In the latest in a new series of articles, Angela Kelly talks to local sportsmen and women about their love and commitment to their chosen sport. This week, it is up-and-coming referee Michael Barlow.
DON’T be surprised if one day you turn on your television to watch ‘Match of the Day’ and Bolton referee Michael Barlow is in charge of a Premiership fixture.
The Lostock man, still only 21, is considered one of the brightest North-West hopes – having leapt up the refereeing rankings in this difficult role.
All of which might have been a surprise to the talented left-midfielder and captained first his football team at Beaumont Primary School and then at Westhoughton High School as well as playing for Ladybridge FC from eight to 18. “No, I don’t suppose refereeing was on my mind then,” he admits.
What changed was when he was 14 and looking for some pocket money. His dad, Warren who is chairman of Bolton and Bury District Junior Football League, encouraged him to try match refereeing instead. “Well, at £20 a game, it paid more than a paper round,” explains Michael.
He took a basic referee’s course, registered with the Lancashire Football Association, and his first match was an under-12s clash between a team from his own club and Hindley Town. “I was a bundle of nerves,” he recalls, “but it all went off okay.”
The baby-faced youngster did get the odd comment about his age from spectators but he took on more matches and gained new skills, progressing well.
At 16, however, refereeing levels began at level nine and this was also the time that he could be in charge of adult games.
As a 14 and 15-year-old, he had already been qualified to run the line in adult matches but had found Lancashire Amateur League fixtures sometimes daunting.
“These were men. I was a shy lad and quite intimidated by them,” he said.
However, by then a member of the Bolton Referee Society and all the expertise and support this entailed, he relied on his training and his even temperament to get through.
There were, though, many challenging moments. “I remember dishing out my first yellow card in an adult match,” he states. “This player had sworn at me so I automatically pulled out the card. I felt much better after that – and I had no more trouble in the game!”
Travelling to matches around Bolton, Bury and Manchester on his scooter, the youngster gained good experience, all backed by support from his family, the Lancashire FA and the Referee Society and well-known names there like Lee Mason, Mark Halsey and Darren Handley.
The training on application and law, match control and fitness also progressed and he was given better games to look after. It was not all, however, sweetness and light. Michael recalls one game where an off-the-field grudge spilled onto the pitch, resulting in a free-for-all with fists flying. “I blew my whistle but nothing happened. So I picked up the ball and abandoned the match – with five minutes to go,” he says. “I sat in the dressing room for half an hour, worried to death I’d done the right thing. The home side appealed to the Lancashire FA but they backed my decision.”
Michael’s balanced approach, often in the face of player dissent, has helped him swiftly through the rankings. He was picked up for the Lancs FA’s Young Potential Scheme for under-18s and became the youngest in the Lancs FA’s history to referee a cup match.
He has refereed cup finals and been the man in charge at games at grounds like Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium, and at 17 was Bolton Bury and District Football League’s senior referee of the year.
He gained a double promotion from level six to four – a rarity, all involving careful assessment and monitoring over several matches – and is now part of the North-West Development group for referees.
At level three, he would be able to run a line at Conference North matches and he has his sights firmly set higher. “I’d love to be a Championship and then Premiership referee,” he said.
“I was a shy lad and this has given me so much confidence. I’d love to referee full-time, and by 24 or 25 I just might be, but I’d never have come this far without so much support.”