Well-known referee Neal Saxton won’t be hanging up his whistle just yet after being recognised by the Sussex County FA and the Football Association for 25 years of continual service.
The official, known affectionately as Barnsley due to his distinct accent, has been rewarded with certificates for his services given across the county and further.
The 62-year-old from Wisborough Green has officiated at Southern Combination League and West Sussex League level for many years, he has run the rule in the FA Cup, FA Youth Cup and the FA Women’s Cup and also called the shots in America and Norway during his career.
Saxton - who may not be top of some local players’ Christmas card list, owing to handing out plenty cards of his own over the years - admits he has a ‘unique’ style in the middle and has given his views on the ever-changing game he has witnessed over the years.
After so two and a half decades on the circuit, Saxton has many quirky stories to tell and he recalled: “One of the best memories would have to be officiating the Brighton under-20s against Barnsley at the Withdean Stadium.
“I was on the line, and I got a few looks from some of the Brighton boys after hearing my Barnsley twang. They thought I was a fan.
“We had another one many years ago when I was officiating at Three Bridges, he continued.
“The assistant that came along said to me ‘It’s great being back here. Last night I was doing a reserves section game and I left my kit here.’
“He starts getting changed, and he stinks. The other referee and his assistant went ‘Right you, outside’ and made him get changed outside because his kit stunk.
“It gets to half-time and he belts back in and he disappears. I said, ‘where’s he gone?’ He’d gone to the burger bar and bought a burger at half-time, we got our reward in the second half as he ended up throwing it all back up.
“He came up to me at the end of the game and said to me ‘That burger must be off’.”
Saxton played for both Cranleigh and Alfold in the Surrey Senior and Intermediate League and then West Sussex League before picking up his whistle.
The referee was also happy to admit that he has made some mistakes in his time, but was keen to highlight that these are a rarity.
He said: “There was one where I have overruled my assistant for a goal kick. The players are appealing for a corner and I said to them I make the decisions and after the game we’ll look at the video and see if you were right. The player turned round to me and went ‘we haven’t got a video’ so I said ‘there we are then’.
“I must be that good that I don’t make many mistakes but I’m sure others will tell you differently.”
When asked about his likes and dislikes of refereeing, Saxton added: “My style of refereeing is quite unique for the county. I’m quite vocal, I tell them to shut their gobs and get on with it.
“I refereed Wick under-21s against Horsham YMCA under-21s and I had two young assistants there and they said they’d not often seen refereeing like that.
“After the game the managers came up to me and congratulated me, and that’s the real reward. When someone recognises you’ve had a good game.
“The downside is that I hate dissent and there was a lot of that at Pulborough versus Southwater not long ago. They can kick each other up in the air, but if they start having a pop I don’t like it.
“I’d cautioned two already from Pulborough and the one of them sat on the touchline and started clapping and taking the mick, so I get him again so he got sent off.
“After the game, warming down, he came up to me and started having a go again. He asked to talk to me three times so I said ‘go away son before you get yourself into trouble’. I said it three times so what can you do?”
Saxton feels that the game has changed dramatically since he started. He pinpoints Sky as the moment that it all changed for the players.
He continued: “What’s happened, I think, is that unfortunately you’ll always get people like me and players that think it is never as good as it was. I think it’s faster, I think there’s better equipment, and more of it, more knowledge, but Sky, as much as it’s improved it, has ruined it.
“Whatever they see on there is copied. We now get constant dissent, constant backchat. Players says to me, ‘you can’t send me off for swearing, I’ve seen them doing it on TV’. TV is different. It’s more professional and you’re dealing with thousands of pounds and everything.
“I hit the whistle at one game and said ‘mind the language boys, those three ladies on the line haven’t come here to hear you all swear’. One of the ladies then goes ‘oh it doesn’t bother us, we don’t mind’, something like that anyway. What you see on Sky is what you get. You get it down in the County League.”
After a quarter of a century refereeing, Saxton has no plans of stopping just yet, still maintaining his fitness to be able to keep up with the demands of football.
He said: “What I shall do is a) carry on while I’m enjoying it and b) for forever how long my legs last. I want to referee at the highest level I can for as long as I can.
“Each year I used to do a fitness test. I still go running and the boys know I do about a 12 minute run and that takes me past The Cricketers Arms pub, in Wisborough Green.
“The lads will be out and see me running past and go ‘keep running you fat so and so.’ Then you come running back the other way and they’re all holding glasses of cold lager saying ‘this is fantastic, you’re missing out’.”