iCanRef: Mark Heap
Tell us about how and why you got involved in refereeing?
When I was still playing I was having some right banter and getting some grief from a young and upcoming referee on the West Yorkshire League, called Mark Haywood (don’t know whatever happened to him?! LOL). When I was giving him some grief about some of his refereeing decisions, he came back at me and said that my knowledge of the Laws of the Game were better than my footballing skills, so I should consider giving up playing and start refereeing.
So in 1996, I enrolled on the first ever course that was run at the fancy new West Riding County FA HQ at Fleet Lane. It was run by Leeds FA, the tutors were Fred Smith, Peter Solity and a number of others. It was a ten-week course, 6:30pm-9:00pm, every Thursday night, with the exam on the tenth week at the end of October.
At the end of the course Derek Cooper, who was the Referee Appointments Secretary for the West Yorkshire League at the time, told me to do rest of the season on the Old Boys League and he would take me on at the start of the 1997/8 season, if I put in for promotion to Level 2.
My first game in November 1996 was on Soldiers Field, Roundhay Park and was Leeds Medics and Dentists v Old Centralians.
The following season I put in for promotion and started refereeing on the West Yorkshire League. I had two good assessments and was confident my third would be ok, when I had my leg smashed to bits when playing in a works football match and was out for over a year. I started pre-season 1999/20 but had to put refereeing on hold again until I had the pin removed from my leg in the October and complete a second lot of recovery, before getting back to it towards the end of the season.
Since then my refereeing journey has taken me all over the UK, as well as to Australia, Japan, Germany, Ireland and Nigeria.
What do you enjoy about refereeing?
Still being actively involved in various formats of football at the age of 55.
The camaraderie that teams enjoy is replicated in the RA and with other refereeing colleagues, we still all work as a team even if we are out on our own on a game.
Having the opportunity to be selected for international tournaments and continually learning after every game.
Who are your role models in refereeing?
My first role model was the young Mr Haywood. I thought if he can do it, I’m sure I can do it just as well, if not better.
In Barkston Ash FA, my role model was John Finch, such a gentleman on and off the pitch. He never got flustered and was calm during every game I saw him referee. It was an honour to line for him in his (first) last District Cup final. He made more comebacks that Mohammed Ali!
Then when I returned from a year living and working in Australia, in 2009, I met a bloke called Paul Leversuch from Derbyshire, who had been on the Football League line. We met when I did my Futsal conversion course at Sheffield and Hallamshire FA. Paul introduced me not only to Futsal, but also to other forms of refereeing. It started with the FA Umbro Fives, I joined the group of referees that toured the county doing regional qualifiers. As a group we maintained a level of consistency from game to game and pitch to pitch to event after event. I eventually refereed the FA Fives finals on two occasions at the new Wembley stadium.
Paul then suggested that I apply when the FA advertised for the Blind Football refereeing programme in 2011. The carrot being the London Paralympics in 2012. After a couple of years on the B1 Blind League and Partially Sighted League programmes under Paul’s tutelage, I became involved in some international friendly fixtures and after a successful European Championships in Hereford in 2015 as a regional referee, I was eventually appointed to the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) list of international referees in 2017. Paul passed away suddenly in December last year and will be sadly missed in the world of disability football.
What are your greatest achievements in refereeing and why?
Eventually gaining that first promotion from Level 3 to Level 2 meant a lot to me because of the journey I had been on to recover from such a bad leg break. Shortly after achieving Level 1, the FA introduced the ‘new’ levels and I have been Level 5 since.
2018 IBSA Blind Football Grand Prix Final in Tokyo, Argentina v England.
The day before three of the international referees were given the day off Patrick (Germany), Kleber (Brazil) and myself. We were having a beer in a bar in central Tokyo and I made a toast to the two of them as I thought they would be appointed as referee 1 and referee 2 to the final the next day. No involvement for me due to England’s being in the final.
When the appointments were announced that night, I was shocked not to hear my name read out for an appointment. The last name announced was referee 1 on the final and it turned out to be me. I later found out the Argentina coach had requested that I be considered to referee the final even though England were involved.
2019 IBSA African Blind Football Championships in Enugu, Nigeria. Morocco v Mali
This was the final regional qualifier for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Two of the other referees present were more experienced than me as they had refereed at the last two Paralympics. I was appointed referee 1 on the final ahead of them both.
What is your best memory of refereeing?
The feeling I had when I came off the pitch after the World Grand Prix final in Tokyo. I knew I’d had a good game and the great feeling of euphoria that I had ended the tournament on such a high. I had achieved what I had set out to do, make the IBSA referee coordinators job really hard and to give him a difficult decision to make about appointments to the World Championships in Madrid later that year.
What are your goals for the future?
I would like to stay fit and healthy enough and at the required standard to be selected to referee at the next Blind Football European Championships in 2022, (wherever that may be) and also at the IBSA World Games 2023 in Birmingham. I hope to continue doing well on the international stage to put myself in contention for selection for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.
The group of disability referees isn’t getting any younger, I would like to be able to offer the same level of support and encouragement that Paul Leversuch gave me to the next generation of disability football referees.
What are the biggest obstacles you have faced in refereeing?
There was a time when the of abusing, berating of referees and lack of respect, even after the FA’s Respect campaign came in, became too much for me and I had thought on more than one occasion, why do I bother? it’s not worth the hassle.
I took some time out from refereeing, but found I missed it, so like John Finch I have made a few comebacks.
Be prepared to take a break, if you need to for your own mental health and wellbeing.
What advice would you give to people wishing to get involved in refereeing?
- Do the basics well,
- Know your Laws of the Game,
- Join your local RA - it’s an immense source of help, support and encouragement
- Refereeing can give you resilience and prepare you to overcome your own challenges not just football, but in life in general
- There are other genres of football and opportunities beyond the 11v11 game; don’t close your mind to them
- You never know what you might be able to achieve