Why a fast-track system is needed for players to take up the whistle – Doncaster Rovers defender Andy Butler

Doncaster Rovers' Andy Butler: Had designs on becoming a referee.
Doncaster Rovers' Andy Butler: Had designs on becoming a referee.
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As an unemployed footballer nearly a decade ago, Doncaster-born Andy Butler tried all manner of jobs to make ends meet.

Discarded by Huddersfield Town in the summer of 2010, Butler combined looking for a new club with trying his hand at plumbing as well as being a locksmith.

But it was a job within the game that captured his imagination – refereeing.

So much so that after a month of being without a club – long enough as most 27-year-old footballers will tell you – Butler took his new-found interest in refereeing with him when he signed for Walsall.

“I loved the game and wanted to stay in it somehow,” says Butler, now 35 and back in his native Doncaster as a mainstay of the Rovers’ defence.

“I spoke to a guy called Phil Reed and he told me to come down and take an exam. I did and I really enjoyed it.

“So I started refereeing in the Wolverhampton area in between my time at Huddersfield and Walsall.”

Butler enjoyed it so much that he refereed on Sunday afternoons for five years, steadily making his way up the footballing pyramid.

He was now 32, and at Doncaster after a spell with Sheffield United. Thoughts were starting to turn towards what he might do when his playing days were over.

Refereeing was something Butler enjoyed and something he could pursue – or at least that is what he thought.

Because his day job of a footballer prevented him going any further.

“I refereed at Wolverhampton Counties and got to Level 5,” he explains, “but was never encouraged to go any further because I couldn’t commit to the games I wanted to referee at.

“I couldn’t commit to the Saturday games, basically, because I was playing on a Saturday.”

Butler was hitting his head against a glass ceiling.

“Personally, I found that the pathway makes it incredibly difficult for players to get into refereeing,” says Butler, who knew of another professional footballer who was similarly restricted.

“I spent five, six years doing Sunday League football and got to Level 5 and then got told I couldn’t get any higher.

“If I wanted to try and get experience and get to where I wanted to be as a referee it would have taken another five or six years.

“I’m 35 now, I want to keep playing as long as I can. It’s just not feasible to become a referee because you’d have to get another job before you made it as a ref.”

Should there be a fast track for current or former professionals?

“I’m not saying players should be treated differently,” says Butler, “but there’s only so many Sunday League matches you can do before Sunday League matches start getting repetitive and you can’t test yourself at the higher level on a Saturday.

“But I do believe the pathway should be quicker. Twenty games a season doesn’t sound a lot, but is a lot when you have time commitments.

“I think there should be some way to circumvent it. I’m not sure how, but there’s maybe some way in which the PFA [Professional Footballers’ Association] and the officiating bodies can get together and discuss it.”

Would professional footballers make good referees?

How many times when referees are in the spotlight – seemingly every weekend – has the idea been mooted or the thought crossed the mind that players would do a better job than most referees?

Players know the game better than anyone. They know the tricks players might try to pull to con the referee. They are in the condition of professional footballers.

Officiating savants such as Keith Hackett have said in the past more players should become referees.

“I believe ex-pros would give something, yes,” adds Butler. “They wouldn’t necessarily make the best referees because the Referees’ Association has an academy so the guys coming into it are getting younger and younger, and fair play to them.

“So I’m not saying they’re going to be better, but surely there’s an input that players can have.

“In rugby there are ex-players in refereeing roles. I’m sure we could learn off both, we’d give our advice and they’d give theirs.”

Two years after putting down the whistle, Butler would not even return now to the level he had reached and may even have to go back another rung or two, should he choose to give it another go.

But that is unlikely. There is a hint of bitterness when he says: “I believe refereeing is done for me, as disappointing as that is.”

Instead Butler has taken up coaching, facilitated by his home-town club who had him coaching Under-12s and Under-13s before stepping up to Rovers’ Under-16s.

“I find that really enjoyable watching the kids progress,” he says.

“One door closed, but another opened.”