“You imagine most people have forgotten about you already. The impact you had. Forgotten the games you refereed, the big names you kept under control and, on occasion, man-handled.”
Newcastle fans, Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan aside, it may well be the case that Uriah Rennie may not have a prominent place in most football fans’ psyches, but aside from the universally admired Pierluigi Collina, few referees perhaps do – unless it’s for the wrong reasons. Yet, Rennie is the subject chosen by Ashley Hickson-Lovence for a fictionalised depiction of his life in Your Show and far from being an odd or miscellaneous choice, Rennie is perhaps one of the most important, ground-breaking and significant people in the history of the game – the Premier League’s first and only black referee.
The job of a referee is a largely thankless task; nobody wants to be a ref, the old adage goes. Whatever happens, the man or woman in the middle is always going to disappoint someone: if not the home fans, the away fans, if not one manager, the other, if not one player, another. Yet football wouldn’t exist without them (unless someone invents a fully-automated post-human VAR system, which, quite frankly, is the stuff of dystopian nightmares), and whilst it’s easy to pick apart their errors and call out their mistakes, to lambast their decisions and fling judgements their way, the job of a referee is a difficult one that often goes unappreciated. As with so much these days, we are quick to remember and point out the bad, but unwilling to flag (pun intended) the good. There’s also an irony in that when a referee does a good job, he’s all the more inconspicuous, it’s only when one is deemed to have made a poor decision (or decisions) that he becomes prominent. So, no wonder, we ask ourselves who wants this job. But amongst the annals of football history, alongside the names of clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, of players such as Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry and Vincent Kompany, managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Bobby Robson and Jurgen Klopp, sits the name of Uriah Rennie, referee. It’s not a bad place to find oneself, despite the ignominy that goes with the turf. Neither, too, is stepping out at Wembley, Villa Park, Elland Road, keeping pace with Michael Owen, standing up to Roy Keane or watching Wayne Rooney make his debut, all of which Uriah Rennie can claim on his CV under the seemingly inglorious title referee. Hmm, who wants to be a referee?
It’s a long-standing taunt that referees are those who couldn’t play football, who were picked last in the playground, but Ashley Hickson-Lovence’s fictional account of Uriah Rennie’s story takes readers back to the very start, depicting a naturally gifted, all-round athlete, good at football, but who was captivated by the art of refereeing, a man who in his career at the top of the game would be cited as ‘the fittest referee we have ever seen on the national and world scene’. It’s a reminder of the physical demands on officials at the top level, and what this book does incredibly well is to make readers see refereeing through fresh eyes. Yes, referees are human and make mistakes, yes, decisions are subjective, but there is a skill, an art, a practice to refereeing. It’s not just a case of flashing a card, blowing a whistle and having a word, it’s about positioning, premeditating, peacekeeping. It’s not just about keeping up with some of the fittest athletes in the world for 90 minutes, but making sure you’re in the right place at the right time to make the best decisions for those 90 minutes. It’s not just about cautioning players for taking off a shirt in exuberance, it’s about upholding the laws of the game. And the book really puts the reader in the ref’s boots and gives an insight into this little-understood yet much-maligned world.
The depiction of Uriah is a rounded one; it is clear that Rennie, in Hickson-Lovence’s portrait, is ambitious and hungry to make his mark, but it’s equally as clear that he’s fair and honest, hard-working and disciplined. There is a very single-minded, pragmatic feel to the book, which is in keeping with the image of Uriah the referee throughout, but the finale especially goes behind this facade and uncovers more of the man – a man who is private, gracious, community-minded and generous. It is hard not to admire, respect and relate to Uriah Rennie in Hickson-Lovence’s depiction, although the emphasis on Newcastle United and Rennie’s perhaps unhealthy affiliation with them may not do much to temper Magpies fans. I found myself, though, really feeling for Rennie in his demotion, his struggles with injury and being overlooked for the biggest of matches and his failed FA Cup dream. Again, it’s a reminder that while playing in the top flight, stepping out for finals and gracing the world stage is a dream of football players, it’s also a dream for referees too, and far fewer make it, in reality. Like a footballer’s career, life at the top is short-lived, if lived at all, by the majority of referees and it doesn’t come with the perks or glamour of the stars. Referees fade into oblivion or remain in ignominy, but few, if any, are remembered and celebrated. Uriah Rennie’s rise to the top, then, is an achievement in itself, and one that the book celebrates. However, there is also no escaping the fact that Rennie remains the only black referee to have officiated in the Premier League. Another sad testimony to how little the game and society have progressed despite the continued lip service to do so.
Lovence-Hickson’s book is a real breath of fresh air, not just in his chosen subject matter – who wants to be a referee? – but in its style and delivery too, which is short, sharp, punchy and poetic – echoing both the pace and passion of the beautiful game. And there is no denying that the book gives pause for thought, about the man or woman in the middle. It’s so easy for them to become the dehumanised antagonist, the one at whom the finger is pointed, blame is attributed, vitriol is flung, but they’re just people doing their job, people who’ve worked hard to get to where they are and who have pride and professionalism. It’s easy to sit on the side-lines and pick fault, but it’s not so easy to stand in the middle and make the important decisions.
Who wants to be a referee? Those who have the determination and discipline to reach the top, those who have the courage and conviction to make the hard decisions, and yes, those who perhaps have a little bit of ego and eagerness to put some of the biggest characters in the world in their place. Uriah Rennie, Ashley Hickson-Lovence’s book suggests, was such a man, and he and those who’ve gone before him and those who follow in his footsteps should not be so easily dismissed or forgotten. After all, love them or loathe them at times, without them, a football match simply couldn’t be played. So the next time, a ref makes a clanger, just serenely ask yourself who wants to be a referee… unless, of course, it’s against your team!
(Publisher: Faber & Faber. April 2022, Hardcover: 336 pages)
Buy here: Your Show