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Footballers' Lives with Gareth Eakin: 'I've needed Garda protection and battled hypothermia but it's a journey with amazing memories'


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Proud dad: Gareth Eakin relaxes at home with baby son Spencer

Proud dad: Gareth Eakin relaxes at home with baby son Spencer

Ray of sunshine: Gareth with wife Sandra and their baby son Spencer

Ray of sunshine: Gareth with wife Sandra and their baby son Spencer

Proud dad: Gareth Eakin relaxes at home with baby son Spencer

From the Irish League to the top of world game, match official Gareth Eakin has seen it all.

Q Did you have much of a playing career?

A I played for the Boys' Brigade and also Portadown Boys, then at 16 I started playing for Portadown BBOB. I was a goalkeeper but from early on I knew that I wasn't good enough even though I tried my best.

Q What motivated you to become an assistant referee and how did it all come about?

A I was very keen to be involved in the game in some way but through encouragement from my officers in the Boys' Brigade, I signed up to a referee beginners' course in Banbridge. Only three people turned up to do the course and even at that, one guy dropped out after the first week. Jimmy Duffy took the course and he totally inspired me to give refereeing a go.

Q Did you not ever fancy becoming the man in the middle?

A I was only interested in being the man in the middle. I started refereeing when I was 17 so I instantly became a rare breed within refereeing circles as most referees at that time took up the whistle after their playing career. I progressed well through the levels as a referee but my main ambition was always to get onto the FIFA list. There were opportunities to get onto the Assistants' list but at the time there was little chance of spots becoming available for quite a while as a referee so this made the decision easy for me.

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Gareth Eaking (left) in action with referee Keith Kennedy.

Gareth Eaking (left) in action with referee Keith Kennedy.

Pacemaker

Gareth Eaking (left) in action with referee Keith Kennedy.

 

Q What have been the big games you have been involved in and what have been your highlights so far?

A Ronnie Cromwell who helped me greatly in my career always reminded me that "for the 22 players involved in your game, the game is very important". This advice has always stayed with me, reminding me to give of my best in all the games that I officiate in, no matter how big or small. I have been fortunate to be involved in four Irish Cup Finals and more than 70 internationals. I have been fortunate to officiate in Saudi Arabia a number of times and my last visit involved refereeing Al Hilal, the Saudi and Asia champions. Our warm-up was shortened because there was a call to prayer in the stadium - surreal.

Q The Republic of Ireland v England game at the Aviva must have been memorable. How do you reflect on that?

A With so much history connected with this game, the build-up was massive in the media. Plus, many of the internationals that I have been involved in have not been on UK terrestrial television. So this added to the pressure going into the game but thankfully the game went well for us. Experiencing the quality of elite players up close was amazing and something that I won't forget.

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Gareth Eakin takes in his surroundings at the Aviva Stadium

Gareth Eakin takes in his surroundings at the Aviva Stadium

Gareth Eakin takes in his surroundings at the Aviva Stadium

 

Q The assistant referee can be quite close to supporters. Have you heard much abuse or been worried about your safety?

A Every official receives abuse but my interpretation is that the supporters are abusing the uniform rather than the person. This helps to keep me detached from the abuse. The only time, I felt concerned for my safety was at a Setanta Cup match in Dublin between St Patrick's and Glentoran when the stewards struggled to contain the home fans so much so that the Gardai were called in to protect us.

Q What about the players, are they mostly respectful?

A There are many occasions when the abuse from players is more to try to get into your head rather than annoy you. I will always remember a manager in the Championship coming into our changing room at half-time claiming that he had watched the footage back on a laptop of a red card incident and that we had got it wrong. We asked him to bring the laptop to us but he said that he couldn't because the laptop battery was broke. I found out after the game that there wasn't even a camera at the game.

Q You experienced hypothermia during the Larne v Warrenpoint Town game earlier this season. What happened that day and has it made you more worried about your health?

A In the first half, I had very little to do. The weather deteriorated dramatically to the point that I became dizzy with the cold and just before half-time I fell to my knees. Thankfully, the Larne physio and St John ambulance people worked with me in the changing room and got me sorted. The general manager at Larne, Niall Curneen, was a great help as well in providing cups of tea and cake.

Q Away from football, where do you work and what other interests do you have?

A I am an ICT teacher in Clounagh Junior High School in Portadown which is beside Shamrock Park. I'm fortunate that my principal is an Irish League legend, Raymond Hill, and has been very supportive in my refereeing. I am also involved in New Mills Presbyterian Church in Portadown.

Q How supportive has your wife Sandra been?

A Sandra and I are blessed to have a seven-month-old baby called Spencer. Sandra has very little interest in football but has been a great emotional support.

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Ray of sunshine: Gareth with wife Sandra and their baby son Spencer

Ray of sunshine: Gareth with wife Sandra and their baby son Spencer

Ray of sunshine: Gareth with wife Sandra and their baby son Spencer

Q How has your life been impacted by the coronavirus?

A Football is totally unimportant at the moment. My thoughts and prayers are with the many families grieving in the cruellest way. Our public services are doing an incredible job in extremely difficult circumstances. The health minister (Robin Swann) has such an incredibly difficult job - he needs all the support he can get.

Q Would you encourage trying assistant refereeing?

A I put beginners through a course to qualify them to referee. Recruitment has been a real struggle even though the opportunities for referees have never been greater. I would suggest that anyone interested in becoming a referee should email Trevor Moutray at the IFA. The IFA have so many support networks in place to help referees.

Q What has been the most difficult time of your life?

A Before Christmas, my father Noel was diagnosed with prostate cancer which was a major shock to the wider family especially considering how fit and healthy my dad has always been. Fortunately, he had an operation recently to get his prostate removed. At the moment, he is recovering and is doing well mainly through the great help of my mum Eileen.

Q Is there any of the game's rules you don't like?

A The law changes for this season are a real improvement by making the game flow better and be fairer. I really like the changes in place for disciplinary sanctions for the technical areas. One frustration is still the pulling and pushing that goes on by both attackers and defenders in the penalty area at corners or free-kicks. If the referee had the power to temporarily remove the players involved before the kick was taken then this would dramatically help this problem. These players would then re-join play after the next stoppage.

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Gareth Eakin (right) on duty with referee Arnold Hunter (centre) and assistant referee Richard Storey

Gareth Eakin (right) on duty with referee Arnold Hunter (centre) and assistant referee Richard Storey

Gareth Eakin (right) on duty with referee Arnold Hunter (centre) and assistant referee Richard Storey

 

Q What do you think about VAR?

A I have been involved in one game involving VAR and I'm a big supporter of it. Football is a huge business and demands the right outcome. VAR is never going to be perfect because there is still human involvement. It adds to the drama of the occasion. Rarely does the media mention a poor performance by the referee but are more focused on the interventions or lack of them by VAR.

Snapshot

Date of birth: February 26, 1979

Place of birth: Portadown.

Current position: Assistant referee and Fifa official, Danske Bank Premiership

Belfast Telegraph