Podcast: Powerchair football refereeing

The Disability Download

Joshua Reeves catches up with Nathan Mattick, the first ever wheelchair user to qualify as a football referee in the UK. Nathan talks all about his journey to becoming a referee, the impact of Covid and his hopes for the future.



Nathan Mattick: If anyone who has a disability listening to this that may want to go into coaching or into refereeing or into any other aspect of football, I would recommend you go for it, because you know any door could open through anything that you do. So with me doing refereeing, it's opened so many doors for me.

Erin O’Reilly: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download, The Disability Download is brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire, I'm Erin O’Reilly and on this podcast we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.

Hi everyone and thanks for tuning in. So after an exciting summer of sport, the football season is now well and truly upon us - although, did it ever really go away? So we've got a bit of a football themed episode this month as Josh Reeves catches up with Nathan Mattick, the first ever wheelchair user to qualify as a football referee in the UK. And Nathan is qualified to officiate both disabled and non-disabled matches, taking place indoors and outside. So, let's hear all about his journey!


Joshua Reeves: Nathan welcome to The Disability Download, it's lovely to have you on here. Obviously, I've known you for some time now and it would be very good to know about your history and why that you become the first ever wheelchair user that is a referee. So yeah if you could introduce yourself and basically I want to find out why you became a referee and what is it like?

Nathan: Well, first of all, thanks Josh for having me, it's a real pleasure to talk to you. Really it's about... I've always loved football since I was really, really young and I enjoyed watching it on telly and I still do. And I said to my dad one day when I was younger when I'm watching a fixture on the telly, saying I noticed the role of the referee and at that time and said to him, could I become a referee and see if if I could be part of the game that I love?

Because yes, there are wheelchair football and other means of getting involved in football. But I felt that refereeing could be a very good opportunity because, to be honest, I'm not a huge fan of being a player. I like to kind of be able to contribute in a different way, which I felt at the time was to be a referee. Unfortunately at the time of...when I was speaking to my Dad about it, I wasn't able to become a referee due to my age, so I had to wait a number of years for that to obviously be able to do that sort of job. So when I was in secondary school I spoke to my school and said that I'd like to become a referee and it's something that I've always wanted to do and basically what we did was to try and work out how possible it could be to become a referee.

So they decided to give me a little bit of experience by giving me a whistle and being able to referee my friend’s games at lunchtime and also during P.E. or game sessions that we had at school. And so that gave me a bit of experience of what it actually is like to actually officiate a game, even though if it's just a, you know, a friendly game, or maybe a, you know a lesson, just to get a bit more experience. So that I'm not just going straight into it and seeing if I actually like it, because if I didn't like it, what's the actual point of going forward and doing that job. And I still knew I wanted to do it 'cause I thought I would be able to really enjoy it and every time I used to referee that game and during that lunch time or the game sessions, I just loved it. And I was like right I would love to make sure I do it.

So when I was in year 11 we looked at the opportunities of maybe doing a course of football, but unfortunately it just didn't work out at the time. So when I left my secondary school in July of 2012 I was like right, how am I going to still be able to do this job? Because I really, really want to do it. So we did discuss whether I would stay on at sixth form or whether I would have moved on and went to a college. And at the time I was going to go to a different college down South in Hampshire.

However that didn't happen and I went to the National Star College in September 2012, which I think was the best decision that I actually made. And also then I kind of made that decision to make sure that, let's explore even further about refereeing because it was something that I really, really wanted to do and if it, if it was possible, great. If it's not, then maybe there might have been another means of being able to be involved in this sport I love.

So this is when I obviously met you, Josh and I spoke to the sports department and said right I really, really want to make it a goal to become a referee. I tried to do it at secondary school but it wasn't possible. Can we try and see if it's possible again? So at the time I contacted the Local Football Association and then I waited for a few weeks for an email. And in the end I got in contact with the Referee Development Officer at the time and said is it something that you might be able to help me with? And they were like absolutely let's try it. So they came to the college and did the course with me and we did that course and now I'm able to referee in in the Ability Counts League in where I live now. So it's been the best decision I've ever made and I'll never, ever forget the opportunity that I've been given. So yeah, it's been a really good journey. There's been ups and downs of course as every journey that you have. But it has been the best decision I have ever made in becoming a referee and I'll never look back on it, really.

Joshua: That's good. And with your refereeing, is it just games for people that are disabled or are the games for non-disabled people that play football? So who is it tailored to, your refereeing?

Nathan: So basically I referee in league called the Ability Counts league. Which is a league for people with disabilities, so that could range between people with Cerebral Palsy to Autism to other disabilities, and they're all able bodied.

