I never thought about being a referee until I received a phone call from Leeds & District Amateur Rugby League Secretary Aubrey Casewell.
This was in 1960 and it came about because playing Rugby League had become difficult for me, due to domestic and work commitment problems.
Aubrey was very persuasive and managed to talk me into having a go, so I attended a referees’ meeting at the old Church Institute and bingo, I was out touch-judging for some iconic referees of the day, Eric Clay, George Philpott, Matt Coates and Henry Pearce amongst others.
A few weeks of that and then I had my first `whistle’. I’ll never forget it, Armley CYC v Beeston Under 17s at Cross Flatts Park. I loved it AND got paid 5/-! In those days Under 17s games were 5/-, Under 19s were 7/6d and Open Age 10 bob! Mind you, the following year it went up to 12/-. Believe me, there are easier ways of getting 12/- than refereeing open age RL!
The secretary of the Referees’ Society at that time was Bob Beale, who was one of the men who formed the British Amateur Rugby League Association (BARLA) in 1973 and made the amateur game independent.
I passed my RFL examination in 1964 and became qualified to touch-judge and referee `A’ team matches and touch-judge first team fixtures.
After several years of a complete mixture of many games I was promoted to senior referee in 1974. In fact I was promoted twice, I got a letter from the RFL’s secretary Bill Fallowfield informing me that I had been promoted, then got another one from his replacement David Oxley also telling me I’d been promoted.
The Leeds & District ARL at that time was virtually a Yorkshire League, there were teams from Leeds,
Bradford, Keighley, York, Castleford, Featherstone, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Batley, Wakefield and other places. Remember, when you go to referee in those places there are two teams and two sets of very partisan speccies – and just YOU!
In my Leeds & District refereeing days I reckon the toughest place to officiate was Willow Park in Pontefract. I NEVER had an easy game there!
Professional Rugby League is generally much easier to referee than amateur Open Age, mainly because the players have much more discipline. Although I did several television games I think it was better then. Today everyone is under the microscope for 80 minutes, although the referees these days have the benefit of replays. Mind you, in my reffing days you could spend half a match refereeing scrums. There were 32 different infringements at `competitive’ scrums!
I often thought, when on the receiving end of constant spectator insults, that it would be nice to hear some new ones. I was once being confronted by an angry speccy at Salford who shouted `you blind sod, when are you going to get a rule book?’ I said `when they start doing them in Braille’ but I think it might have been a bit too subtle for him.
Another significant memory was my first game at Wigan, after which I was invited into the boardroom for a drink and was introduced to some Wigan legends, including Jim Sullivan, Ken Gee, Tommy Bradshaw and a few more, all well remembered by me from when I was a boy.
I did have another advantage on the `pro’ scene. Most teams, especially in Yorkshire, invariably had a couple of Leeds lads on their books, so I knew them and they knew me. That makes on-the-field man management much easier AND it’s nice to have a pint together and swap a few memories after the game. Today’s pro and amateur players make me feel really old, as I used to referee their grandads!
I was obliged to resign as a senior referee in 1979 when I was appointed club secretary at Dewsbury.
I told you earlier about the first game I ever refereed, can I now tell you about the last? It was in 1990 from memory, and I was then chief scout at Headingley, MANY years after I’d ended my refereeing days.
We had taken a Leeds side over to Doncaster for a pre-season friendly. The appointed referee and touch-judges didn’t appear, so Doncaster asked me to do it. I did the first half and then, thankfully, the officials showed up at half-time, so I could relax my aching legs.
Refereeing? It’s not as good as playing by any means, but it’s much better than watching. Despite the occasional problems you do make so many friends all over the Rugby League world. And another nice thing that happens from time to time when visiting a ground is to hear `come back Bernard, all is forgiven.’
South of the River editor Phil Hodgson adds: “Bernard Shooman refereed me many times during the decade or so that I played for the Middleton Arms in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“The abiding memory of those games is of how Bernard had a great rapport with the players. He was always ready with a quick quip during matches, always at the right time and delivered in exactly the right way. In fact he was a model of how a match official should conduct himself. What I don’t have is any memory of controversial decisions he may have made, which I think says a lot, the old adage being that good referees aren’t noticed. Bernard was certainly noticed, but in a good way, through excellent communication with the players, and he’d always stay back afterwards for a bit of post-match banter. A top man!”