"Learn and enjoy" is the motto for the up-and-coming officials at the UEFA Regions' Cup, with referee observer Ray Ellingham telling UEFA.com he is more mentor than judge.
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The UEFA Regions' Cup is an important stage for the competition's match officials, but Ray Ellingham says UEFA's referee observers are here to help and encourage as much as to assess performances.
"You can see sometimes that the newer referees have fear in their faces when they first meet the referee observers and the first thing they call me is 'Mr Ellingham'," the sunny former Welsh Premier League referee told UEFA.com. "I always say: 'Call me Ray.' It's their game – we are just here to give advice. There's nothing worse than a referee going on the pitch and worrying: 'Where's the observer'?"
The four observers at the amateur championships will have their say in appointing the refereeing team for Saturday's final – potentially an important staging post towards the top levels of European football – but "learn and enjoy" remains Ellingham's motto for the 16 up-and-coming officials from 15 nations who have come to the finals. "We want them to enjoy it," he said. "The first meeting can be quite daunting, but it gets a lot better and now we are really talking."
All employed in their domestic top tiers, the officials are eager to make the next step up. Having reached this level, they have already proved their ability, but 52-year-old Ellingham knows there is an enormous amount they can still learn, from the observers and each other. At the finals, referee trainers ensure they are maintaining the right fitness regimes, while the observers host practical sessions, where the team watch and discuss video footage of thought-provoking match incidents.
From Sunday onwards, they also watched highlights from their own performances. "We edit the game footage and after the referees have an individual debrief with their observer, we come together for an open discussion where we show clips to the whole group; some of them positive, others learning points," explained Ellingham. "Control is important, and respect and man management. And it's getting the big, game-changing decisions right."
Crucial to that learning experience is the knowledge that the officials are among friends. Many of them met for the first time on Thursday, but they have already formed a tight group. "They have really bonded well, and having come together as total strangers, I am sure there will be strong friendships after the tournament," said Ellingham, who is now well established as an observer and referee fitness expert in Wales.
Key to that supportive environment are the observers themselves; they may all have hung up their whistles, but as Ellingham knows, they have lost none of their passion for the profession. "It's quite sad," said the self-confessed "rubbish footballer" who found his calling as a match official. "Even when I am watching a game on the television, I will sit there and say 'yellow', 'foul', 'offside'. All the observers here are still referees at heart – it's just that our legs are not as quick as they used to be!"