Mark Le Cornu is a man Jersey’s football fraternity is very familiar with. Besides being the JFA Combination’s registration secretary for as long as anyone can remember, he has been calling the shots as the man in the middle for nearly 30 years. And earlier this month, he was honoured to win the JFA Referee of the Season award for the seventh time.
If such an accolade suggests the high regard and respect Le Cornu has earned from his peers and the club managers who rate his performance each week, then he is quick to downplay it. Equally, he is proud to still be refereeing, and enjoy refereeing, at 64 years old – ‘fitter now than I was when I finished playing at 35’. With a shortage of referees available in the Island, he’s still needed, too. Thankfully, then, he has no plans to hang up his boots just yet.
Le Cornu regards his own approach to refereeing as ‘firm but fair, without fear or favour’.
‘I don’t referee to make friends,’ he said. ‘But equally I don’t go out there to make enemies. It’s not just about controlling the game, it’s about managing it. How you deal with two of the top five in the Premiership is different to how you deal with under-14s on a Sunday afternoon.
‘I’ve been involved in games that if I’d have been playing I would never have got close to,’ Le Cornu continues. ‘I’ve done nearly all the cup finals, Murattis, Uptons, the international under-21 tournaments that were held over here. I’ve been away to the UK for five or six of the early rounds of the FA Cup and FA Vase. I’ve had four Island Games, the two in Jersey, Isle of Man and Guernsey. So, OK, refereeing is not the same as playing, but it’s still a crucial part of the game.
‘In the most part I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve refereed probably around 2,000 games and I can only think of about half-a-dozen times when I’ve got home on a Saturday and thought “that wasn’t fun today”.’
Refereeing has always, generally, been a thankless task and it has tested the tolerance of many who have tried it. It’s certainly not a job for the thin-skinned, but those who do make a fist of it, like Le Cornu, tend to stick around. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world it can be a tough lot for the man in black and Jersey has still had its share of issues, including reports of abuse, as well as the general shortfall of qualified or available referees.
Le Cornu added: ‘Yes, referees do get abused, but how much do referees [in Jersey] get genuinely abused?
‘Most of the time, it’s what I call the low-level, minute-to-minute drip, drip, drip of “what about that ref? That’s our throw ref. You must have seen that ref”, which just goes over your head. Once I sent a guy off and he gave me a push with both hands and he got, I think, a 112 day suspension. But that’s the only time I have experienced anything like that. I had two or three occasions early on when someone was less than polite, shall we say, and again they were sent off and dealt with, but, certainly in my career these incidents were very few and far between.
‘What saddens me and angers me is that a number of people, players, managers and supporters, behave towards some of the younger referees in a way that try and manipulate and bully them, which they wouldn’t do to me or other experienced guys. They try it on with some of the youngsters and it’s so, so wrong because eventually they’re going to say “do you know what? I’m not sticking with this.”
‘There’s only so much we can push the young ones,’ Le Cornu continues. ‘When I started refereeing, guys got to their mid-thirties or so and thought “what can I do now? Oh, I think I’ll get into refereeing”, but you know as well as I do that there are eight over-35 teams in Jersey, so you’re looking at about 150 guys who could have been a referee. Maybe five of those could be referees, but they’re playing still.
‘Over the last eight to ten years we’ve probably picked up about three or four referees who had finished playing. Most of the [new] referees these days are just youngsters but there is only so far we can push them. They’ve got to stick with under-11s or under-12s and be mentored and supervised. We’ve got the likes of Harry Walker and Mikey Pih, both of whom are doing extremely well and it will be nice to think that in a year or two they will be doing Premiership football. [But] I would say we probably need another eight adult men, who can fairly quickly move into senior football.’
Which is all the more reason why the Jersey FA are appealing for more recruits and why the likes of Le Cornu are needed to stay in the game for as long as they are fit and healthy. Thankfully, he is more than willing.
‘I’ll know when,’ he says, when asked how long he can keep on going. ‘I think I’m in reasonable nick. I still train most days of the week. I still love it and I still want to do it.’