As Euro 2016 comes to a close, we talk to a football referee and wheelchair user Nathan Mattick. Find out how he got into football, how his disability affects him and the reaction he’s had from the footballers and crowds.
When did you first discover football refereeing and what or who got you into it?
I have always loved football and wanted to be a referee from the age of 8. My dad and I were watching a match on TV when I noticed the role of the referee for the first time. I said to my dad: “Why can’t I do that some day?” After that my dream was to become a referee.
At my secondary school I couldn’t get involved in sport that much, but at National Star College, where I studied sport for a BTEC Level 3 qualification, I could participate in lots of activities. The program is fantastic and my disability wasn’t a barrier at all.
When I said I wanted to be a referee the sports staff at National Star, they didn’t hesitate to say I could give it a go and see how it went. They subsequently got in touch with Gloucestershire Football Association, where I now work, and in 2014 I became the Football Association’s first wheelchair-using referee in Britain.
As a child were you always more intrigued by football refereeing than the football?
I fell in love with football from a very young age and I was always intrigued by refereeing. I never wanted to play wheelchair football – I always wanted to be in charge of the game!
How and who helped you develop in this field, and what facilities were offered to you as a disabled person seeking to become a football referee?
The sports team at National Star played a huge part. When I told senior tutor Julian Ralph about my dream to referee he simply said: “Let’s give it a go.” As I was based at the college where we have accessible sports, I didn’t really need any additional facilities. Gloucestershire Football Association helped me with the course and the staff there have been very, very supportive.
What have footballers and spectators’ reactions been to you?
I was really nervous the first time I refereed. I thought the players and managers would give me a hard time because I am in a wheelchair and that they would question why I was refereeing an able-bodied football match. But I had no problems from players.
I’ve had some spectators question how I can be a referee when I am in a wheelchair, but it doesn’t bother me. Some people have said: “You’re in a chair, how can you keep up with players running?” When I get these sorts of comments I just invite them to watch me ref.
In many ways I get less hassle on the pitch than I do in everyday life. On the pitch I am the referee first and foremost. The fact that I am in a powerchair is secondary. When you’ve got that whistle and cards people know exactly who’s in charge!
Do you think the image society has of disabled people makes it harder to progress and succeed in football?
Sometimes yes. It’s easier for people to focus on what we can’t do rather than on what we can do. However, people with disabilities can often do what able-bodied people do, we just do it in a different way. For me it’s all about having the confidence to give it a go and, with the encouragement of the staff at National Star I thought; “why not?”
What’s the weirdest or wildest match you’ve refereed?
One situation that I remember was when one of the players scored a goal and celebrated by taking his shirt off. I booked him.
How has refereeing benefited you?
It’s been great for my confidence and I have had so many positive comments. It has opened so many doors for me. If you don’t speak to anyone about your dreams, or what you want to achieve, then you will get nowhere.
What do you envisage for yourself as a referee in the future?
Ideally I would like to continue my refereeing in any way I can. Hopefully I can move up the grading structure over the coming years as I gain more match experience. I would also love to support and encourage other people with disabilities who want to become referees.
How accessible is football refereeing in your view for people with disability – to study, have a career in or even as a spectator?
My local football association has proven with me that it is open to having more referees with disabilities. I would love to see disabled referees in more prominent matches, ideally in the Premier League.
It is up to people to ask and to chase their dreams though.
What advice would you give to a disabled person who has a passion for football but not the facilities or support to pursue this passion?
Make it happen. Believe in yourself and talk to people.
By Raya AlJadir