Joe Fletcher was only 14 years old when he started as a referee. An easy way to get some money. After climbing the ranks receiving money was not that important when it costs you eight hours of travel. “Then achievement becomes more important, the level of football is then more relevant.”
I’m very glad he took the time for this long interview with Dutch Referee Blog. Much appreciated and a lot of tips and lessons to learn in his story. And a lot of US referees will benefit from it, as Fletcher is Manager of Senior Assistant Referees at Professional Referee Organization
For referees it’s a great experience to be active at top level, like Joe Fletcher was at the 2014 and 2018 World Cup. And many other tournaments. He has stopped at his top. “2018 was my best season”, Fletcher says. “I then asked myself: do I want to end with a World Cup or in a normal year?” He says he also doesn’t want to see himself go down, although he “can still pass a fitness test tomorrow”.
The fact he is so many days from home as international and MLS referee also plays a huge role. Especially with a wife and two kids at home. “Is continuing worth another six months from home? And there’s no guarantee I would even be selected for the World Cup in 2022.” There might not be a place for him. “Or you can do only one game because something happens. People will remember what happens last and now they’ll see a World Cup experience, not an assistant referee that can barely run”.
Never assume you’ll get a next big game
A big lesson for every referee is: don’t expect to get things easily. “You should never assume you’ll be at the big next tournament automatically”, he says. MLS referee Jair Marrufo was a candidate for the 2010 world cup cycle, not a candidate for the 2014 world cup cycle, and went from being a potential VAR to officiating a match at the 2018 World Cup. “Or think about a European referee like Martin Hansson. After the handball incident in France vs Ireland he didn’t get a big game any more.”
Tip: view the documentary Rättskiparen about Martin Hansson (English subtitles)
“I am very passionate about the work rate of the assistant referee. You need to work hard and always be there.” He knows the chance a goalkeeper slips is small with a backpass, but there is a chance. “You need the habit of sprinting as eventually it is going to happen. Then you are the one who is expected to make the call. Don’t jog. Nobody will ever find a video I don’t work hard.”
Choose your role, but get to know both
For a long period Joe Fletcher acts as both referee and assistant. “It conflicted and I was Elite at neither, because I did both.” From the moment he made the decision to specialize in AR, it turns out very well. But he doesn’t have regrets to have done both before becoming a FIFA referee. “I need to know the ref’s job inside, outside and backwards. Otherwise: how do I need to help him? You need to gain experience. Teamwork is a big part of what I do.”
“I refereed on a level below MLS. By the time I switched, I had a good understanding of what pressure was like. I know when it’s the time to be quiet, when to be assisting.”
The year 2018
2018 was special for Joe Fletcher. Not only did he act at the World Cup, but he was also able to coach others with the video referee. “I could give input as experienced AR and I was wanting to help. I was was a compliment to be asked, as respect from fellow referees is the best you can get.”
“A tournament like the World Cup is a real animal. Normally there are three camera’s. There are still spots things go unnoticed. With the World Cup everything finds ou. Even if broadcasters don’t see you, there are fans in the stadium who record things. It multiplies the exposure with 100%.
Officiating in Estadio Azteca
Officiating in Estadio Azteca was one of the best stadiums Fletcher officiated in. It gives a huge atmosphere with a crowd of 100.000 people. Two days before the game the refereeing team arrives, also to get used to the high altitude. “You can still sprint there, but need a longer recovery.”
“My top speed is really quick. Last official test in Duby my fastest 30m sprint was 3.87 seconds and the average 3.91s.” (age 41). They have to complete it in 5.1 seconds to pass the test.
Mentors in your career
The most-experienced FIFA assistant referee is Hector Vergara, also from Canada. “But before FIFA I never interacted with him actually”, Joe Fletcher says. “We were both at the u20 World Cup in Canada”. Fletcher says his mentor at lower levels in Canada was Michael Lambert, a former national referee. “For every hurdle you take as referee there is someone you run into. Don’t forget the mentors at the very beginning of your career.”
Every game is a big game
“You constantly need to be ready for a big game. And treat every game as a big game. You can’t give sixty to seventy percent in the matches without assessor and a hundred percent when there is someone observing. That is not possible, because you’re not used to it.”
“Doing matches is not similar as training, as it’s physically and mentally different. During a game you have to literally give everything. You can’t conserve energy. It’s also muscle memory, you can’t go from gear two to ten.
Before every game with a new referee Joe Fletcher tries to have lunch or a call with the referee before they meet in the locker room. “Especially when we use radio”. It’s his way to get to know the person he’ll be working with. This contact before the game gives Fletcher the opportunity for better teamwork during the game. It gives him a better impression who he’s going to work with. “Some referees want silence, some want to know everything. As AR you have to morph, change based on the wishes of the referee. Once in the dressing room there is not as much time to talk about how you want to communicate as a team.”
During transit to the stadium he listens to music. That’s when he gets into focus. “I’ll accommodate in the dressing room. But I loved working with Mark. He wants info. I am a personality myself, so not always calm.” They worked together along with other assistant referee Sean Hurd and the u20 World Cup in Columbia was their first big tournament together.
Kind enough to be a Canadian
He speaks highly of working with Mark Geiger, a US referee that “is a kind enough person to be a Canadian”. He laughs. But then serious. “If we both see something, in 95% of the cases we think the same.” They share clips in group chats to see how they think of match situations. “We create a common understanding and our teamwork will benefit from it. Our friendship works and my view is never ignored. We communicate clearly and in the end Mark has the final say. In the dressing room we can openly say we had a different view.”
For the 2018 World Cup Mark Geiger and Joe Fletcher worked with Frank Anderson. That gave it a different dimension, as he only joined them late in 2017. “We already had a 4 year headstart in our friendship and working with Sean was perfect for Mark. He should not have two big personalities as ARs. It’s then always different when someone joins your team. But I am happy Frank is also a fantastic guy and I hope he’ll be at the next World Cup as well.”
For the 2018 World Cup two US referees were chosen, but it doesn’t automatically mean all ARs go as well. There is no guarantee. You always need to work hard.”
Helping other referees
“Now I’ve quit, I want to help other referees as well. Hopefully I’ll get to attend the Futuro courses by FIFA. Someone helped me on the way, i want to do somethin as well. I’ll stick with my speciality as AR and hopefully there will be a place for me to help.“
Update: On January 13 2020 Joe has been appointed as Manager of Senior Assistant Referees at Professional Referee Organization. He says: “Now it’s my job to take an already elite group of Assistant Referees and push them all to be even better.”
3 tips for referees
- From a personal standpoint it is the greatest compliment to get if a referee says: I want you on my team. And you need to know your role then, as I did from the frist match as FIAF refree. You have to accept you are the bass player, most people won’t know you.
- If you want to be a good AR, you need the technical understanding of Law 12 about Fouls and Misconduct. And probably, not far away, your watch says it’s offside. You then still need to know how and when to help. You need understanding of refereeing.
- Never leave anything to chance. You should never think: I should have put in more. You may not always be right, but you need to feel good about yourself.