Sitting in a Costa Coffee in Leicester, pouring out a second cup of tea, dressed in a casual polo, jeans and Converse trainers, Premier League referee Kevin Friend ponders which anecdote from his vast repertoire is his personal favourite. A wry smile spreads across his face as he decides upon a particular incident that is possibly the most amusing, although not at the time!
“I got knocked out. At Leyton Orient, about eight years ago,” says Friend, setting the scene, “I awarded a goal kick, no problems, turned to run back into position and ran straight into the defender, well his elbow, and was fully unconscious for about a minute!” The referee sighs, reminiscing over the events that unfolded. “They got smelling salts to get me to come around and brought the stretcher onto the pitch for me,” he pauses and Friend’s face is transformed from a joyful smile to an expression of deadly seriousness. He looks me in the eye, “Josh. I was not going to get on that stretcher. Never. No way in a million years.” The flashes of the humiliation and embarrassment that would have ensued are enough to make us both break into laughter instantaneously. However hurt he was, Friend was conscious enough to recognise the repercussions that would entail upon his dignity should he accept the assistance of a stretcher!
Friend proceeded to describe some slightly fonder moments of his career to date; his promotion into the elite group of referees in the country (the top 17 out of 30,000 referees), refereeing the Community Shield in 2012 and the Capital One Cup final at Wembley in 2013. However, the 44-year-old has aspirations to referee the ultimate match in English football: the FA Cup final. “That’s the one you dream of as a referee. Just like the players, it’s the pinnacle. You can’t beat that!”
After taking up refereeing 30 years ago, Friend’s composure and authority on the field has seen him rise through the ranks, but not without some criticism. “We [referees] can make over 250 decisions in a game and we’re bound to get decisions wrong. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes just as players do and when we make mistakes, it hurts.” The referee’s passion for his job is evident as he explains that he and his colleagues want to perform well just like the players and that the theory that they want the limelight is completely false. The changes in football, especially the astronomical media influence today, has inflated the pressure on referees massively. “Every decision is inspected and scrutinised using all 30 camera angles,” Friend explains. In terms of using video technology to aid decision-making, the Bristolian accepts that it would help in certain scenarios but is wary that technology may slow down matches, causing undesirable hindrances.
Friend, though, loves the pressure. “I thrive off it, it helps me perform better. You can’t succeed if you can’t handle pressure. You’d crumble.” The scrutiny, he explains, is one of the worst parts of refereeing, as well as the lack of understanding from the media and spectators. “The scrutiny is bad, but death threats are the worst. People get hold of your contact details and threaten your life. It’s tolerable to a certain extent but it crosses the line when it’s affecting the family.”
With a busy schedule throughout the week with training, meetings and analysis, Friend gives a firm handshake and offers me a lift home. The man subject to much abuse and grief every week really is a cracking bloke and a fine referee indeed! Cut him some slack, shall we?