Sam Allison is set to become the first black referee of a Premier League match in 15 years, but why has it taken so long?
For semi-professional referee Ashley Hickson-Lovence, the appointment is “tinged with a bit of sadness” as he feels it is something that “should be happening more regularly”.
“I think it’s a huge achievement, but there’s still a long way to go,” Hickson-Lovence tells BBC Sport.
Former firefighter Allison, 42, was appointed to the fixture by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), which has set itself targets of increasing the diversity of match officials across the footballing pyramid.
The governing body wants an increase of 1,000 women referees and 1,000 black or Asian referees at all levels of football in three years.
Allison’s appointment is the first step towards their goal – but why has it taken 15 years?
‘Oh, it’s a black referee’
The first black referee in the Premier League was Uriah Rennie. The magistrate, from Sheffield, took charge of more than 300 top-flight fixtures between 1997 and 2008.
Match of the Day pundit Ian Wright was playing for Arsenal when Rennie arrived in the top flight, and told BBC Sport how he remembered talking with team-mates about the appointment.
“Well, obviously with the announcement, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a black referee’. It was more like, ‘Oh, it’s a black referee’,” the former England striker, 60, recalled.
“I always found that when I played with him [as the referee] there was no real interaction.
“With some of the other referees, you could speak to them, have a little banter. And I think that the pressure he probably would have been under – to not have that kind of interaction with the other black players – must have been really intense, simply because of what people might say.”
Rennie took charge of his final game in the Premier League on the last day of the 2007-08 season.
At 6ft 2in and a practitioner of kick-boxing and aikido, Rennie was an imposing figure who players soon learned would be more than comfortable standing his ground during an exchange.
Yet, Rennie’s appointment failed to usher in the next generation of black, Asian or mixed heritage referees.
“That is a big surprise, because Asian and black referees are out there,” said Wright, an advocate for diversity in the men’s and women’s game. “Maybe the path to get them to that elite level needs to be looked at.
“There can’t be that many around, and that many not getting through. We need to find out where the blockage is.
“If we’re going to go on Uriah and his performances, he was a good referee. If people are looking at it and going: ‘As a black referee, can he deal with that kind of pressure?’ Yes he can.
“So, black referees can, Asian referees can and referees of colour can. So you’re wondering where the blockage is.”
‘The referees’ graveyard’
Howard Webb, head of refereeing at the PGMOL, described Allison’s appointment as a “pivotal moment” for the sport – coming three days after Rebecca Welch was the first female referee at a Premier League game, taking charge of Burnley’s 2-0 win at Fulham.
“They deserve their opportunity – they have been refereeing really well in the Football League (EFL) and the Championship,” said Webb.
“Sam is a talented official. Maybe he’ll serve as a role model for other young people who were thinking refereeing might not be for them.
“Refereeing can be for anybody who has a love of the game and the qualities required.”
According to the Football Association, there are 32,000 referees working at all levels of football in England.
Just over 8% identify as black, Asian or mixed heritage, and that figure drops to 2.5% for the men’s professional game.
Hickson-Lovence dreamed of being a professional footballer. When he failed to fulfil those ambitions, he saw refereeing as a way to continue in the sport he loved.
The 32-year-old is currently a county level four-ranked match official and promotion would enable him to oversee National League games.
“Level four in the refereeing ladder is known as ‘the referees’ graveyard’. And even the connotations of graveyard is very fitting because reaching level four was the death of my refereeing career,” said Hickson-Lovence.
“Because that’s as far as I got before I stopped.”
He quit refereeing in 2019 after feeling his career was in limbo. Hickson-Lovence says his experience is typical for black referees who often find it difficult to progress beyond this stage.
“I was doing everything I could to come across as professional, especially if I had an observer,” he adds.
“And I started to notice certain things and hear certain things that would imply that there was more at play than just my ability on the football field.”
Removing potential blocks in the system
Traditionally, referees had to have worked at every step of the English footballing pyramid before being eligible for promotion to the Premier League – and that usually took more than 10 years. But officials can now be fast-tracked.
Several factors are considered when promoting or demoting referees. Hickson-Lovence said being marked by an FA-appointed observer was when he often felt he was being judged unfairly.
“I can name 10 other referees that were coming up through the system at the same time as I was and they have similar stories, anecdotes and experiences of being marked down,” he said.
He said he felt they were disregarded and judged in a very demeaning manner at times.
“Little comments started to add up. Comments about my hair, which was a high-top style cut at the time. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate it as a black person or as a person of colour – hard to put your finger on what it is exactly.
“But you know – you just know,” he added.
In response, a Football Association spokesperson said: “We want English football to be truly reflective of our modern and diverse society across all areas of the game.
“In July 2023, we launched our new refereeing strategy, which includes our commitment to making refereeing more inclusive.
“One of the core pillars of this new strategy is our plan to significantly improve the diversity of our match officials throughout the football pyramid, both by encouraging more people from underrepresented groups to take up refereeing, as well as removing potential blocks in the system that make progression harder.
“The recruitment, retention and development of referees from all backgrounds is fundamental to our new strategy, and we want to ensure that everyone can feel valued and supported at all levels of the game.”
Hickson-Lovence recently returned to refereeing, saying that he wanted to use his experiences to help others navigate the officiating pyramid.
He also says he’s encouraged by the PGMOL’s actions of late, and having black officials is important – because it was seeing Rennie on television that inspired him to pursue it as a possible career.
“The FA are doing really good things,” he said.
“And the appointment of Sam Allison really epitomises some of the changes that are taking place and the positive steps which are happening.”