Sun, Jun

Chris Birchall is on red alert for a career as a whistler PHOTO: Paul Tonge

When Howard Webb became the head of the PGMOL in 2022, he urged ex-players to become 'trailblazers' and turn to refereeing after retirement.

Just sixteen months later, that trailblazer seems to be 2006 World Cup star Chris Birchall, who is picking up the whistle as he aims to become one of only a select few to manoeuvre from playing to officiating.

Birchall has recently completed a refereeing course at the Staffordshire FA, where he was the only ex-player, and he made his debut as the man-in-the-middle for an in-house Port Vale academy game recently.

'I have a lot more respect now for decision-making and how hard it is. It's positioning and knowing where to go so you don't interrupt the play', the 39-year-old tells Mail Sport.

For an entire generation of football-crazy Trinidadians, Birchall is the hero that helped to fire the Caribbean Island nation to its first-ever FIFA World Cup Finals.

The Staffordshire-born midfielder, who was nicknamed 'Me Mum' by the Trinidadian faithful because of his typically Northern response as to why he qualified to play for the nation, rocketed home from 35 yards to equalise for the Caribbean side in their 2006 qualifying play-off first-leg against Bahrain.

The goal helped the Soca Warriors to qualify for the 2006 tournament and play in a group with Sweden and Paraguay, as well as England's golden generation.

Lining up against Gerrard, Lampard and Owen wasn't Birchall's only brush with footballing royalty, as three years later he went on to play alongside, rather than against, David Beckham at LA Galaxy for three years.

On home turf, he would also play in all three football league divisions for his hometown club Port Vale, as well as Coventry City and Brighton.

During his diverse career, thoughts of officiating were bubbling under the surface as he was calling time on his playing career.

'The refereeing was always in the background. I had a lot of respect for refs, and it was something that I thought I could possibly do,' he says.

If the former midfielder climbs the ranks as an official, he'll join just one former notable Football League player to have gone from player to ref.

Only former Huddersfield Town, Bradford City and Chesterfield defender Steve Baines has made the leap from playing to EFL refereeing, and that was thirty years ago.

After a unique career, and one of the more baffling CVs in the game, Birchall looks set to continue down the road less taken, but he understands why footballers don't tend to turn to officiating.

'There's just no financial reward for it at the beginning.' says Birchall, who is currently getting paid £40 a game for his officiating in the Staffordshire area.

'When you're starting out on your journey you would need to have enough money from your playing career, or you'd need a job to go with it. 

'For me it's a challenge and if I can be a catalyst for ex-players then that's a step forward.'

Birchall believes that his illustrious playing career, and the dark arts he picked up along the way, can lead to a successful career as the man in charge.

'I know if players are trying to kid the referee. I know what players are doing because I used to do them myself.' laughs Birchall.

'It's just trying to use my experience. I think it's about building that rapport with the players. That's what I want to do. Be humble, have a smile on your face and be a referee that you can relate to, really.'

Officiating wasn't Birchall's first post-retirement goal. He got a degree in Professional Sports Writing & Broadcasting from Staffordshire University in 2016 but has since found that the punditry work has dried up.

'I found it very difficult for opportunities. I was getting bits and bobs here and there for TalkSPORT and Sky Sports News, but it was sparse.

'To make that your living, you need to have an income enough for a full-time job, which it wasn't for me.'

Birchall is, once again, working his way up in the profession and it's a climb he compares to starting out as a footballer.

'It's like being in non-league football. You earn your stripes to then progress.

'For me, it's doing my games, enjoying it, and trying to bring a player knowledge to refereeing.'

After the comedown of retirement, and the difficulties of his punditry career, Birchall has a new lease on life with his movement into refereeing.

'It's come at a good time. I'm hoping the opportunity arises, where if I'm good enough I can progress. It all comes down to ability. I can want it all I want but I must be good enough to do it.'

If he comes anywhere close to emulating his star-studded football career, then he will surely join the exclusive list of people to both play and officiate in the professional game.

SOURCE: The Daily Mail