FIVE YEARS ON…
At 19, Whalley’s Oli Robinson is the world’s youngest ever to referee an international amputee football match. David Fearnhead finds out about his rapid ascent from refereeing his first game at the age of 14
“If it wasn’t for asking, ‘What’s the score’, I don’t think we’ve spoken in about 20 years,” comedian John Bishop once quipped about the importance of football in the relationship between a northern father and son.
Like all good humour, there is a strong basis of truth in it. Football is often the glue which allows generations of men to bond. Most of us went to our first match with our fathers, and some of us were lucky enough to go with our grandfathers too.
Such was the case with Oli Robinson. Dad Chris is a big Burnley fan and frequently took Oli to Turf Moor to watch his father’s favourite team. Oli also has good lineage in the sport. His maternal grandfather Brian Wearing was a professional with Scottish club Queen of the South and represented Scotland at youth level.
Meeting up with the two of them, you can instantly see the strong bond. At 75, Brian still has a glint in his eye to show humour is never far away. He tells of playing in four ‘trial matches’ for Queen of the South before they offered him a full contract, to which Oli asks if he was paid. Brian shoots him a look of surprise for even asking such a question: “I’m Scottish,” he says. “Of course they paid me!”
Often when refereeing able-bodied matches in the semi-pro leagues Oli says he’ll spot a familiar face in the crowd. “He never tells me if he’s coming to watch me,” says Oli of his grandad. “I’ll just catch him out of the corner of my eye watching how I’m doing.”
As a player Brian had trials in England with Ipswich Town in an era when the club was playing in the top division of English football, and even held a Scottish record for scoring eight goals in one game. A feat grandson Oli can only admire. “I love football,” says Oli. “But I knew from about the age of 12 that I was never going to make it as a professional.”
“I knew from the age of nine you were never going to make it,” quips Brian.
However, he is genuinely complimentary of his grandson’s refereeing abilities, and it’s not just faint praise. As a former professional, he still takes the game seriously. “He’s a very good referee,” says Brian giving his grandson a wee nudge – Oli, who is sitting next to him is holding out his hand for a tip.
At 14, having played locally, Oli was looking for a new club when dad, Chris suggested he give refereeing a go. Oli contacted the Lancashire FA and did a training course with them. He reffed his first match aged 14, and says the hardest thing to deal with was the antagonistic attitude of some of the parents of the U9s and U10s.
“It’s not right for it to be in the game, but at the same time I liked the pressure and the intensity. It’s not just a bunch of kids kicking a ball around, people really care about it.”
It was Owen Coyle Jnr, son of the former Burnley coach, and now coach of England’s national amputee team who first suggested Oli try refereeing an amputee football match. Chief Referee for the World Amputee Football Federation, Ian Clarke, put him through a crash course before he took on the challenge. Oli admits that first match in charge could have been his last.
“I went up to Glasgow, and I have to be honest I really struggled. It is like a different sport to regular football. It is much harder to referee in my opinion. On the drive back home I just kept thinking of the mistakes I made, but it made me even more determined to get back and do it better.”
Before long Oli was proving to be so adept that he found himself called up on international duty. He travelled to Poland to referee at the Amp Futbol Cup in Warsaw with a global match audience of 80,000 people. A shortage of qualified referees and the language barrier meant that not only did he travel out with the England squad and share the same hotel but he also found himself refereeing some of their matches.
“I tell the England lads I have to be completely neutral and they understand that. If I wasn’t I’d feel like I was cheating the other team and cheating myself.”
Praised for his performances in Poland, Oli hopes to continue his refereeing of both amputee football and make his way up the leagues to be one day be refereeing in the Premier League: “Growing up everyone wants to be a professional footballer, but to be involved in the professional game is almost as good as playing.”