Students in control of the Intra Mural whistle

Students who officiate intramural matches could be the referees of the future Image: Wikimedia Commons

Intra Mural football is renowned for its banter and its pun-tastic team names, with competitive spirit encouraged but not necessarily compulsory. But amid the chaos of your Murder on Zidane’s Floors vs your Jesmond Tutu FCs there’s a trainee official who could one day wind up refereeing the Champions League.

For the past three years Newcastle has played host to one of a network of referee hubs, run in partnership with BUCS and the FA, to train and support the next generation of football referees.

The Newcastle Referee Hub is overseen by the Sports Centre’s Participation and Events Manager, Denis Murphy. What Murphy doesn’t know about Intra Mural sport at Newcastle isn’t worth knowing, and he organises the dozens of Intra Mural fixtures that take place every week in the likes of netball, rugby and football 11s, 7s and 5s.

“We try to run the Intra Mural leagues in a good organised professional manner,” Murphy explained. “The teams set the standard, they set the enthusiasm and the dedication,” while Murphy and his team ensure that pitches are ready, changing rooms available and all the facilities in place for the teams to showcase their talent, or lack thereof.

Because of this focus on quality it’s important that the student referees take their role seriously, and Murphy expects dedication from the students at the Referee Hub. “I love getting students involved in it,” he said, “but then it’s important that they’re refereeing for the right reasons.”

For the past three years Newcastle has played host to one of a network of referee hubs

Whether students come to Murphy as fully qualified referees or as complete beginners hoping to master the finer points of the Laws of the Game, he’ll ensure they get as much experience as possible refereeing Intra Mural matches.

Indeed, the sporting programme offers a perfect training ground for wet-behind-the-ears referees. “There’s not many spectators,” Murphy pointed out, while there is a good range of sporting abilities on show. “It’s a bit trickier if you’re going to Saturday afternoons or Sunday morning games that are maybe of a higher standard or a bit more physical, with a bit more rivalry involved.”

Officiating just Intra Mural matches will only get you so far, and progressing through the FA’s refereeing levels would require experience of a wider range of matches, but Intra Mural is a great place for trainees to start.

After a two-day training course and several weeks’ of match experience wannabe referees are assessed by the FA and, if successful, earn their Level 7 badge.

At this point Murphy will allocate them to a few Intra Mural fixtures so they can test out what they’ve learnt: “I’ll give them games in the league to give them experience and to build up their confidence and to help them understand what they’ve just learnt in the course and apply it to the field.

“When you do your course it all seems ok but then when you go on there and you’ve got 22 people challenging you and questioning you, that’s when it gets tricky.”

He added that this is the point at which trainee referees find out if it’s really for them, with some students in particular finding it difficult to remain impartial when trying to referee their friends’ matches. And even without this pressure refereeing requires a tough skin. As Murphy said, even at Intra Mural level “you always get stick, no matter what you do, and you’ve just got to be able to handle that.”

That said, Murphy pointed out that it’s not so much the major decisions, which are always going to come down to opinion and remain controversial, as the smaller things that are the key to successful refereeing.

“It’s about making sure the Intra Mural games are good for the students,” he explained. “That they get a good experience, it’s refereed well, it’s refereed in a good manner so they feel safe, they’re not getting tackled left right and centre with no protection.”

And as for the referees themselves, Murphy expects them to be on time and to speak to the players “in the correct manner”.

“It’s not Sunday morning football where they need to be aggressive and nasty,” he said, adding slightly optimistically “students don’t cause much problem at all in the game”.

As well as training up new referees, the Referee Hub offers opportunities for newly qualified refs to gain experience as well. In fact, students coming to university having already passed their tests are a bonus for Murphy, because he knows that they’re keen.

The mix of new recruits and old hands helps to keep the Intra Mural programme running smoothly all year round

Regardless of where the students earn their qualification the Referee Hub is there to support them. Murphy speaks to the captains after each match to get their assessment of the refereeing, before sitting down with the referees themselves to give them some tips and areas for improvement.

The trainees are also mentored by a band of more experienced referees, who are often locally based and may dabble in officiating Sunday league matches as well as the University’s Intra Mural fixtures.

This mix of new recruits and old hands helps to keep the Intra Mural programme running smoothly all year round. Murphy tries to give students at the Hub as many matches as they can fit into their schedules, before filling in the gaps with his trusty team of regulars. In this way even the most tinpot of Intra Mural teams still gets a competent and committed referee.

To most of the students taking part, Intra Mural football is a bit of fun on a Tuesday evening or the like, but to sporting bodies such as the FA and BUCS it’s an important way of encouraging wider participation in sport. Likewise the spread of new Refereeing Hubs like the one here at Newcastle is one step towards strengthening grassroots football and ensuring that there’s still enough referees to go round in the decades to come.

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