In football matches up and down the country, weekend after weekend, players of all levels will come up against referees who they recognise by face or by name. However, until Jason Jarrett came along, few – if any – will encounter a former teammate with whistle in hand.
Jarrett played more than 250 times in the Football League, the majority of them with Wigan Athletic and Bury, and was part of the Latics squad that earned promotion to the Premier League in the 2004/05 season.
After retiring from the game in 2015, via some time in non-league football, he took the unprecedented step of turning to refereeing, starting out at the very bottom by taking charge of Sunday league games in his native Lancashire.
But while he maintains ex-players can thrive as referees by adding a fresh perspective, he is stepping away from the role after five years. The barriers to success Jarrett has found have helped to shed light on why not a single ex-player has broken through as a referee.
“I started my career at 16 and, including loan deals, I played for 13 different teams. Four of them are currently in the Premier League, and there’s a rule in place where you can’t referee a team you’ve ever played a part for, which makes it quite impossible for an ex-player,” Jarrett explains.
“I’ve tried to explain to them I’m a neutral – I’ve played against teams that I’ve actually played for – and as soon as you step over that white line you don’t care. If you’re going to be biased, especially as a referee, someone’s going to know you’re biased and there’s no hiding place.
“I’ve tried to explain that, but they are the rules and that’s the way it is. Just as an example, in the FA Cup in January I think there was a linesman who couldn’t be assistant referee for a Crystal Palace game because he’d played in a youth game in 1991, so what chance have I got?”
The regulations certainly present ex-players with a challenge. To climb from grassroots refereeing all the way to the Premier League is likely to take even the best performers close to a decade, and that can prove disheartening for those coming from a career where talent can be rewarded with rapid rises from non-league to the top flight.
Jarrett, who was speaking at the premiere of BT Sport Films’ Ref: Stories from the Weekend, acknowledges the importance of establishing a route to the top which doesn’t unfairly fast-track those who have played the game.
He also admits seeing things from the other side has given him a newfound respect for referees in general. However, at the same time, he fears that the existing process could dissuade talented officials from ever coming close to improving the game with their unique perspective.
“I had a great relationship (with the FA) but after five years, nearly, I’m earning £32 per game. That’s after five years in the game and having played it professionally – it’s hard,” he admits.
“If you’re going to start from the bottom, we’re talking nine to 10 years, and you are asking a lot from an ex-professional who’s retired at 34-35 – by the time he’s 44 or 45 to get to the top. It’s a long time.
“I’m not saying [referees] should all be former players, because there are some great referees now, but I do believe we can increase the quality with maybe a couple of ex-players being involved.”
Jarrett speaks highly of the PFA and Gordon Taylor, revealing that he has received plenty of support and that further efforts are being made to assist former players considering a career as a referee. But at the same time he acknowledges there is probably a good reason why no ex-player has refereed a Football League game in his lifetime.
There is an argument that the rules, as they exist now, are not designed to cater for ex-players because there has never been any need to do so. Just one active Premier League referee – Graham Scott – began officiating top-flight matches after the age of 45.
With Jarrett’s estimate of players retiring in their mid-thirties and then taking ten years to rise through the ranks, the outlook hardly looks positive for anyone wishing to go down that route.
Still, the PFA does seem to recognise that players can offer something fresh, launching courses for ex-players looking to move into officiating after retirement, and Jarrett seems self-aware when it comes to acknowledging the positives and negatives of fast-tracking those wishing to follow in his footsteps.
“It definitely helped me, being a player, because I think I knew the mindset. I learned very quickly before the game to get them on my side, and know how players react before the tackle’s even made and I can have a vibe about how the game’s going on and talk to [players]. I did get a lot more respect because I’d played the game, and that really helped,” he adds.
“Number one, I think you have to make the right decisions, but I do think people would respect your decisions more because of you being an ex-player. When I started out I think one or two people were surprised to see me refereeing games but it definitely helped with the respect they showed me. They can’t turn around and say “ref you don’t know what you’re doing” when I’ve had 16 years as a professional.
“I was always good at sensing before anything could happen so there’s very rarely any sendings off in my games. Usually a sending off is [due to] something building up over time, and people don’t nip it in the bud quick enough, and I was very good at doing that I think.
“It’s not as easy as you think, but I do think there are some ex-players out there who could do a very good job and help to improve the game as well.”
While Jarrett seems resigned to the fact that he doesn’t see himself returning to refereeing unless some major (and majorly unlikely) changes come into force in the near future, he hopes the idea of ex-players moving into refereeing doesn’t start and end with him.
To that end, he remains keen to play a role with the PFA, even if that doesn’t involve him taking charge of games. There is definitely enthusiasm from current players, even those attached to league clubs who might not need the financial reward, and Jarrett can certainly claim to have broken new ground even without refereeing in the league himself.
“Of course it’s going to be a pull to be a part of the Premier League and Champions League, refereeing at Old Trafford and stuff, especially when you’ve played the game as well,” he says.
“But at the moment a lot of them are struggling to see the pathway there.”
Watch ‘Ref: Stories from the Weekend’ on BT Sport 1 from 23.00 on Tuesday 18th April.