Bridgend referee Sam Lloyd is celebrating his promotion to category 3 this week but it could all have been so different.
With promotion, Lloyd has realized his long-term goal to be a middle at Ardal League level but he very nearly gave up refereeing altogether after a brutal debut match on a scorching July day in 2017.
After qualifying as a referee Sam was given his very first game, a local derby in the Swansea Senior League Division 3.
“First game, I turned up with my new kit on thinking I was really fresh. I’d had a haircut before the game and even brought my girlfriend at the time to take photos at the side of the pitch.
“No one told me it was a derby game.”
“I went on to the pitch to start the match. Obviously I had forgotten my coin. So I had to pick up the grass and ask the captains: ‘Which hand is the grass in?’”
“I soon realized that not everyone’s nice to the referee! Dissent from everywhere, big tackles were going in, and I was giving all kinds of yellow and red cards.”
“It was my first match. There were still things I didn’t know. When a player went to take a corner kick I insisted that I blow the whistle before they took it.”
“It was blistering heat too, 31 or 32 degrees. But I didn’t realize that water breaks could have been in place either.”
“When it eventually got to full-time the game had finished about 5-4.”
“Players were telling me: ‘You shouldn’t referee again’.”
Despite a tough first ninety minutes, it was only after blowing the full-time whistle that the real pain set in for Sam. A summer heatwave meant he was about to go straight out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“I was so hot, so dehydrated. I just got straight in my car without shaking hands with anyone. Without going to the coaches, without going to the changing room, without collecting my fee, I just got straight in my car and went home.”
“As soon as I got home I had the worst heatstroke ever. I was being sick for days. I had a fan in my face, ice packs on my forehead and the back of my neck. I was throwing water on myself.”
It seems incredible that this baptism of fire didn’t deter Sam from continuing with refereeing. What pushed him to keep going?
“There were moments in the game; the first time I blew my whistle, the first time I gave a card. I got that shot of adrenaline.”
After his first match, a league official got in touch with Sam and said he’d handled a tough first game well. He was soon back in the middle.
“It was my second ever game at Llandarcy Academy of Sport that really made me want to carry on. One of the players came up to me at full-time and said: ‘You put in a really good performance today, you’ve got potential.’ Little comments like that motivated me to press on.”
Since then Lloyd, originally from Kidderminster, has gone on to officiate at Cardiff City Stadium, an FAW Academy Final in Newtown, and an international between Finland and Switzerland U16s Girls in Wrexham. But what’s his proudest moment?
“My biggest achievement is being chosen to referee the South Wales FA U16 Boys Final. I got a nice little trophy for that as well! That was my first experience of refereeing with a Fourth Official and my first experience of quite a hefty crowd so that was a proud moment.”
The last five years have therefore seen significant developments in Sam’s refereeing career, but it hasn’t been without its difficulties.
“My first fitness tests were massive struggles for me and I got very anxious about them. One of my worst moments was actually being invited to my first taster session with the South Wales Development Group because the other referees were much fitter than I was. I just couldn’t keep up, couldn’t do it.”
Now he’s been promoted to category 3, Sam has ambitions to overcome the fitness barrier and fully establish himself.
“My main goal at the moment is to make sure I’m fit enough. I’ve had a taste now of doing the middle with Assistant Referees and a Fourth Official which has given me the confidence to think this year I can do well. In the future I’d like to progress to referee in Tier 2 and Tier 1.”
And what about those players at his first game that told him he should never referee again?
“There was a player in that game who I refereed several times afterwards. He used to give me stick all the time. He’d say, ‘You’re never gonna referee again. You’re the worst referee ever.’”
“I had to laugh and try to brush it off but sometimes I’d get home and think: ‘what if I really am the worst referee ever?’ He really knew how to get to me.”
“Anyway, at the start of this year I was looking through the Cymru App and noticed he’s become a referee! He’s come over to the good side.”
Hopefully there will be many more who make the transition from whinger to whistler. For those that do pick up the whistle, what one piece of advice would Lloyd like to give them?
“The most crucial piece of advice is to actually go and watch another referee first. That’s what I wished I would have done, because I think I got a bit too cocky at the start!
“What I should have done is take two or three matchdays to go and watch other teams in that league to see what the referees were doing. Every player thinks they can referee, but they can’t.
The growth and development in Lloyd’s first five years will be a familiar story to many referees. Would he do it all over again?
“Becoming a referee changed my whole perception of football. Now every time I watch a football match, I only watch the ref!”