Shock, delight, honour – that was referee Martin Atkinson's reaction to being awarded the 2015 UEFA Europa League final, and now he has come to terms with his appointment he has no doubt Wednesday's match represents the pinnacle of his officiating career. "The first reaction was shock, then absolutely delighted. It's a massive honour for me and for my family and for English refereeing. So I was shocked and then very honoured and very proud," he told UEFA.com.
For Atkinson, his 68th UEFA assignment – FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk v Sevilla FC in Warsaw – is unquestionably the biggest yet. "The fact it's a European final, the highest I can referee, definitely! I've been very lucky that domestically I have done all the finals in England, so to get this UEFA final is a massive honour," he explained.
The Bradford-born official also becomes the fourth referee from his native Yorkshire to take charge of a European final. "It could be in the water, it could be in the tea!" Whatever the reason, Atkinson will be glad of his experience as fourth official to fellow Yorkshireman Howard Webb at the 2010 UEFA Champions League final in Madrid. "That was great to be involved, hopefully that will stand me in good stead. But I speak to Howard a lot, we've obviously spoken about this one and I'm sure we'll talk again."
Clearly Webb, who retired last year, remains an influence. "I've always had targets and I've always had people I've admired. I think there's no greater role model than Howard Webb – when you look at what he's achieved, then the fact he's not even changed in the slightest from what he was ten years ago."
Atkinson himself began refereeing at 15 because "we were short in the local league". "I'm ambitious and I think once you start on the refereeing ladder, you're just looking to progress as quickly as you can," he said. "I'm very fortunate that this season has finished where it has: to finish on a major final is a massive honour."
An international referee since 2006, Atkinson has handled one UEFA Europa League match and eight UEFA Champions League games this term, including the Juventus-Real Madrid CF semi-final first leg. There'll be no stage fright at the National Stadium. "I think the qualities are to be calm, to be relaxed, to enjoy the occasion," said the 44-year-old, a keen golfer. "And the big thing for us is that we're there to do a job. We're there to officiate the game and to referee it for football. It's about being calm, enjoying the occasion, but doing our job as well."
To that end, he arrives in the Polish capital having studied all four semi-final matches, "looking at tactics, formations and preparing myself correctly – it's all about the build-up, making sure we're aware of the different set plays, corners, free-kicks ... that's just the start!"
Come Wednesday night he will be leading out three teams: the two finalist clubs, plus his officiating crew of assistants Michael Mullarkey – assistant to Webb in the 2010 UEFA Champions League final and the FIFA World Cup decider the same year – and Stephen Child, fourth official Pavel Královec (from the Czech Republic) and additional assistant referees Anthony Taylor and Andre Marriner. "It's a very important time when you walk out, that you set the right tone. There's a little bit of nervousness, but certainly confidence when you walk out, knowing this is your game, you're in charge of this.
"I'm very lucky that the two assistants I work with are top assistant referees. And the additional assistants behind the goals are both experienced match officials, so to have that security of a big team really does make it a lot more secure for me."
And his hopes for the final? "That everybody comes away having enjoyed a great game of football where we've had respect towards each opponent and towards the match officials. And for us, certainly for me personally, if nobody remembers the referee then it's a job well done. I think that's a big thing for all referees: if we come away and everybody's talking about a game of football, then fantastic. That will make my evening."
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