‘The best seat in the house’ – what it’s like to run the line at a Wembley cup final
Getting released from a club academy at the age of 15 is enough to put the brakes on any young footballer’s ambitions of a career in the game.
It might even be enough to diminish their hopes of one day gracing the pitch at Wembley Stadium.
But being let go from Sheffield United’s Regional Talent Centre as a teen didn’t stop referee Melissa Burgin, who recently achieved the impressive feat of walking out under that iconic arch for the Women’s FA Cup Final.
Sheffield has a rich pedigree of refereeing talent with famous former Premier League officials Howard Webb and Uriah Rennie both hailing from the region.
And the Steel City could soon have a hat-trick of refereeing names to add to its list of great footballing exports if Burgin’s rapid rise is any measure of things to come.
At 22 years old, the Nottingham Trent University graduate has already been assistant referee at both this year’s Women’s FA Cup Final and the Continental Cup Final at Bramall Lane.
After coming full circle to be involved in a match at the home stadium of the club that once rejected her, the North Anston native has a measured view of the way her life in football has worked out.
“I got released when I was 15. I was at Sheffield United for about three years but just before getting released my brother’s football team needed a referee.
“I couldn’t get a Saturday job because we used to play then, so I went on a referees course.
“I don’t look back and regret that I am still not playing because it has paved the way to where I am today in refereeing.”
Refereeing has become more than just a weekend hobby for Melissa though, as she balances her weekend duties on the pitch with equally valuable work off it.
After rising through the FA’s refereeing qualifications to become a level four official, she is now an assistant referee in the top two tiers of women’s football in the Women’s Super League and the Women's Championship.
She also represents Sheffield and Hallamshire FA as a referee in men’s leagues in the north east counties covering the Northern Prem, Northern Counties Premier Division and EvoStick leagues.
Her work doesn’t end at the full time whistle though, as Melissa has recently started in a refereeing development role at Nottinghamshire FA.
In a time where referees face abuse and criticism on a weekly basis, support and development is more important than ever and Melissa insists her experiences have only been positive.
“Ultimately refereeing is a tough job. You’ll make hundreds of decisions in a game but there is great support for referees at all levels of the game.
“If you’ve just dropped out of football, it is definitely a great way to stay involved in the game.
“At the end of the day you have got the best seat in the house and the pathway now, especially in women’s football, is incredible.
“The opportunities that are out there have probably never been greater.”
There are few better opportunities in football than cup finals, not least those played in front of tens of thousands of fans at Wembley.
“That’s the first time I have refereed at Wembley and the Continental Cup Final was in March at Bramall Lane.
“It was a great honour to receive that appointment for the FA Cup Final.
“It was something that I didn’t expect, it was quite a shock when it came through.
“I received a phone call a couple of weeks before, so it was a really nice time in the build up to that game.
“To represent the FA on that stage was a really great experience and I was very grateful.
“My family were over the moon, as you can imagine. They loved it, they got to go in the royal box for the game and they had a great day out.”
A first Wembley cup final brings added scrutiny, but in spite of the occasion Melissa says she was able to maintain her focus.
“I’d never done a game in front of that kind of crowd before so I was quite surprised that I was so focused on the game that you literally don’t realise what’s going on around you in the stadium.
“You just kind of block it all out, your focus is solely on the game and the job in hand. As soon as the final whistle went at 90 minutes, that’s when you realise what you have just done and start to take it all in.
“It’s a lot of training to get to that point, we don’t just turn up to referee games, there is a lot of behind the scenes work as well.”
And with a Wembley appearance already on her refereeing CV, Melissa insists hard work and a focus on her goals will help her to reach the top of the game - like her local hero Howard Webb.
“The next progression and step for me now is to try and get promoted in the men’s game and as an assistant in the women’s, so they are my two main aims for the next season.
“I still enjoy all aspects of it at the moment, I enjoy both the men and the women’s game. They are both very different games but I enjoy them just as much as each other.
“There may come a time where I have to choose between those but I will continue to do both for as long as I can.
“It’s a case of getting my head down and focusing to work hard and try and achieve those dreams to see how far they take me.”
The FA’s refereeing pathway
International: FIFA List
Level 1: National List (Premier League and Football League)
Level 2a: Panel Select List (Conference Premier)
Level 2b: Panel List (Conference North and South)
Level 3: Contributory League (Contributory Leagues)
Level 4: Supply League (Supply Leagues)
Level 5: Senior County (County Leagues)
Level 6: County (County leagues)
Level 7: Junior (Amateur leagues)