MIDDLESEX-BASED referee Surekha Griffiths was recognised as a community champion at the Grassroots Football Awards held at Wembley Stadium last Sunday (6).
Griffiths, who has just completed her first season of refereeing for Middlesex Football Association (FA), was the recipient of the match official award.
The 45-year-old takes charge of games at all levels, from children to adults. However, she said the games that give her the most joy are the ones in the Middlesex Pan-Disability League.
“It’s a privilege to be among these players who are full of passion even though they wake up every day facing all sorts of challenges,” Griffiths told Eastern Eye.
“These games never get cancelled, even during adverse weather conditions. I’ve refereed them in the snow and in the absolute burning heat, because they wait for this one day each month when they get to play tournaments against each other. They live for this moment where they feel like they’re actually just letting go on the pitch,” added Griffiths, who has undertaken additional training to help officiate deaf matches.
“The fact that I get to be part of a day where we’re focusing on their ability, not their disabilities, it’s an honour. It’s special and I feel lucky.”
Cheering her on at a FA-hosted event, which took place ahead of the Community Shield between Manchester City and Arsenal, were her two sons who had urged her to take up refereeing; and her father, who 40 years earlier was worried about his children getting into the game because of the racism he had witnessed.
“My parents are first-generation Hindu-Punjabis from India. They came to this country in the 60s when racism in sport was common, so they themselves were never interested in following any sport,” Griffiths said.
“My dad worked on the buses and I remember him telling me about the violence he would see between people with different shirts (football jerseys) just because they supported different teams. The abuse that would go on and the racism you would see and hear about. It’s not that he told us ‘don’t ever watch football’, it just became unattractive to him.”
Though her dad tried to “steer” Griffiths and her two sisters away from football, she couldn’t resist following her “beloved” Liverpool and England.
“I just had this pull for all sports. I used to videotape football games and play them at night. I used to sit and watch a full game of England, Liverpool or whoever else was playing. I was just so thrilled by the drama of football in particular but also all sports.”
Though she continued to watch games, it didn’t play an active role in her life as she developed a career as a business operations manager working in transport and settled down and had a family.
Her husband, she said, “hates football and knows nothing about it”.
However, it was a different story when it came to their two sons.
“I still loved watching all the games, so I decided I was going to get my boys into playing for a local team. They’re 10 and 12 now – around five years ago, they joined this lovely local team that’s run by volunteers,” said Griffiths.
“Two years ago, when they became really desperate to have a parent referee, my boys were like, ‘mummy, you should do it. You know everything about football’, which is not the truth, by the way,” laughed Griffiths.
She signed up for a referring course with the sole intention of helping her sons’ team. But she impressed so much with her officiating that different opportunities started coming her way.
She has taken part in events such as marking of the anniversary of when women’s football was banned in 1921, in the UK, and South Asian Heritage Month.
“I’ll be very honest, volunteering is not a selfless task. It’s selfish for me because I know I feel great doing it. Volunteering makes me feel amazing,” she said.
“I’ve realised that as I’ve got older, we all want to feel like we’re doing something. Volunteering makes you feel great because you love giving something back into community. It’s like having a daily vote on what goes on around you because you’re making an impact.”
Griffiths is making an impact in football circles, mixing with the likes of England manager Gareth Southgate and her childhood hero John Barnes, who gave her the Grassroots Football award.
“To be presented an award by John Barnes, who is the reason I support Liverpool, was just mind-blowing,” she said.
“As a young kid growing up in the 1980s in London, John Barnes was one of the few brown faces we saw playing football, so that was one of the reasons why so many of us were attracted to Liverpool.”
While Griffiths is reluctant to say she too is a role model now, she hopes she can inspire people from the south Asian community to follow in her footsteps.
“Growing up in London when equality and representation, especially in sport, was not as advanced as it is now, I still often carry that feeling of being an imposter in football. But the huge support and awareness of this by my local FA team really helps me to shake this off and focus on my development as a referee,” she revealed.
“We are so much closer to getting to a point where match officials, coaches and players are accepted without prejudice or preference, but this is change that can and will only happen as representation from people of all backgrounds and ages are involved in all areas of football.
“As we see people from different backgrounds progress up the ranks in their field and become role models for the new generation, change will happen.
“It is often said that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. I have had so many women and men from all ages and backgrounds who had never considered they could be referees before, now ask me how to get involved.”