By Russell Kempson
Everyone can see what a referee does, or doesn't. He is out there in the middle, a sometimes lonely figure, who will be judged on his 90-minute display by the sternest of critics - the players, managers and fans.
But who effectively referees the referees? Who is the real judge - and jury - as to whether they have maintained the standards expected of them?
It is the referees' assessor, who sits in the stand and watches hawk-like every move of the man in the middle. And those of his assistants, too, as well as the fourth official.
It is, though, the referee who is the main target. To be shot at possibly, if he is not up to scratch, but mostly to be quietly praised for what he got right and carefully advised as to what he didn't and where he can improve. Mick Fletcher is a Football League assessor, that sitter in the stand with his little black notebook and life-changing power at his fingertips.
What Fletcher writes down, how he interprets those 90 minutes, could determine whether a referee eases another notch up the League pyramid or whether he stands still. Today, he is looking at Nick Kinseley in the Blue Square Bet Premier division tussle between Tamworth and Newport County at the Lamb Ground, Kettlebrook.
Three coachloads of Newport supporters have arrived in the large car park for a Conference encounter that has set their second-placed team against seventh. Mick is greeted warmly by the Tamworth officials and we head for the sponsors' lounge, in which a flat screen on the wall is showing Manchester City take on Sunderland in the Premier League, that other footballing world that exists on a faraway planet.
Fletcher, 55, is in his seventh year assessing and has a wealth of first-hand duty to call on. He started refereeing in the parks in 1981, had five years on The Football League as an assistant from 1990, then 11 years in the League middle before retiring. Four times he has been appointed at Wembley Stadium - twice as a referee and once each as an assistant and a fourth official. It is an extensive 'been there, seen it, done it' career with the whistle.
"Assessing is a natural progression for many former referees," Mick says. "I thought about it when I retired and, had I not gone this way, I did wonder what I would be doing with my Saturday afternoons. Watching the referees and assistants comes naturally, too. It's quite easy, watching them run up and down the pitch. But you've got to have your eyes on the fourth official as well. Mind you, if the managers are behaving themselves, he won't really need to get involved, which is good.
"The match officials today will be assessed exactly the same as in the Championship. Nick is a Football League assistant referee who the League is looking at to become a referee. And if they think he's good enough, that will be his next step and that could be next season.
"I don't check up on referees beforehand. I don't think it's fair, to look up the reports of how they fared the last time you saw them. Or to ask another assessor, who might have been looking for different points to what I will be. I will assess Nick on what he does out there today."
Fletcher, from Worcester, attends an average of four matches per month, perhaps 30-plus over a season. Tamworth-Newport is his fourth Blue Square Premier fixture out of 10 matches this term. His 'patch' stretches from Bristol to Nottingham but he can request a game further afield and is usually accompanied by his friend, Bill Preece.
Bill, 65, is not at The Lamb. I have nabbed his ticket for this game and I feel guilty. But I speak with him the following week after he'd partnered Mick to the Johnstone's Paint Trophy northern section Second Round tie between Walsall and Port Vale at the Banks's Stadium. It was quite a contest; after a 2-2 draw, Vale won 6-5 in a 22-penalty shoot-out. Not a lot of accuracy from the spot but plenty for referee Darren Deadman - and Fletcher - to keep an eye on.
"Not a bad game for the neutral," Bill, a former semi-professional player with Dudley Town and Darlaston Town and an ex-junior leagues referee, observed. "I've known Mick for many years and I've been with him to games all over the country; from Plymouth Argyle to Carlisle United.
"Sometimes we make a weekend of it with the wives. The girls go shopping on the Saturday and we go to the match. It's nice for Mick to have someone to talk to - and me, too - on some of the really long journeys. We keep each other company, chat through the games and exchange views. It helps pass the time."
Fletcher pauses. It is 1.15pm, time for a swift trip to the tiny yet homely club boardroom to meet Kinseley, his assistants John Burridge and Sean Feerick, and the fourth official Martin Dexter. Tea, coffee, biscuits, then a stroll outside for the pre-match inspection of the Lamb pitch, which slopes gently from touchline to touchline.
