Blowing whistle on the other role of Rovers’ MD

Dual role: Stuart Highfield with his referee's whistl.  Main picture: steve taylor
Dual role: Stuart Highfield with his referee's whistl. Main picture: steve taylor

ALTHOUGH many football club directors would probably struggle to explain the offside rule, not so Doncaster Rovers’ managing director Stuart Highfield.

Stuart has been refereeing since he started at Sheffield University in 1967 and is still going strong 44 years later.

Dual role: Stuart Highfield  as Rovers MD at the appointment of Dean Saunders as the club's new manager with Director of Football Mickey Walker and Chairman John Ryan.

Dual role: Stuart Highfield as Rovers MD at the appointment of Dean Saunders as the club's new manager with Director of Football Mickey Walker and Chairman John Ryan.

“I started off refereeing when I was 17 in the Bentley League and that basically was my beer money through university,” recalled Stuart this week.

Stuart has seen many changes in the way that games are handled.

“You used to be able to referee in your own style; it’s a bit different today,” said Stuart.

“For someone starting in this day and age I would say it’s probably harder. But they get a lot more training nowadays. The County FA are very good and whenever a new referee starts there are mentors and they are there to guide them.

“I think in Doncaster they also send a senior referee to keep an eye on a new referee and they are assessed and then they go from there. They have also got someone that they can ring up after a game and seek their advice.

“When I first started I was given a whistle and told to ‘get on with it.’

“You certainly learnt the hard way and it’s a lot more structured these days and a lot more thought goes into it.

“The trouble nowadays is that they try and push referees through too quickly and it shows at times - especially in the Football League. Some of the lads on the line have only been refereeing for five of six years and they are completely out of their depth.

“And with cameras at every game here, there and everywhere, any mistakes they make are picked up straight away.”

A highly-rated whistler in his prime, Stuart took charge of games in the Northern Premier League, the Yorkshire League and ran the line at Conference level.

A former deputy headmaster, Stuart was also on the English Schools’ panel and during that time had charge of over 20 schoolboy internationals.

He also officiated at six major finals including the prestigious English Schools’ final as well as running the line at an England Under-18s international at the old Wembley.

“When I finished refereeing at a higher level I became an assessor and I know a lot of the current Football League officials because they came up through what was then the UniBond League,” he said.

“I always go into the referees’ room and make one or two salient points because it is not the right time immediately after a game to start saying ‘you’ve done this and you’ve done that.’

“Chairman John Ryan is always very good; he is always constructive.

“If he has got a problem he’ll just say ‘look at the DVD and if you’ve got it wrong then give me a ring.’

“That’s what happened with the referee in the Brighton game when we thought Billy (Sharp) had got done and he rung John the following day and admitted that he had got it wrong.

“But if there is anything really controversial, we’ll draw it to the referee’s attention and we’ll leave it at that.

“They (the referees) are always very good and they’ll always let us in because they are always well looked after at Doncaster.

“It is a difficult job and being a referee myself I know how they feel after a game, especially if they’ve had a bad one.”

Stuart says he always puts himself in the referee’s position when watching games.

He was impressed by the way that referee Darren Drysdale handled Saturday’s game at Peterborough and congratulated him afterwards.

“He talked to the players and cautioned where necessary - I think every caution on Saturday was totally justified,” he said

“He had a smile on his face and allowed the game to flow and if the advantage that he was trying to play didn’t work, he just brought it (play) back.”

These days, Stuart restricts himself to the Doncaster Sunday Alliance League, which now ranks as one of the biggest open age leagues in the county.

Probably few of the players involved are aware of Stuart’s refereeing pedigree, but most people know him as a long-serving Rovers’ director and are naturally keen to know what’s going on at the club.

Although Stuart is perfectly happy to talk football, he is careful not to give too much away.

“I’ll talk about the club in general terms but I don’t go into too much detail,” he said. “If you say anything the next thing you know it is appearing on one of the fans’ forums.

He added: “I don’t know if it helps being a Rovers’ director; they still have a moan at me at times.

“You have to have a thick skin to be a referee but I’m a believer in good man management and trying not to use cards too quickly.”