Monday 30, January 2012
Hunter packs his whistle for mainland Europe
Referee Arnold Hunter swaps the Fermanagh and Western leagues for the UEFA big time. Sean Monaghan reports from Northern Ireland.
It has been an eventful start to the season for referee Arnold Hunter.
In the space of a year, he has gone from officiating in the local leagues around the Fermanagh area, to being the man in the middle for games in the Europa League.
Quite a change of scenery for the dairy farmer from Maguiresbridge then, but how did the interest in refereeing come about in the first place for Arnold?
"A broken collarbone ended my goalkeeping days as a player,” he explains.
“I missed the camaraderie during my time out of football. It was at this time my uncle, George Parkinson, broached the idea of refereeing. George was an ex-referee himself and one of the founders of the Fermanagh and Western Referees' Association.
“He suggested I take the referees’ beginners course, and I couldn't really say no to my uncle!"
Arnold's first game as a referee was in December 2001 between Lisnaskea Thirds and Lisnarick Reserves, something he had very mixed feelings about at the time.
"My first game was a very daunting and exciting experience rolled into one,” he recalls.
“However, at the end of the match, I was pleased with the positive feedback I got from both teams' captains, that was heartening to hear for sure. It was a different experience being outfield after my days as a goalkeeper, that's for sure."
A lot has changed for the Fermanagh man since his refereeing debut 10 years ago. Working his way up through the UEFA ranks over the past few seasons has seen the hard work well and truly pay off.
Arnold has already officiated in four Europa League games across Europe this season, as well as refereeing a FIFA U21 game between the Republic of Ireland and Austria. But what does he believe are the main differences between the local game and the European stage?
"The obvious difference is the massive crowds that the European games attract,” he says.
“The Club Brugge vs Qarabag game, for example, had over 25,000 people at it. Also, the amount of cameras at the games is crazy. At one particular match, there were 32 cameras pitch-side to broadcast around Europe."
It's not just the attendances and publicity that's different. Arnold talks of the sheer scale of paperwork and preparation that goes into every game in Europe.
"There's considerably more work behind the scenes both before and after the game in Europe,” he says.
“For example, there's security meetings which include briefings with emergency services, TV reporters, team representatives, UEFA delegate, and also a post match DVD analysis of the game. The amount of work that goes into games is huge."
Arnold knows that he is under pressure each game to perform, as every referee is watched and monitored by ex-FIFA referees.
"They assess your performance both on and off the pitch every game,” explains Arnold.
“Their assessment on your performance determines what future games you get. I've been lucky that my games have gone well, enabling me to progress on to the next rounds of the Europa League."
So everything is moving along nicely for the man in black, but what of his aspirations as a referee?
"I want to get as much experience as possible, giving consistent performances with a view to moving up the FIFA rankings enabling me to referee at an even higher level.
"Referees in the Fermanagh and Western are doing well and are being recognised in Europe, with Richard Storey joining the FIFA Assistants panel this year, and another assistant, Tony Sharkey, being on the UEFA core programme.
“It would be nice to see a full Fermanagh team of officials travelling to Europe together in the not so distant future. That would be something special."
Next up for Arnold is a game a bit closer to home in the Irish League between Ballymena and Linfield. He believes every game right now is equally as important as the next as he strives to progress in the refereeing world.
Says Arnold: "For me, every game is a big game and you want to perform your best for those teams, no matter what league."
The Maguiresbridge man is keen for anyone interested in becoming an official to get involved in an upcoming event.
"There is a beginners course starting early October in the Aisling Centre in Enniskillen,” he points out.
“Anyone that wants to get involved, just come along, and you'll be looked after. It really is a worthwhile experience."
This season is certain to provide Arnold Hunter with more chances in the Europa League and, who knows, he could well be on our screens on a more permanent basis in the near future.
Whistle at the ready, Mr. Hunter.
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