'Your Show' reflects all the rhythms and contradictions of a pro referee's life

Your Show  By Ashley Hickson-Lovence  (Faber & Faber)
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How many autobiographies written by professional referees have you read? How many can you even name? I've read books by the English refs Mark Halsey and Paul Durkin, but they were self-serving and threw sparse light on the game of soccer or the art of officiating. There was a decent effort by German ref Patrick Ittrich a couple of years ago, but I honestly can't recall much about it. When it comes to producing readable literature, referees tend to fall into the same trap as players — settling scores no one else cares about, and offering points of view that come nowhere close to touching on the revolutionary overhaul that the game or its laws really require.

The young British novelist Ashley Hickson-Lovence (himself a former referee) has taken a different approach to writing about the life of Uriah 'Uri' Rennie, the first and so far only black referee in the English Premier League. With Rennie's co-operation (see Q&A below), he's narrated the referee's life from the 'you' perspective. He picks up on all the pressures and tension of top-flight officiating, and nails the contradictions that come with being a lone neutral in between two sets of motivated professional athletes poised to exploit the slightest perception of weakness. The book's title comes from a stadium announcer at Preston North End who, at the start of the second half of a game Rennie was refereeing, told the crowd with more than a hint of sarcasm, "Welcome back to the Uriah Rennie show!"

Here's a typical passage: on the point of taking charge of Newcastle vs. Manchester United in 1996, the narrator questions himself. "Power hungry? Maybe, subconsciously. But you just like doing what's right, being a force for good and keeping people and positions in check." What really comes across is the personality of the referee, but only as it pertains to his career in soccer — focused, fit and borderline obsessive. There are telling childhood passages focusing on Rennie's arrival in rainy Sheffield from sun-kissed Jamaica, but as an adult there are only passing mentions of his family, his job, his faith and outside interests. One of the book's strengths is its relentless spotlight not just on refereeing, but also on one black man's fight for recognition in a heavily white field.

Those refereeing contradictions come up time and again. You want to stay unnoticed, but you also crave praise. You want to know that you did a good job, and that both teams were happy with you. But when both teams are happy with you, no one's paying you much notice. You did your job. When you send off Alan Shearer or Alex Ferguson, though, you'll certainly attract the attention, and none of it's good. And all you did was your job, as the narrator tells us over again: "You say what you saw and laws are laws." Newcastle fans never forgot that Rennie once red-carded Shearer. They claimed for years that the referee was biased against their team, although the subsequent results and the penalties awarded in Newcastle's favor do not in any way bear this out.

"You're a big black history-maker from Jamaica telling some of the best footballers in the world to behave themselves," the narrator tells us during his first season in the Premier League. "Communication has been key. Not just what you say, but the 'non-verbals' too. The words unsaid, the loaded silences and such. The spaces in between. A stone-faced stare, a tilt of the head, a raised eyebrow, a strong hand. The Premiership moves too fast to stop and chat to every player every other minute." Welcome to the inside of a referee's head, conveying what it's actually like to be in the middle of the game.

Rennie is demoted from the EPL after two seasons, and it's not really clear why. Is it because he's showing too many cards? Or is there another reason? Is he just too good a referee for the English FA to handle? Or is there another reason? "You apply the laws as you see them." Has he ruffled too many feathers by sending off a player like Alan Shearer, by being fearless in the face of Manchester United's snarling, hectoring captain Roy Keane, or the known referee-baiter Alex Ferguson? Years later, the pundits on social media laud him as one of the best. Yet he was never given an FA Cup final, the peak game he wanted so badly to crown his career.

"They say the best referee is one you don't really see, but everyone notices you, Uri, you're hard to miss. To many still, you are a black referee, when all you want to be is a referee who happens to be black." In 2001, he's re-promoted as one of the EPL's 21 new professional referees. One of his gifts is in not always sticking to the laws — he physically holds back Keane from hitting Jason McAteer during a Sunderland vs. Manchester United game because he knows there's bad history between the two. Keane later elbows McAteer deliberately and is sent off anyway. Rennie takes criticism but also praise for having tried to prevent the combustible player's inevitable violence.

"I never talk about Uriah Rennie," former Newcastle coach Kevin Keegan is quoted as saying, "except to say I don't like him as a referee — never have, never will, end of story." That's some exception. Our narrator tells us: "Referees do not come ready-made or pre-programmed. If only more people understood that shattering a referee's confidence is no good for anyone."

If you love soccer, you will love this book. If you loved David Peace's The Damned United, you will love this book, which takes its cue from Peace's style-sheet: "You travel the miles, run your diagonals, brandish the cards. You reel through the pre-match instructions, eat up the yards, eat up your post-match meal, then drive home after another job well done." This rhythmic repetition fits right into the routines of a referee — the way they move, and the way their thoughts flood and flow before, during and after a game.

"Are you shit, or are you just doing your job?" the narrator asks. "Are you a cheat, or are you just doing your job? Are you a blind bastard, or are you just a human being doing your job?" These are the questions we referees often ask ourselves, and we don't always settle on a positive. That's the paradox of a profession which —like every other profession — can never be perfectly executed, but where there will always be far too many people eager to offer their ill-informed and superfluous critiques. In terms of portraying the life, times and thoughts of one very important and unique referee, however, this novel really has done a fantastic job.

Q&A: Your Show author Ashley Hickson-Lovence

SOCCER AMERICA: In ‘Your Show’, you as a fictional narrator take on the voice of a living person, Uriah Rennie. What challenges did that present you with, both in terms of writing and research?