So uhm we..I referee on a 3G pitch or an artificial pitch and we do a like a tournament based day, but in a league basis. So we have three pitches going on at the same time, of course the pitches are a lot smaller than 11 a side. So it's normally done at a local school or potentially a college or a university or even other places. And we just split the pitch into three so it's like a massive football pitch, but split into three.

So you have three different games going on at the same time. And yeah, it's a really...I absolutely love refereeing on that league. And yeah, it's a really good opportunity for me to be able to give back to the sport I love, but also being able to do something that I have always loved, always wanted to look into and always wanted to do. So yeah, it's been a, it's been a fantastic journey.

Joshua: That that's great and would you ever think that you could potentially ref non-disabled people is that not looking like yet?

Nathan: It definitely won't be 11-a-side football because obviously down to the fact of various different factors. My chair, my speed of the chair and also obviously that how big the pitch actually is. So certainly I would love to look into refereeing non-disabled people as well. And it's something that the FA and I will work out what I would like to do next. Because obviously the pandemic has affected me massively, and everybody, but mainly in football I haven't refereed for over possibly 18 months now or maybe a bit less than that. But I look forward to the time when I'm able to referee again, which hopefully will be back in September, so that's not too long away so that's something to look forward to.

Joshua: Yeah, and with the pandemic has it affected your mental health then with not being able to referee again?

Nathan: Yes, it's definitely affecting my mental health because I've had to be stuck indoors for most of the time like everyone else has. Yes, I've been...when the first pandemic hit in March sort of time when we had the first lockdown, I kind of had to kind of stay indoors and watch TV and watch sport and other things like that and also do some volunteering work and for different organisations which have been really really good for me. So I haven’t been like, stuck of doing things, so at least I have stuff to do. And also with the refereeing not being able to go to football, to rugby, to you know sporting events that I really enjoy has been tough, I have to be totally honest with you. Because I absolutely love going to sports grounds and being able to enjoy doing something that I really, really want to do. But it's something that with the pandemic I've kind of had to like work out what is the most important things to do.

So making sure you're busy, making sure you're doing something you enjoy, but also making sure you're safe and you're healthy too. Because I've had loads of Covid tests, all of them have come back negative. Uhm, because of the way where I live, so I live in supported living, so we've had to have regular Covid tests, which obviously aren't the most nice thing to do, but then they are vital to make sure that you are healthy. And you know, if you have the Covid test, it obviously makes sure as to work out if you have the virus or not. And thankfully, every time I've had them they've come back negative and so have my housemates’. So we're very grateful for that.

And the pandemic is obviously affecting so many different people in so many different ways. And hopefully now with the restrictions lifting here in England it's gonna be a little bit more easier to go and do more things. So the refereeing side will be hopefully something that I will start again in September, and then I've already started to go to some local sports events as well.

So I volunteer at Cheltenham Town Football Club who are in League One. So I mainly do the matchday programmes before the game and then I'm able to watch the game after. And I've been able to go to their three home pre-season fixtures, uh, which have been really, really good. And we've got our first home league game, not this Saturday, but next Saturday, so that'll be something I will look forward to and be able to go and do some things that I used to normally do, but on a regular basis.

So it's, starting about getting, starting to do what you did in the past, but a little bit slower, if that makes sense? It's just making, doing them in gradual steps and not going straight to it. Because for me, I sometimes go and watch Chelsea play football, so I'm kind of conscious at the moment about going straight back to Stamford Bridge and watching Chelsea play. Because this is such more of a bigger ground than Cheltenham Town. You've got more people to, to be with and so I will just take things slowly and see how things go really.

Joshua: Yeah, so and with obviously being a referee, well when do you reckon that you’re gonna have that time flow again where you can continue on progressing your referee skills? Because by now I guess that you only have a couple of games a year now because of the pandemic, where before you would have had a lot more games ahead. But yeah, but like is that...what do you reckon everything is gonna be back on track for you as a referee?

Nathan: Well, fingers crossed things start back in September and then I will just take things one step of time. If it takes a little bit longer than I expect, then I fully would respect that, and I think for me it's about doing them, doing it slowly but making sure everything is right. So maybe in the next, obviously we're gonna have a new normal now, so everyone is going to have to get... will get used. So it, it really depends. I'm just gonna, I'm just going to take thing everything one step at a time and see what the FA say, because uhm I will take their advice and I'm not that fussed in how long it takes, as long as everything is you know all good to go and it's and it's appropriate to do it during that sort of time. Because you never know what the next thing could happen with what's happening at the moment.

