'Important day' for Youth League final referee Kavanagh

English match official Chris Kavanagh views his UEFA Youth League final assignment as a key career achievement.

Chris Kavanagh during the UEFA Youth League final
Chris Kavanagh during the UEFA Youth League final UEFA

Chris Kavanagh sees his appointment to referee the UEFA Youth League final not only as an ideal opportunity to gain valuable career experience – but also to use his skills to help the young players themselves to profit from the occasion.

Kavanagh is looking forward eagerly to the prospect of managing potential stars of tomorrow in Tuesday’s big game between Benfica and Real Madrid at Colovray stadium in Nyon.

“I feel a sheer sense of pride at being selected,” says the 34-year-old from Manchester, who began refereeing at the tender age of 13 and has risen up the pyramid to become an established match official in the high-pressure, high-pace environment of the English Premier League.

“It’s an important day for myself and all of the refereeing team – it’s another big step on our career development path, and it’s up to us to perform well on the day.”

Chris Kavanagh began his English Premier League career in 2017.
Chris Kavanagh began his English Premier League career in 2017.ANP Sport via Getty Images

Role as ‘educators’

Kavanagh and his compatriots – assistants Daniel Cook and Sian Massey, and fourth official David Coote – are also acutely aware of their key role in acting as ‘mentors’ to the young players on the field during the final.

“It’s paramount that we help the players through the match as well,” he reflects. “It’s a big experience for them, they’re still learning the game. Of course, our main job is to referee but, where possible, we can still act as ‘educators’ in terms of reminding the players to show respect to the officials and the other team.”

Kavanagh, who still lives in his home region, took up refereeing when his team coach advised him to attend a course while still a young player. “He basically said to me that my brain and feet didn’t coordinate that well as a player! So he told me about this referees’ course. I felt I had nothing to lose, and would learn more about the game and its laws in any case. I did the course, refereed my first game and never looked back…”

Impressive career progress took Kavanagh from local league assignments through the English structure into the Football League and eventually up to the summit, the Premier League, where he made his debut in 2017. His FIFA international badge followed in 2019.

Learn, develop, push on…

“When I started refereeing Football League matches in England, I saw this as an opportunity that I shouldn’t waste,” he says. “It was the time to learn, develop and push on. I felt it was the moment to get really serious about my refereeing and work even harder. When I became a Premier League referee, I was elated at what I’d managed to achieve, not only for myself, but also for my family and others who had helped me along the way.”

Colovray stadium in Nyon hosts Tuesday's UEFA Youth League final
Colovray stadium in Nyon hosts Tuesday's UEFA Youth League finalGetty Images

Of the many attributes needed to be a top referee, Kavanagh has worked on calmness as a key priority. “There’s a lot going on around you, a lot happening in the environment, and if you allow yourself to get caught up in situations, it’s easy to lose your focus,” he explains.

“I find it’s best to step back and remind yourself that you’re there to be in charge of such situations – if you can keep your calm and focus when the pressure is at its highest, then it helps you to find the correct decision to take.”

Howard Webb, the Englishman who took charge of matches at the highest domestic and international levels, including UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup finals, has been a special role model along Kavanagh’s career path. “He was at the top of his game when I was coming through the refereeing ranks,” he says. “The whole package he had – managing players, his movement on the field, how he conducted himself – were things that I looked up to.”

The keen countryside walker, golfer and reader of books on psychology says that the absence of spectators at Premier League matches hasn’t lessened the intensity levels on the pitch. “Of course, you’d like the fans to be there, they add to the drama,” he says. “But I’ve found that the intensity hasn’t changed at all – games are still highly competitive, high in quality and fast-paced.”

Focussing on the final

Total focus and teamwork will be the order of the day at Colovray on Tuesday, “Myself, Dan and Sian officiate regularly as a team, so we know how to work together, and I know David extremely well,” says Kavanagh.

“There might be a few nerves around, honestly speaking, but we’ll prepare calmly for the game. We won’t let the emotion of the occasion take over – we’ll just be looking forward to getting the match under way. There’ll be time afterwards to savour the achievement of refereeing a European final.”

Finally, what advice would Chris Kavanagh give to a youngster who, just as he did at 13, fancies giving refereeing a try? “Go for it! Don’t have any regrets later thinking ‘I should have done it’. If you’re thinking ‘Should I?’… then do it!”