INTERVIEW: Referee Neil has proved dreams can come true

Referee Neil Hair issues a red card in the first minute of the National League play-off final at Wembley.
Referee Neil Hair issues a red card in the first minute of the National League play-off final at Wembley.
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It’s taken 22 years, roughly 1,300 matches and a lot of patience, but Peterborough man Neil Hair has finally achieved his dream of becoming a Football League referee.

The 37 year-old PE instructor at Stanground Academy can officiate League One and League Two games next season after winning promotion from the National League list.

It’s a reward for some excellent showings culminating in a terrific display at Wembley in the National League play-off final last month when he dismissed Tranmere defender Liam Ridehalgh after just 45 seconds, a decision that won him universal praise.

News of his elevation to the Football League ranks followed swiftly. Not bad for a lad whose first match with a whistle was an under 15 schoolboy match between Peterborough and Huntingdon.

He travelled through the Peterborough & District Junior Alliance, the Peterborough League, the Peterborough Sunday Morning League and regional leagues to get to his current level.

“It was a dream rather than an expectation to referee in the Football League when I started,” Hair said. “I guess it’s the same for most young referees, but not many make it so it’s a very proud moment for me.

“There have been many ups and downs along the way, but things really took off for me last season when I was given an FA Cup first round tie, the final of the FA County Youth Cup, an FA Vase semi-final and an FA Trophy quarter-final before the Wembley match.

“The signs were good that I had a chance, but you never know in football so I had to be patient. When the confirmation did arrive I was thrilled to bits. I thought I had a good chance of promotion the previous season, but I made a few wrong decisions towards the end which probably cost me.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and now the plan is to keep working hard and keep improving and see how far I can get.

“I am young enough to get to the Premier League, but I will need to progress quickly.

“Wembley was my career highlight. There were 16,000 there which is the biggest crowd I’ve experienced as a referee. The early red card was a test, but my initial thought was to send the player off and I had to take the responsibility myself as I was in such a great position.

“It’s not the earliest red card of my career though. I once sent a goalkeeper off after 10 seconds!”

Football League referees are part-time so Hair is currently negotiating with his employers for time off when appointed to Tuesday night games.

He is following a strict fitness programme which includes a permanent heart monitor.

Hair’s coaches include former top-flight referee Steve Dunn, but he also has a decent mentor closer to home as dad Michael is a former Football League assistant referee.

Football League referees earn £375 a match plus travelling expenses.