By Russell Kempson

For Darren Sheldrake, at the tender age of 16, the refereeing bug had bitten deep. He was taking charge of two games on a Friday night, a match on a Saturday and one on a Sunday. And if the chance came along, a game on a Wednesday as well.

He was filling his boots and not just on the man in black front, either.

"I suppose, back then, I was getting about £20 a game," Darren recalled. "I must have been one of the richest 16-year-olds around. And I also did a paper round. I was really greedy then. It was fun, great fun. And yes, the money was pretty good as well."

As if he didn't have enough on his sporting plate, Surrey-based Darren still played, too - as a goalkeeper for PD United in the Guildford and Shere League.

"I enjoyed playing and I enjoyed refereeing," he said. "But once the refereeing became a bit more serious, when I was 18, I stopped playing. I began to realise that I might possibly carve out a career as a referee."

Adding to Sheldrake's workload, he started a four-year teaching degree at St Mary's University College in Twickenham. Combining studying with refereeing had its tricky moments, too, but he managed.

"The college was very supportive," he said. "It was a bit of a balancing act sometimes but I was nearly always able to get away whenever I needed to."

Getting away frequently and impressing out in the middle resulted in swift progress up the ladder, through the Combined Counties, Ryman and Southern leagues, Conference South and the Conference Premier. On to The Football League line in 2005 and, three years later, into the middle.

"I wouldn't say it was fast-tracking but I suppose it was all pretty quick," Darren said. "I set myself a minimum aim to get on the League line and, when I'd achieved it, I was obviously well chuffed. There was perhaps one season when I did struggle a bit but it's all about finding your feet at every new level."

Coincidentally, both of his debuts - with the flag and whistle - came at Whaddon Road, the home of Cheltenham Town.

"I wasn't nervous on the line," he said. "I was just looking forward to it and had a thoroughly good day. But when I refereed for the first time, for that one, I did have a few nerves. I think I just wanted to get it over with."

As every up-and-coming referee, Sheldrake, 29, has had setbacks along the way. Towards the end of his second season with the whistle, he tore a tendon in his left knee, missed the remainder of the campaign and had to rely on his wife Rachel to ease his bad moods on all those inactive Saturday afternoons. "It was very frustrating," Darren said, "but Rachel was marvellous."

Sheldrake's father Dave has been inspirational, too. He started his son on the road to whistledom at just 14 and remains active himself in the Ryman and Southern leagues. This year, at 55, he became one of the oldest referees to be promoted to Level 3. "He's still trying to catch me up," Sheldrake Jr joked.

Darren, a PE teacher of 11 to 16-year-olds at Teddington School in Middlesex, is often on the opposite end of the banter. "I do get a bit of stick from some of the kids, especially on Mondays after I've done a weekend game," he said. "But it's all in jest. Mind you, when I've refereed the school matches, I have had a lad say to me: 'Are you sure you ref in the Championship?'"

Richard Weeks, the Teddington head teacher, is rather more respectful. "He's more of a rugby fan," Sheldrake said, "but he's always asking me how I've been getting on, chatting through the ups and downs and generally being very helpful. It's something you really appreciate."

Sheldrake is clearly on an onwards and upwards path. And should the Select Group come knocking with a chance to join the Premier League elite, he would grab it with both hands. His love of cricket, watching England and Surrey, has had to take a back seat for a while and getting his golf handicap down from 20 might have to be put on hold, too.

Yet all in a good cause. "The sky's the limit," Darren said. "Well, hopefully. To be asked to join the Select Group would be fantastic. I really would go for that. If it comes along, great. If not, then I'll carry on refereeing and enjoying myself. But if it did, just think - no more having to deal with all those stroppy adolescents."