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Who would have thought in early 2020, when the first case of the Coronavirus was identified, that we would be spending a major part of the next year enduring strict limitations as to what we would be able to do and who we would be able to see?

It was during March, last year that the government began introducing measures to combat this terrible illness and on March 20th, the Prime Minister instigated the first ‘lockdown’, ordering pubs, cafes and restaurants to close with immediate effect. Football was also cancelled and the outcome of season 2019/20 was left in limbo at both local and National level.

My final observation prior to the first lockdown was on 14th March at Hanworth Villa, who play in the Premier Division of the Combined Counties League, which covers mainly Surrey and some parts of Greater London. Thereafter, I was unable to observe until 5th September at Egham Town in the same League.

Initially, the lockdown was a new experience but as the weeks pass by, you start to realise how much you take for granted and how much has changed. I also realised that I would be missing out on some of the things in life that I enjoyed doing. These included going to Wembley to watch an international match against Italy, going to a concert at Hammersmith Apollo and attending a farewell do for an old work colleague. Evenings were spent at home instead of going out to football or delivering Safeguarding courses and suddenly, we were all exposed to modern technology in the shape of Zoom and Teams.

We have lost many of our friends and colleagues and fellow referees including Isaac Jempeji, who was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet

I should have been invigilating at a local school as the children sat mock examinations during April but alas, these were unable to take place as all the schools were closed. By 12th April, the number of people in the UK who had died from Coronavirus, or Covid 19 as was then called, had passed 10,000 people. Included within this number were many of our friends and colleagues and fellow referees including Isaac Jempeji, who was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. He was a good referee and Tutor, and his infectious smile would always brighten up any room. Without restrictions, there was no doubt that his funeral service would have been attended by dozens of refereeing colleagues, all wishing to pay their final respects; instead, the service was limited to a handful of his closest relatives. The service was broadcast via a video-link but it was not the same as being there.

The late Isaac Jempeji

The summer seems to be a bit a blur, really. My wife and I were scheduled to go on holiday in June to Boston and Cape Cod but that was cancelled, as was our three-day visit to Lisbon later in the year. So instead of going away, we did plenty of walking. We were restricted to staying local so we pounded the streets like a couple of policemen exploring local roads and looking at different parts of the neighbourhood.

Video calls became all the rage and the RA engaged in Board Meetings and the AGM via this technology. There were some Board members who struggled to get to grips with it initially but through determination and perseverance (and a little tuition) they all successfully mastered the art of logging in and taking part, just showing that we are never too old to learn something new.

During the summer, restrictions were eased and things looked like they were getting back towards some kind of normality, although there were still restrictions on people coming into your house. This made life interesting as I am a DBS verifier. Normally, people would come in, get their documents verified and we would have a chat about refereeing and football. Unfortunately, this was no longer allowed so I had to ensure that people wanting to have their documents verified put them in a folder or envelope, rang the bell and then left them at the door before retreating. I would then check their paperwork and put it back where I found it outside and have a socially-distanced word or two from the length of the garden path before going back in and washing my hands.

At least we were able to meet up with friends outside. This was a real comfort as zoom calls and social distance was becoming pretty monotonous and people were missing not being able to see their friends or their loved ones in care homes. Holidays became a real possibility again and we booked a week in Norfolk for the middle of September as we had had no holiday since the previous year. We were very fortunate with the weather during our week away and had a good time visiting various places from our base in Norwich.

They tried hard to manage social distancing but quite often, all their best efforts were completely ignored

The football season got underway again and whilst social distancing and hand sanitizers were still the order of the day, at least people could get out onto the green stuff and referee for a change. I could get back to observing officials again and football matches were coming thick and fast – Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday. Some clubs were very good at implementing precautions, especially those at steps three and four, whilst others were not quite as good. They tried hard to manage social distancing but quite often, all their best efforts were completely ignored. 

Into October, the children had gone back to school and infection figures were on the rise again which led to a further lockdown at the end of the month. Still no face-to-face meetings but virtual technology calls were coming in thick and fast: local Referee Society, RA Representation Team, County Referee Committee, Referee Academy, Combined Counties League, FA Observer, RA Board etc., etc.

This lockdown lasted just a month and into December, matches were up and running again but not for long. On 19th December, I was sitting in the stand at Spelthorne Sports watching a referee on the CCL when word went round that Boris had “cancelled Christmas”. What a blow this was. All the arrangements we had made were all blown out the window. No Christmas dinner with the family, no visiting relatives, no seeing our granddaughter. Christmas presents were exchanged on Christmas Eve on our son’s garden path like a scene from the Cold War when prisoners were exchanged at Checkpoint Charlie.

For the first time ever, we spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day on our own – no parents, no children. It made you think how hard it could be for some people who were on their own.

If it was hard for us, what would it have been like for all the staff in hospitals who had to deal with thousands more patients who were very sick or dying. The pressures must have been enormous and the country owes them a huge thanks for all the work that they put in.

And so to the current day. We are still in lockdown and a roadmap has been produced to hopefully lead us out of this pandemic. Scientists have produced a vaccine in record time and over half the adults in this country have now been vaccinated. I feel that I am one of the lucky ones that has received the first jab and have the second dose scheduled for the end of April.

Temperature checks, face mask, hand sanitiser and social distancing

Other people, colleagues, fellow referees, friends, relatives have not been so fortunate and have succumbed to this terrible illness. But what of those of us that have survived? Have we been affected? Have we changed the way we do things?

So what has changed? For a start, feedback is now given to officials via Zoom or Teams and no longer immediately after a match. This has enabled me to spend more time going over my notes and preparing a controlled feedback rather than hastily putting something together at the end of a game and delivering it to officials who are physically exhausted from running around for 90 minutes.

Attending matches as an observer now includes temperature checks, facemask, hand sanitiser and social distancing.

Walking and social distancing has become the new norm, shopping is almost a non-event and only then when wearing a face-mask. But who goes shopping these days when nearly everything is done on-line with fleets of Amazon vehicles on the roads to support the demand. 

People can’t wait to get back to ‘normal’ but will the old normal ever return? We all want a holiday but holidays abroad look like being cancelled for much of this year as there is a distinct lack of vaccination happening on the other side of the Channel. People have had to get used to being furloughed and businesses have had to shut down and unfortunately, many will not re-open again. The mental strain on people has been unimaginable and there will be many people reading this article that have suffered mental anxiety over the past year.

How good will it feel to be able to go down the pub again or enjoy a meal in a nice restaurant and meet up with friends that you have not seen in ages or even have a meeting with real people rather than being in front of a laptop?

We will continue to keep providing worthwhile events

But as we travel down this political roadmap that will eventually take us out of lockdown the RA has had to take stock of how it can help members. We introduced regular Zoom calls during last summer and have had some really good sessions with the likes of Howard Webb, Owen Farrell and Bobby Madley, as well as many other memorable speakers, and we will continue to keep providing worthwhile events.

We also formed a Representation Team to support any referee who is faced with disciplinary action and a Welfare Team to support any referee who has been abused, assaulted or threatened in any way.

But if there is one thing this last year has taught me, it is to treasure the things in life that mean the most to us, because you just never know what the future may bring.

Ray Herb
RA Board Member

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