Kinseley, 37, his bald head sparkling in the sun, has had a hectic match schedule since returning from a four-week business trip to Pune in India. "It keeps me fit and out of mischief," Nick, who works for a financial company, quips. "I'm having to catch up for when I was away."
Nick briefs his troops about the game - what he expects from them, how they should react to certain situations - and they nod in the affirmative. Louise, the safety officer, also has her say about the off-the-pitch arrangements and everyone is happy. Fletcher offers a quick good luck in the officials' changing area, a cramped space in a small Portakabin complex in one corner of the ground, and indescribable music blares from the Newport dressing room.
Marcus Law and Tom Marshall, the Tamworth manager and captain respectively, and Justin Edinburgh and David Pipe, their Newport counterparts, bring in the team-sheets. "Some referees give a bit of a speech but Nick didn't really," Fletcher reveals. "He just reminded them that the colour of the tape on their socks must now be the same. The managers don't really want to be there and they wouldn't have been listening, anyway. So Nick did right to say as little as possible."
Back in the boardroom, Bob Andrews, the Tamworth chairman, and his wife Pam, jovially entertain their colleagues and the visiting directors - and rivals - from South Wales. "Is he a strong ref today?" Pam asks Mick. Mick nods and, turning down the lasagne, opts for a plate of chips. In between mouthfuls, he explains what he looks for from a referee.
Essentially, four major points: "Application of law, alertness and awareness, communication and fitness, positioning and work-rate. Having control of the game, that's the key," Mick says. "And all those four will help you control game." He gets out his little black book and shows me his personal methodology.
One page for the referee, with Fletcher highlighting any point with a yellow marker pen that he feels he needs to discuss with the man in black afterwards. If it's highlighted in red, it's a key match incident and is likely to also require referral to the game DVD. The assistants get two halves at the top of a page; the fourth official a space at the bottom - with yellow-and-red highlights added should they be the needed to.
All from which Mick will fill in a form at the end to assist with his post-match debrief and full report the next day. Which is Sunday, the supposed day of rest.
"I'll spend five to six hours doing the assessment," Mick, a HGV driver with Sandwell Council, says. "About three hours putting a draft together, then I'll have a couple of hours with the grandchildren, Helena and Heidi, come back and do another bit more for a couple of hours. I always put it down again, pick it up for another hour, then finish it off. I used to like having a pint on a Sunday lunchtime but that's gone now.
"I do still miss refereeing terribly. There's no substitute for being a referee, being out there, but this does keep me involved. I think the age limit is 70 but I'm not sure I'll go on that long. Another four or five years maybe, because there are so many changes in football nowadays, but who knows? I might still be enjoying it."
Enjoying it, like when he spots an up-and-coming referee, a Howard Webb of the future. "I've seen one this season," he says, his voice suddenly hushed. "And it would give me a real buzz to see him promoted. When he started the game I was at - and throughout it - I saw in him that little bit more. You could just see it. I want all the referees to do well, mainly because it makes it easier to write my report. But to say you're a Football League referee is great."
When Kinseley blows his first whistle, game on. The 400 Newport fans are in good voice, the 800 of Tamworth also. It creates a decent atmosphere at The Lamb. Nick, a slight figure, scurries about industriously, keeping up with the pace, issuing discreet words of advice or warning.
After only five minutes, Marshall is pole-axed by the ball and appears to have suffered a head injury. "Stop it, stop it," Fletcher urges from his seat. Nick does, with a deafening blast of his whistle. The home physio is called on, Marshall is treated, Fletcher is impressed.
Newport pile on the pressure but a shot is cleared off the line and a penalty appeal turned down, possibly for simulation. In his little black book, Fletcher uses his yellow marker. It will be discussed later. Newport's Lee Minshull is booked after a collision with Adam Cunnington. "A bit harsh," Mick muses. Minshull must be a foot taller than Kinseley, which offers a rather comical sight as David lays down the law to Goliath. The cameramen above the dug-outs - a DVD is mandatory from each match from the Conference upwards - must have captured it.