ASHLEY HICKSON-LOVENCE: There were a few challenges but challenges that were ultimately quite fun to try to overcome. I wanted to do Uriah’s story justice for those aware of him already and offer an engaging and illuminating depiction of a Black man from Jamaica wanting to be the best for those who didn’t. It was important to get the voice right of course and that’s why I chose to write in second person (“You”) because I felt quite uncomfortable with the idea of people thinking that this was an autobiography if I used the first person “I.” I like the intensity of the “You” too, the pressure it puts the reader under in certain parts in the book, just like a top-flight referee with a big decision to make.

That said, this needed to be a novel that appeals to both football fans and those not so enamoured by the beautiful game, so I had to get the balance right: not too literary, stuffy and inaccessible, not too much discombobulating football action. Even though I think I achieved this for most part, hopefully, I also know this won’t be a book for everyone because everybody’s tastes are different; I think it’s important to accept that early doors as an author. ... it’s a bit like being a referee, you can’t please everybody.

SA: This book is so much more than your standard referee’s memoir/biography/autobiography. How did Uriah Rennie react to your suggestion of presenting his life story this way, and what did he make of the results?

AHL: Agree, this is a novel. When Uriah ‘Uri’ and I first met in late 2018, I think he probably needed a little convincing at first but once I explained my wider aims for Your Show and that ultimately it was part of my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, he agreed to allow me to interview him properly, which I did three or four different times up in Sheffield.

I reiterated that I wasn’t a journalist wanting to write an expose but a novelist with an original novel idea. Ultimately, and this was an aim agreed between us, I hope Your Show inspires football fans of colour and/or from marginalized backgrounds to take up the whistle using Uriah’s unfinished story as inspiration to make it to the very top. Based on our regular-ish correspondence on the phone and via WhatsApp, I think he has said enough to suggest he likes what I have come up with, which is a mighty relief in all honesty.

SA: There’s a contradiction at the heart of the book — as referees, we want to go about our work unnoticed. At the same time, we crave praise and recognition for the job we do. The narrator comes across as someone who is dedicated, professional, ambitious and focused, but also quite stubborn (“You saw what you saw…”). Given how little personal detail we’re given about the narrator’s adult life outside of refereeing, was the idea to present only the hardened public persona of a referee who’s had to fight against the odds to get where he did?

AHL: I deliberately wanted to depict the complex dichotomy of being a football referee. As the figure in the middle, you don’t want to be center of attention, but when you have a big, potentially game-changing decision to make – a red card, or a penalty or 22-man mass brawl, it’s hard to get out of the way. In all honesty, in my opinion, to be a good referee, you have to have a little something about you, a little cocksure, a touch egotistical, let’s face it, most of the players certainly are.

The version of Uriah I have fashioned in Your Show is a very complex character, which is a good thing I think. Adds a sense of three-dimensionality to his character that makes him an absorbing protagonist which is good because he’s one of only two characters really in the book (the other being Alan Shearer).

SA: Reading between the lines, Uriah Rennie was denied an FA Cup final because of his skin color. Do you agree?

AHL: In my research, I certainly think he was as good as, if not better, than many of the referees, his white colleagues, who were appointed to the once-in-a-career showpiece final. I don’t think the color of his skin was the only factor at play, but was certainly a significant marker, I’m in no doubt about it. Things are changing though, I really believe that, and I’m sure it won’t be long before we see another Black referee in the middle in the Premier League, and then hopefully, refereeing the FA Cup Final.

SA: You thank the author David Peace in the acknowledgments, and I noticed a certain rhythm to your prose that reminded me of Peace’s The Damned United (a great book) and Red or Dead (which I put down after 40 pages). I thought your repetitious, semi-poetic prose style greatly suited the routines and mental thought processes of a referee. How much of an influence did Peace have on this book?

AHL: Pretty massive to be honest. I think The Damned United is the best football novel I’ve ever read. It’s emotive, sensory, poetic, mesmerizing, everything I wanted Your Show to be. I wanted to stick more closely to the truth with Your Show, because Uri and many of his referee colleagues and players he refereed are still alive, I felt I had an ethical responsibility to not stray too far away from the facts. That sounds restrictive but it really wasn’t, it was a relief. It meant that I could have more fun with the technical stuff, the poetry of the words, how the lines sound aloud, all the bits of storytelling I love as a novelist who loves writing and performing poetry. In writing prose, I am obsessed by the melodies, the pace, the cadence, the music, the rhythms and riffs of novel-writing.

SA. I loved the narrator's ongoing encounters with Alan Shearer. Did you try and hit him up for a cover quote?

AHL: I would really love to send him a copy of Your Show, in a very playful and creative way (and inspired by the fractious portrayal of Brian Clough and Don Revie in The Damned United), I wanted to dispel any idea of any kind of feud between them or vendetta or anything like that. I think, and hope, Mr. Shearer might quite like Your Show. Do you have his address?

2 comments about "'Your Show' reflects all the rhythms and contradictions of a pro referee's life".
  1. Kent James, May 11, 2022 at 1:32 p.m.

    Sounds like an interesting book, but I'm a bit confused by the genre; it's fictional, but he was limited by the real-life events, and he interviewed the main characater.  So is he making up the conversations and thoughts of the main character or is he just putting them into his words?  Regardless, it sounds interesting.  I love this quote, especially for kids games with young referees:  "If only more people understood that shattering a referee's confidence is no good for anyone."

  2. R2 Dad, May 11, 2022 at 1:40 p.m.

    I look forward to picking up this story. Tried to search for it on Amazon--no go. The link works, but someone trying to find it through the Amazon search function will fail. Anyway, are there any black referees active in the EPL now? There are many black players these days--why not more referees? That's not to say MLS is any/much better.

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