Time to move on...
So to the end of the decade. A decade that saw the wonderful birth of a child and the sad loss of a father. One with personal highs and lows, just like everyone else I guess.
Professionally it’s been a decade of unimaginable highs and the lowest lows I could ever have imagined. Promotion to the Premier League following 3 red cards on debut at Southampton seems so long ago now. Progression to the FIFA International list followed and the opportunity to represent my country on the international stage, the highest achievement any referee can receive. A Community Shield between Arsenal and Chelsea at a full Wembley, a Championship Play Off Final with the added spice of a Yorkshire derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City, 4th Official on the FA Cup Final, refereed the FA Youth Cup Final...in fact on the pitch it was a pretty successful decade on the whole. Today I sit and look at the medals and the footballs from those games in my living room and ask myself “where did it all go wrong?” The dream of not just being Fourth Official on the FA Cup Final, to lead my own team out at Wembley and achieve a lifetime ambition is one that was so close but will now only ever be a what could have been. It’s hard to accept and it has been a struggle to come to terms with that and many other things for 18 months now.
As the decade ends, I feel it’s time to let the past go now. Time to speak about what happened over the last 18 months that led me to reach the darkest places I’ve ever been to and places that I hope I never return to going forward.
I fully understand that there will be parts of what I write here that do not show me in the best light. Parts that I regret, that I should not have done and that I have always accepted responsibility for and apologised for.
When you read this I would like for you to ask yourself honestly just one question before making judgement of me...
‘Have I ever done that!’
I’m sure some may say no. I’m also certain that 95%+ will say actually yes I probably have in some closed WhatsApp group or chat with close trusted friends. Please bear this point in mind. It’s not an attempt to excuse anything I say later, it’s an attempt to explain and hopefully put things into the context I feel they deserve to be in.
It was reported when I left the Premier League in August 2018 that i had relocated for personal reasons. True to a degree. The personal reasons however were never confirmed.
The Guardian wrote a piece saying I had left and then at the end, quite randomly, stated that it may have something to do with a video I had posted on social media. This surprised me somewhat. Premier League referees are not allowed a social media account. No Twitter, no Facebook...so the idea of me posting on social media wasn’t even possible. Even so...Twitter did what Twitter does...at the possibility of a scandal it goes into meltdown and everyone becomes a detective. Rumours began to appear on Twitter that the reason I left is because I had been filmed having sex with a dog. I have to say I found this hilarious to begin with that people would somehow arrive at that conclusion. The fact was somebody posted that I’m a ‘dog botherer’ in relation to me being a Huddersfield Town fan (the Terriers) and so the rumour began. The more the day went on the less funny it became. Suddenly people were taking this seriously and now copying the story to the police on twitter saying I should be investigated. Others stated they had seen the video themselves and that I was disgusting and should be arrested. People have no idea the reputational damage something like that can do, never mind the mental issues it can cause. Even at Headingley while watching Yorkshire v Notts in a T20 I was verbally abused in the stands which very nearly ended in a fight.
Whilst I didn’t have my own social media page at the time, I was reading threats against me, very serious threats, from animal rights people who were trying to find out my address. The evening ended up with police protection for me due to these threats being taken very seriously. The story trended worldwide that evening and since that day I have received abuse regarding what is ultimately a ridiculous story.
Days later a newspaper, The Sun, the bearer of all truths, made claims of an exclusive. They claimed I had been sacked by PGMOL for posting a video on Snapchat of me bullying a disabled person. Whilst I didn’t have a social media account, I do have Snapchat. Snapchat is something I can control and never put things on my story for all to see. I can choose who I send anything to as I’m sure you’re aware and I only had close friends and family on there. This did not constitute a social media account regarding my employment.
For the next few months I was destroyed in the media and on social media. I chose not to comment on the stories which would ultimately give the tabloids what they wanted, the exclusive. What I experienced over the next few months was how devastating the British press can be and just how easily they are prepared to make up lies. For example, it was reported that I had split with my wife for my new Norwegian ‘blonde bombshell’ who was a former singer in a band called the Wizards of Oslo. She had tried to make it big on YouTube but had failed according to the paper. The truth? She was never in a band. She has never posted a single video of herself singing anything on YouTube...she’s a nurse on the infectious medicine ward at Ullevål Hospital in Oslo. I had split with my ex partner around 20 months prior to this story being published. The level of fake news and lies that they were prepared to go to was astounding.
So what is the truth?
The truth is that part of that story produced by the media is true. I’m not proud of myself for this next bit and I have to live with this for the rest of my life. It destroyed my career, my reputation and caused immeasurable damage to my family life that I won’t go into.
I’d like to start by stating that my dad, Harry, who passed away from cancer in 2011, was physically disabled for my whole life. I know more than most the difficulties of living with disability. My mum had to resign from her job as a nurse to care for him at home and as a result we were a family that relied on benefits. We lived in a council house in Ossett, West Yorkshire and lived absolutely on the breadline as my parents struggled but succeeded in giving my brother and myself a very happy upbringing.
The above story is not designed to create sympathy for me. I’m aware that many families have stories that are much worse than my own. However the fact my dad was disabled places the fact that I have been labelled as discriminatory somewhat into context.