Although Newport take the lead in first-half stoppage time, Tamworth draw level near the hour. Three minutes later, Aaron O'Connor taps in what proves to be Newport's winner. But is it offside? It appears so. Fletcher, out with the red marker pen, highlights "a goal incident" that has to be checked. Burridge, the assistant, is implicated on the near side of the main stand and a home fan berates him. "Lino, wake up," he shouts. "Learn the offside rule." Fletcher chuckles.
When Kinseley blows his final whistle, game over. Players from both sides shake his hand and, in the boardroom, a Newport official tells Mick that Nick "did really well". Well, County had won. His team had gone top of the Conference, Tamworth stayed seventh. Fletcher fills in the form, which he will go through with Team Kinseley shortly. It has a sprinkling of yellow and that red, the arguably offside goal; the goal that perhaps wasn't.
Fletcher heads off for the debrief in the cramped space on the other side of the ground, Bob and Pam, a tad deflated, wander off to meet the Tamworth sponsors, while the Newport contingent, a tad smug, leave for home. A steward tidies up and warms the food for Nick and his hungry lads. When they arrive, all is revealed. The County winner was...onside or offside?
"I'm happy with the way it went," Nick, gulping a much-needed orange juice and lemonade, says. "It was a hard game to referee; not that there were too many big incidents but that it was hard work because it was end-to-end and physically demanding. It was a case of judging your involvement and picking the right moments. Hopefully, we got that just right today and helped it develop as a great game.
"I think the players respected that and just got on with it. There was very little back-chat, I had a good rapport with most of them and, when they realised what my tolerance level was going to be, they settled down and put on a fantastic display. There was some good banter out there. A really proper game of English football - pulsating, thoroughly enjoyable."
And the winning goal? Absolutely legit and graciously accepted by home manager Law and his goalkeeper, Tony Breeden. "I've not seen it yet," Nick says, "but they both came in and said: 'Well done. Got it spot on'. I'm pleased more for John because it was his decision and, at the time, he was in a credible position to give it. I had no doubt and, from where I was, I felt that the guy who eventually scored had initially started behind the ball, so he was onside.
"What made it worse is that he's gone in for the initial shot and the keeper's parried it. It is that perception of suddenly looking offside. But, of course, you've got to go back to when the ball was played initially, when he was behind it. And that's what has been proved on the video. It's nice to go home knowing that we got the crucial decision correct."
Mystery resolved. Indeed, job done. Well, not completely. Kinseley, from Essex, is on the brink of elevation to the League middle and, after missing out twice, is hoping it is a case of third time lucky - after years of learning his trade in the Southend Sunday Junior and Basildon Sunday leagues, 11 on the line of The Football League and four on the Premier League line.
"It's been a long time but I've been very privileged, I've been all around the country," Nick says. "But I want to referee in The Football League, I always have done, and I've never wavered from that belief. I've had a couple of opportunities for promotion but, unfortunately, they didn't go my way. It's that last jump that has always eluded me but maybe I'm not that far away now.
"You know when you come off the pitch how it's gone. You have to be truthful if you've dropped a ricket, you have to confront those difficult situations and meet them head on. There's no point in backing away and trying to make excuses because it's there on the DVD. There is nowhere to hide."
And there is not - a fact that the players, managers and fans alike should recognise more readily. Fletcher does because he's been there and has got that hard-won t-shirt. He empathises with and encourages, as does his fellow assessors, not only the up-and-coming referees of tomorrow but also those needing a fatherly nudge in the right direction. And yet when tough talking is called for, they will not shirk their responsibilities.
Matches of mayhem? Referees out of control? "Yes, there's one or two a season," Mick says. "It's easy to write a good report, harder to write the difficult ones. But you've got to be constructive in the criticism you give. You're determining people's futures in the game but you've got to be honest with them. Hopefully, they will learn from the advice that we are offering."