Joshua: Yeah, and to get...my question is do you get any like uhm like negative like reviews or not? Sorry not negative reviews but like negative like discrimination because of you're the first referee in a wheelchair? I just wanted to know because there could be people out there that that are ableists and I just want to know whether you have any positive and negative things come from being a referee you know, in a wheelchair?

Nathan: A good question. I've never really had negative feedback from anyone really, so I'm really grateful for that. And it's about when I referee, I've never really had any negative things happen. So that's really, really good. And in the sense of like outside in the community, I occasionally do get looks. I do occasionally get you know, comments from people because I'm in a wheelchair and I also sometimes get some unpleasant comments through my social media, 'cause people comment on certain things. And thankfully it’s a very minor, you know really small amount of people that do it. But mainly I get really positive feedback on social media. It's just a small little amount from people just being keyboard warriors really. But mainly it's really, really good feedback.

Joshua: Well, that's good, and I guess that I could see that you've met a lot of friends that are all referees as well, and that I bet you that they are glad to see that obviously disabled people can be referees. It's not the impossible. It's actually possible that anyone could be a referee and that it's good that to see that you are the first one but I bet you would love to see many more people like yourself, being a disabled person, becoming referees whether that's football, rugby or any other sport.

Nathan: Absolutely. I think if anyone who has a disability listening to this that may want to go into coaching or into refereeing or into any other aspect of football, I would recommend you go for it, because any door could open through anything that you do. So with me doing refereeing, it's opened so many doors for me, that I think if you don't try, you never know and that was the thing that I was thinking.

I was like when I referee my very first game I was extremely nervous because I didn't know how the players, or the managers or anyone would react to me being a referee in a wheelchair. And the reaction that I got was so positive that I was quite shocked if I'm being honest, but I was very, very grateful because I wasn't too sure how it would work out. But like if someone wanted to go into management, coaching, refereeing or any sort of other aspect into football, please do go for it because any door could open for you and you never know what could happen in the future.

Joshua: Yeah, and where do you view the future being a referee as well? I don't know whether they've got whether they have their own refs, but the Paralympics if you...could you ref in the Paralympics in the in the football?

Nathan: Good question! I've never really looked into that really, so I don't know, so I'm not gonna say yes, it yes I will because I don't know. So it's something that you never know in the future depending on what happens next with my refereeing. You never know it could happen where I could end up being a referee on the Paralympic Games, but, I don't know, who knows anything could happen!

Joshua: Yeah, and no I would like to see you referee a Paralympic game and that it would be good to see you actually doing your stuff on national TV because I I think that it needs to showcase that disabled people can do what they want to do. And I never thought that that a disabled person could be a referee because it's never happened. But then obviously you've, you've shine light to my eyes. I'm obviously I'm not into sport, but it's good to see people living their dream and stuff because anything can happen if you are disabled. And so, it’s not...people should focus on, not what you can’t do, but what you can do it. And I think that as more it shows that as well, being a referee for you. Before I close off this podcast, do you wanna plug anything in your Twitter? Your Facebook, any anything that you want to add?

Nathan: I think that one thing I will say is that I want to take the opportunity to say thank you to everybody who has helped me throughout this journey in being a referee. That's the FA, the Gloucestershire Football Association and so many other people, without your support I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now, so thank you so much. And one thing I will say is that I think there were two people that that inspired me to become a referee and you may be a little bit surprised on who they may be. But one of them is Howard Webb, who refereed the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain. He refereed many, many years in international football and as well as the top flight of English football as well.

And the second person that I look up to is Nigel Owens who is a rugby referee. I was very lucky enough to meet him a few years ago and for me he is such a fantastic person. And I think for me, well I love watching rugby as well and he was one of my favourite referees when I watched that sport. So he was definitely one of the people that inspired me to take up the whistle in football, and so was Howard Webb. So thank you to both of them as well and I look forward to the next few years as refereeing because hopefully I can do this for many, many more years to come. And I certainly won't be retiring let's put it that way!


Joshua: Uhm yeah. Thank you Nathan for being part of this podcast and it's been great talking to you, bye.

Nathan: Thank you Josh. It's been a pleasure to speak to you, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story.

Erin: That was a really great chat with Josh and Nathan, and super interesting to hear about Nathan's journey to becoming a referee and his future goals (mind the pun) too.


So if you're interested in following Nathan's journey, you can check out his Twitter @NathanMattick8 and I'll pop those links in the show notes of our Simplecast website as well.

As always we want to know what you think of the podcast and any guests you think we should have on, so please email us at disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org or contact us on Twitter and Instagram @LeonardCheshire - and please do remember to like, share and subscribe to the podcast.

Thanks so much for tuning in everyone, stay safe until next time, I'm Erin and this has been The Disability Download!