I attended a sports day for my daughter. In the years prior to that years event I had joked with parents about not taking part in a parents race...claims back at me that I was scared of losing. All good banter. A few months prior to this a former referee, Mark Halsey, had written a newspaper article saying I was making mistakes because I was too fat. The full page and headline of ‘Blobby Bobby’ may seem funny to some but trust me being fat shamed in a national newspaper is not a nice feeling.
As I sat in my car with my phone in hand a person walked past my car in front of me who had a walking impairment. The next part I am ashamed of. I took a 6 second film, I said nothing. I did this in Snapchat which is where I take all of my films that I intend to save to my phone. On the video I wrote, “F**k me I have a chance of winning the parents race this year.” Out of context I accept this reads shamefully. I accept that. However my intention was that the joke was aimed at myself. Had I have sent this to anyone on Snapchat then I would accept the decision that later came as a result. I didn’t do that though. I saved it to my phone. I sent it as a private text to somebody who I trusted, somebody who had been a huge part of my life for the previous 10 years and who I was on reasonable terms with. Somebody who understood the context of previous sports day comments and was aware of the fat shaming I had received.
I regret taking the video, I regret sending that video and whilst it was a dark humoured joke it was just that. A joke. It was not intended to shame anyone, it was not intended to be seen by anyone other than the person I sent it privately to in a text message on my own personal phone (not a work phone).
A few weeks later I had an argument with the same person regarding a family issue at which point I was threatened for the first time regarding this video with the comment “what would your boss say if it ended up on his desk”.
At the time of this chat I was in Norway. I had driven there in order to collect my partners belongings as she was moving to England with me a few days later. On the way back to England a few days later,around Hamburg in fact, I received a phone call from my manager. An anonymous package had been received regarding me and could I meet with them before I went away on holiday (I was going to Greece for a week the week after). I agreed to meet in London on my way home, a meeting I was absolutely under the impression was a casual informal chat and hadn’t been told what I was actually there to discuss, just that it related to me and that it needed clearing up before I go away. I stayed in Holland that evening and drove straight to London the next morning. On entering the room in was clear that it was not the casual meeting I was led to believe I was going in for. HR were present along with a laptop on the table. My employers had received a USB and an anonymous letter saying I had sent this video. It was turned to face me and I was asked if I sent this. I admitted it immediately. I never once at any stage sought to deny or even to excuse it. I told them who I sent it to and that it was one private text message on my own phone and explained the context.
Two weeks later, I attended a formal disciplinary hearing in which I produced a statement from that person who had received the text message stating that it would not be sent to press and that it was only intended to embarrass me. I felt I would be given a stern warning and some level of written warning maybe even a final written warning. This was echoed by the union representative who felt the case, whilst not showing me in the best light, was clearly a private joke with someone I trusted and given the fact my own dad was disabled and the fact that I produced evidence that I do work for disabled children’s charities in my own time would be taken into account. It wasn’t. I was dismissed with immediate effect for gross misconduct on grounds of discrimination. At that point my world fell apart. I was not offered the opportunity to attend discrimination training and be put on a warning, sonething that whilst I know I am 100% aware of what discrimination is, would show my employer that I would be willing to engage in this. It was denied. Whilst I absolutely understand the importance of an employer taking discrimination seriously as they did, the decision to this day still stuns me. The same week as that a politician referred to Muslim women as letterboxes and made no apology. That man now leads the country as PM. Whilst my actions were badly misjudged, it was a joke. A private joke. Something that I am certain pretty much everyone reading this has done with friends/partners in the privacy of their relationships and with no expectation that that person would ever allow that to be used to end their professional career.
I started refereeing at 16, my career was over at 32. I had my dream job, a well paid and incredibly enjoyable job that I loved every single minute of. The footballs and medals are now all I have to remember those years of dedication and hard work. I now have Twitter, I try to help young referees where possible, offering advice on their own blossoming refereeing careers. I stand proud on there to support the fight against racism and to support all within the LGBT community both inside and outside of football. I am far from a discriminatory person and yet that is what I am labelled as when you google my name. That hurts. The last 18 months have been mental torture for me and but for those close friends and family around me, as well as a strong partner, I dread to think what could have become.
I feel now is the time to try to move forward. To put the past behind me and to rebuild both my reputation and my life as a whole. I still struggle to sleep, I still suffer mentally day to day to try to find the person I am now rather than clinging to the person I once was.
Hopefully 2020 will be the start of the new me. I am not proud of that video and as I said I have to live with that for the rest of my life. In context, it was a 6 second video, a dark private joke that cost me my career. I will never be able to accept that the decision taken was either necessary nor was it proportionate to the act. I can’t change that now. The irony is that I have spent the last 18 months defending my former colleagues, being supportive of the company regarding the implementation of VAR and have sought to throw nobody under the bus, either the person I sent it to nor my former employer. I am proud that I have kept my dignity and integrity and hopefully I can move forward on and off the pitch and learn from my own mistakes, maybe I can use that to help others and make sure they don’t make the same mistake I did that lost me everything.
Please don’t think bad of me. I’m a human being who made one mistake, one that many many people have done themselves and not lost everything for. Again, I have to pick those pieces up.