It’s a great life for man in the middle

LIFE as a referee is one of the toughest jobs in sport. Very few would put themselves forward and even fewer would want to stand in the firing line and accept widespread abuse from thousands of fans. But that s exactly what Royston s very own whistle blo

LIFE as a referee is one of the toughest jobs in sport. Very few would put themselves forward and even fewer would want to stand in the firing line and accept widespread abuse from thousands of fans.

But that's exactly what Royston's very own whistle blower, Keith Hill, does week in, week out. And he loves every minute.

The 38-year-old has come a long way from the wet Sunday mornings of park football - running the line as a quiet teenager and travelling to the neighbouring villages on his blue moped.

Twenty years on from those days in the Royston Crow and North Herts Leagues, Keith is now one of the country's top officials and a regional development manager for the FA.

"It's a far cry from running the lines in Royston," said Keith.

"I've worked my way up from the lower leagues, to the Championship, Leagues One and Two, and the technical areas of the Premiership.

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"It's been hard work and I've made a lot of sacrifices along the way - but it's been an unbelievable journey."

At 27 he was the youngest Premiership assistant referee, and at 29 he won promotion to the prestigious list of league referees.

He's represented his country in Under-18 European Championship qualifiers, and was chosen to be part of a pioneering peace project in Afghanistan.

Moments in his life he says he will never forget.

"They might not ever have happened," said Keith, remembering his early days as a £15 per game official.

"When I started youth football, I used to get a lot of stick, and found it quite hard to begin with.

"To be honest I almost chucked in the kit bag!

"I can see why so many young referees drop out - it can be an intimidating place to be.

"But I believe what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."

And it was those early experiences that Keith believes have shaped him to become the referee he is today and why he is heavily involved in spearheading the FA's commitment to expanding the pool of officials in this country.

He added: "It's tough and you have to be quite thick-skinned.

"At all levels referees play a crucial, and often thankless role.

"Everyone knows about the criticism that is often aimed at us, and it is part of the job.

"What I would stress is that fans must realise that we are here for the same underlying reason - we love the game as much as they do.

"We're not here to spoil the fun. However, like everyone else we do make mistakes.

"It's what happens in life and I think people need to understand that. Referees are human, not perfect."

Just like football fans all over the country, Keith too, has a keen interest - not just professionally but personally - on the debate of technology in football, and said he would support it to a certain extent.

He said: "There are a few ideas being studied at the moment, ideas that may improve football.

"As long as the game isn't sanitised too much, I think there is a place for technology, although we can't change things too much.

"But I'm in no doubt that goal line technology will happen, and I think we will see it sooner rather than later."

As fourth official in the Premiership, Keith regularly comes face-to-face with some of the league's top managers.

He says the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have been on their best behaviour - and Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho is a very charming man.

He said: "The managers are all very different. You have the entertainers, like Mourinho and Neil Warnock, who are always full of life.

"Then you have the more quiet ones like Wenger and Steve Coppell.

"It's probably not what people want to hear, but I've had no problems with Mourinho.

"In fact, he's really quite polite. But nonetheless he's certainly a very interesting man."

Last month, Keith was asked to present the Wash and Go Good Sport Award at the Football League Awards - an event he said was a privilege to be part of.

However, he said his highest accolade was when he was chosen to be part of the FA team that travelled to Afghanistan in 2002 for the international game of unity.

He said: "The game was between the peace-keepers and Kabul United, and it took place in a stadium previously used for public executions.

"It was a very chilling thought.

"The game showed what a powerful tool football can be. It was a brilliant concept that united thousands of people.

"It was almost like witnessing the re-birth of a nation, and to be part of that was an incredible honour."

As a result of football, Keith has seen a lot of the world, certainly more than he ever thought he would.

The game and refereeing have taken him to sun-kissed countries such as Trinidad and Australia, developing nations Dubai and Saudi Arabia, and war-torn Afghanistan.

Keith said: "I'm very fortunate that my job can take me either a few miles down the road, or half way across the world.

"It's amazing how far blowing a whistle can take you. I'm doing and seeing things I could have only dreamed about.

"And despite all the pressures this is the best job in the world.