in despair at the hurdles ahead on top of the amount of clubs his extensive playing past would preclude him from officiating.
What I’m suggesting is that those who have played, say, five years as a pro, not just as a youth or apprentice, should at least get past the initial stages, not just go straight to the Premier League.
One idea could be to run an exchange programme with Scotland. Whatever we come up with, the key for me is that no one can claim the fast-track process has been used to anything like its potential.
Such a wealth of experience as Jarrett has accumulated surely should be working for him instead of leaving him with the feeling it has worked against him?
There may well as yet be scant numbers to back up the case for fast-tracking universally, but my gut feeling tells me that the better standards we all aspire to can only be helped by adding greater understanding of on-field dynamics into the mix.
We must give credit for experience in an appropriate way of course, but the principle remains, despite the pitfalls: it simply stands to reason that, for players who’ve been there and done that, it is worth persevering with fast-tracking if we are ever to see the improvements that all of us can agree are needed.