Decision was final

As an aspiring football referee and a Black boy, Ashley Hickson-Lovence only had one role model – Sheffield’s Uriah Rennie

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I’m not sure many young boys grow up wanting to be the next Uriah Rennie, the first and only Black man to referee in the Premier League, but I did. I first qualified as a football referee in 2007, aged 16, with my first game as the man in the middle at the famous Hackney Marshes in East London, in a men’s game in the Hackney and Leyton Sunday League. It was totally terrifying – I might have been the same skin colour as my hero Rennie, but with my long, cornrowed hair and slightly wonky glasses (my new contact lenses hadn’t arrived in time), I certainly didn’t much look like him.

Before the game in the old wooden shack that was the changing rooms back then, I was advised by some of the other referees, mostly older white men who looked like they’d been officiating for decades, that I should probably start heading towards my pitch now, 20 minutes before kick-off, as it was one of the furthest away. I quickly forced my feet into my new too-tight boots and trudged towards the pitch which was, as warned, a trek.

My whole body throbbed as I plonked my rucksack down on the touchline. I had a list of things not to forget scribbled on a bit of scrap paper nestled in between my yellow and red cards: don’t forget to check both nets for holes, don’t forget to check the players aren’t wearing jewellery, don’t forget to breathe.

As for the game, it’s fair to say, I hated every second. There was so much to remember, so many players to control, and it felt like I had to juggle a million things while constantly running to keep up with play. Jesus, I thought, if I’m struggling in front of an old man and his dog in this division four Sunday league game, God knows how Uriah does it in front of thousands every Saturday.

And I suppose, it was this formative experience as a young Black boy that sparked my desire to find out more about the only Black football referee I saw on the telly at the time, Uriah “Uri” Rennie. I wanted to understand what it would have been like for a Black man to come up through the system and make it to the very top, when all of the other refs, his colleagues, were white. I wanted to try to understand someone’s motivations to keep going while enduring endless abuse and having to deal with the incessant pressure of making potentially match-changing decisions every few minutes. And then at the final whistle, embark on a long journey home, put on a brave face to your family and try to compartmentalise the unfair treatment received earlier that day.

Back in 2011, I tweeted: “I’m gonna write a book about Uriah Rennie.” Four years later on Facebook I posted: “To write a book about Uriah Rennie is a genuine life ambition of mine.” In 2022, this dream has been achieved in the form of my second novel, Your Show, a novel based on the true story of Uriah Rennie’s pioneering efforts to rise through the ranks as a referee, while constantly confronted with the tensions and prejudices that emerge as a Black man performing on the biggest stage.

Above: Ashley Hickson-Lovence (centre). Main image: Referee Uriah Rennie (Back Page Images/Shutterstock)

The book fictionalises moments of Uri’s early years spent in Jamaica and Sheffield, and notable matches he officiated as a professional referee, as he battles to make it to the top of his field as a sportsman of colour. The narrative tension largely manifests through his ambition to be respected as a Black man in a white world, his goal to referee the esteemed FA Cup final, and his attempts to dispel any apparent feud with Newcastle United’s Alan Shearer.

Despite a tough first fixture for me on the Marshes, I soon grew to love being a referee, and became quite good at it too, gaining promotion from park-level football at about the time Uri’s career was winding down. In my ten years or so as a qualified official, I was appointed to several county cup finals, refereed in front of hundreds of fans for various FA competitions, and, most Saturdays, took charge of highly pressured semi-professional league games all around the capital and the surrounding counties. In 2018, I even become a non-league observer for the FA, assessing referees aiming to climb the ladder themselves.

Admittedly, being a Black referee, I was often burdened by unhelpful preconceptions about my ability to manage the game before it had even begun. I was often part of the minority on the various refereeing panels I was a part of and, more often than not, my presence at the match at a club on a matchday was warmly welcomed. But there were a few occasions where being a young Black official from London, with a Fresh Prince-esque high-top to boot, was met with evident apprehension and, sometimes, hostility. As a result, I often felt like I had to work three times as hard, on and off the pitch, to prove that I was up to the job.

In Your Show, I draw on my own experiences as a football referee of colour, and combine it with wider reading and research about Uri’s career to craft a novel that everyone can enjoy, whether a football fan or not.

Instead of a forensic blow-by-blow biography, the book hopes to shine a light on Uri’s history-making, ceiling-breaking journey to the top. I have worked with the information available, including interviews with Uri himself, to produce a work that I hope readers will find lyrical, immersive and illuminating.

In writing Your Show, and undoubtedly inspired by David Peace’s 2006 novel The Damned Utd – a book that dramatises Brian Clough’s unsuccessful spell in charge of Leeds United – it was important that every scene in the book was pacey and propulsive, just like a good game of football. It was important to fashion a novel that was dynamic and thrilling, emulating the incessant movement of a vitriolic top-of-the-table clash, both in the manner of how the sentences are constructed but also with the formation of the words on the page.

Ultimately though, I hope Your Show will inspire young Black boys, and readers from other marginalised groups, to take up the whistle and give refereeing a go for themselves just like Uri first did back in 1979. Owing to a number of factors, including injury, my ambitions to become the next Uriah Rennie weren’t realised, so instead, my focus shifted to tell a version of his story that will hopefully encourage others to follow in his footsteps. As I see it, it has never been so important to hear the story of a Black life that matters a lot, but could, and should, matter a whole lot more.

Your Show by Ashley Hickson-Lovence is published by Faber in hardback and ebook

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