Those who say they will never be able to become football referees might just benefit from a chat with Rhys Jones.
The 21-year-old apprentice carpenter will prompt you to sign up with the Moray and Banff Referees group which has given him a potential path to the highest level of the Scottish game – and beyond.
Already in his short career, he has blown the whistle at major European and American youth leagues, sharing time on the pitch with future stars in the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid and Juventus.
One of them is the son of Real Madrid legend Marcelo, who won the Champions League five times and became Los Blancos’ most decorated player of all time when he won his 25th trophy with the club last year.
Jones knew the limits of his footballing ability as a teenager, but he found a different way to climb the world rankings.
Well aware of the stigma attached to it when he joined the local Umpires’ Association at the age of 16, he was initially looking to make some extra cash from his time at school at Elgin Academy.
“All my friends were still playing football and I was the first to take a step back and start refereeing,” he recalls.
“The stick I got for doing it—but now I don’t get any stick at all. They all would love to see how far I’ll go.”
“Once you start judging, it becomes your oyster in the world. The more you give, the more you prepare.
Within a year of signing up for Murray and Banff, Jones had progressed from refereeing local youth matches to line management in the Highland League, and even the breaking of Covid could not quell his ambition.
He revealed, “There was a difficult start with the return of arbitration, and I was looking for opportunities to travel at that time.”
“I found someone I knew who went to China to officiate. So when I got the chance to go to Madrid with some of the best youth teams in Europe and around the world, I went for it.
“I used to rule the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Porto and Flamengo from Brazil.”
Such was the impression he made in the Spanish championship, that he was appointed to officiate one of the group finals between Paris Saint-Germain and Atlético – and that led to another lucrative appointment abroad.
“Someone who was watching that match then invited me to referee at a tournament in Las Vegas (in January of this year).”
He took a trip to the US, officiating over the course of the five-day event before getting three days to himself to explore some of the sights and bright lights of Nevada City.
“Vegas was amazing. There were hundreds of stadiums and all the finals were at the University of Las Vegas American football stadium because there is a big stadium and I had to do one of the finals there.
“They were college teams and it was a big deal for everyone out there. I enjoyed that, it was a different experience.”
“Even doing the women’s games there, the crowd they get is pretty crazy compared to here. There’s more focus on it and it was nice to see.”
Once again, Jones’ judging performance caught the eye, and he was invited back over the Atlantic for tournaments in Boston in May and San Diego at the end of the year.
Quite a shining example of what can be achieved in football refereeing with a touch of ambition, the Class 4 Development Officer is encouraging others to take the same step he did.
“There’s a bit of a stigma to being a referee; it doesn’t look cool and everyone has to play football.
“In my eyes, you would probably go further than some of your friends who still play football.
“I feel football is still a part of my life, and if I didn’t do that, I would sit at home watching it or go to the occasional matches, instead of being involved in sports.”
“It gives you a sense of purpose on the weekend. I always feel like I have an agenda.
“On Saturdays, I have a routine and it’s great. When I get Saturday off because of the weather, I miss it and I’m dying to go into the next day.”
“The best advice is just follow it and don’t worry about what other people say.”
Jones says he has made many friends through arbitration, not only within the Murray and Banff group but through his international travels.
“I’ve been speaking to the umpires in the south and learning about the experiences they have, they don’t seem to be quite a cohesive group like Murray and Banff.
“Everyone there knows each other and is friendly with each other. No one is trying to be better than everyone else.
“If I had known before where the path I now find myself might lead me in, I would have jumped on it long before.
“There were eight of us from all over Europe participating in the Vegas tournament. I’ve met all kinds of people and I’m still in touch with them.
“The best thing about the trip to Madrid, my first, there were two other players from Scotland there that I still keep in touch with and I made good friends there.”
The Murray and Banff umpires connect all new recruits with a more experienced ‘guide’ umpire, and Jones is partnered with Harry Bruce, Murray’s rising talent.
Bruce (26) was a similar age to Jones when he became a referee and has since become a Highland League senior, as well as a Scottish Youth Cup finalist last year at Hampden.
“Every starting referee gets a mentor who is always there to help you find your feet,” said Jones.
“As a little boy they try to push me to be like Harry. He’s my mentor and it works perfectly for me.”
The future looks bright for Jones, who could be in the process of being promoted next season. This means some of the best junior matches in the region, with the possibility of refereeing Highland League matches too.
Jones added, “I’ve been told by a lot of people in the refereeing industry, at my age I have time on my side, and it’s great to really be at the level I’m at right now.”
“So if I keep going like this, I hope I can move on.”
Anyone interested in joining the Moray and Banff Referees can email email@example.com for more information.
We can sign them up for the online course and provide support or talk about potential courses face-to-face if needed,” said recruitment officer Harry Bruce.
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