Long: ‘There has never been a better time to be involved’

Long: ‘There has never been a better time to be involved’

Long: ‘There has never been a better time to be involved’

Simon Long charts his journey from Duchy League to Champions League, and talks the future of refereeing with Voice head of sport Tom Howe

17th March 2021

By Tom Howe

Simon Long charts his journey from Duchy League to Champions League, and talks the future of refereeing with Voice head of sport Tom Howe

It is a common misconception that a football fixture features just two teams.

Alongside the hosts and their visitors is that third group, without whom the game simply couldn’t exist. They are the match officials who, at every level, provide spectators with just as many talking points as they carry out their responsibility for enforcing the laws of the game.

One such official is Simon Long who moved to Cornwall, first to Truro and now Bodmin, in 2011, 15 years after his first experience as a referee in local youth football around the Colchester area. From filling in for an absent linesman as a 14-year-old, Long progressed into the adult grassroots game, onto the regional league system and now celebrates his 11th season as an assistant referee in the Premier League.

Having run the line during the 2011 Community Shield, he has since officiated at back-to-back FA Cup finals in 2012 and 2013 as well as the League Cup final of 2014. Long has also been involved in both Champions and Europa League fixtures, plus experienced World Cup and Under-21 European Championship qualifiers.

Despite this, when his schedule allows, Long can still be found involved in grassroots football anywhere from the Duchy and Trelawny Leagues through to South West Peninsula level and, eager to give something back to an industry that has provided him with so much, is heavily involved in Cornwall FA’s commitment to supporting and developing refereeing talent.

“[My refereeing career] really progressed without me realising where I was going or what I was doing,” said Long, whose wife Emma, originally from Mullion, is also a qualified referee. “I didn’t make a conscious decision and say I know, I want to be a referee when I’m older. I wanted to be around football and a good way of taking my involvement further, without having the opportunity to progress as a player, was refereeing. That was the way I was going to be involved in football at a high level. I had a couple of years refereeing youth football and a couple in grassroots adult football which, as a 16-year old, I’m sure you can imagine in and around the Colchester area was very challenging. I don’t know at what point it became something I wanted to take a lot further. I guess running the line in the National League, officiating in semi-professional football and in enclosed stadiums, you think hang on a minute I could do something here.

“I always remember my first game as a Football League assistant referee - and it’s for non-footballing reasons. It was Southend United against Millwall. The referee blew the whistle to start the game and the away end emptied into the home fans. I was running the line in my first ever league game and the police were running around behind me trying to sort out everything in the stands. At the time I thought, one I’ve made it to a professional level of football and two this is a whole new world. Everything had been taken to the next level. I had two years running the line in the Football League while, at the same time, I was refereeing in the National League. I then had a further two years running the line in the Premier League whilst refereeing on the National League and was fortunate enough to go abroad and do Europa League and Champions League games. I’m very proud and fortunate. I’ve had the ability to travel Europe and to do an FA Cup final, the Community Shield and a League Cup final.”

He added: “Both domestically and abroad I’ve been to some fantastic stadiums with some amazing atmospheres which were all very different and unique in their own way. A final in your national stadium is going to stick in your mind and be at the forefront of your achievements. I am also fortunate enough to have done a number of Champions League games, like Copenhagen against Galatasaray, and seeing the fanatical support that some of these teams have got is an experience in itself.”

Elected by local referees as their representative on Cornwall FA’s Football Management Board, Long works closely with another professional, Lee Swabey, to ensure match officials in the area are supported with the training and development they require. With a wry smile, Long, not yet 40, joked he felt ‘old and grey’ when admitting opportunities now available to referees just weren’t there when he progressed through the ranks.

“We try and raise the standard of refereeing to provide a better service to all clubs and players in the county,” he continued. “Like Lee, I am also a coach on the Football Association’s CORE programme. I look after six referees from Devon and Cornwall who are identified as having potential and, with the right training and support, can progress to the professional game or certainly the higher reaches of the non-league game.

“To see that training, development and support for referees now is absolutely phenomenal and is my way of trying to give something back. Cornwall FA has taken massive steps forward in recent years with the appointment of Lee and the structure they have now got in place. There is still a long way to go but look at the significant improvements they have made over recent seasons. You only have to look at the first lockdown, when staff were put on furlough, Lee was still employed throughout that period so he could support referees and that speaks volumes for the value that Cornwall FA put on refereeing and referees. I think at the end of the day we are all human beings. We all go onto the field of play trying to perform to the highest level we possibly can. Every one of us wants to walk off having got every decision correct.

In the professional game, where there are 30 or 40 cameras, it is the nature of your job that sometimes the angle available is going to show something different for the position you saw on the field. It is an occupational hazard but when the chips are down your colleagues are straight in to support you with phone calls and messages of encouragement.

“Every single one of us has been there. None of us like making mistakes and it hits hard but we all rally round and pick each other up. There is help and support available, especially with the big strides Cornwall FA has made in the last couple of years and that whole community feel. It is never reported and it is never seen but it is something that happens from the highest level down to your under-10s game on a Sunday morning.”

“The key message,” concluded Long, “is that if you want to be involved, there has never been a better time in terms of support and the process that is in place. If you want to put the time and commitment in, you can progress to the very highest level.

“Likewise, if you just want to go out and have a run around for a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, those opportunities and that support is still available to you. You can get as much out of refereeing as you want. For me, it’s the opportunity to be involved in football which is at a much higher level than I would have achieved as a player. It’s a whole different family community that you’re part of. It is the biggest sport in the country, if not the world. Who wouldn’t want to be involved?”