From Windsor Park to the El Madriga stadium, in Villareal, Spain. It’s been a memorable few weeks for local referee Arnold Hunter. The Maguiresbridge man was recently appointed referee for the Villareal versus Apollon Limassol Europa League Group match. This was the first time, in the history of the Fermanagh and Western Referees Association that a member has been chosen to referee in this competition and only the second time a referee from Northern Ireland has officiated at the tournament.

Arnold got word of the big appointment only three days before the game but says it was a great honour to be chosen: “I was informed that I, along with five other Northern Irish officials, was to referee the game, three days beforehand. For this level of competition you only receive notification three days before due to confidentiality and UEFA are careful about saying who the referee is because of betting in the game. It was my first time to referee a Europa League match, so I was very pleased and it was a great honour. I’ve been working for quite a while to do a game like that but you can never have any expectations that you’ll get the chance. When I heard the anthems being played, it certainly gave me the goosebumps. We were all buzzing but you have to keep a professional head on and not get carried away with the occasion.” Alongside, Arnold was Assistant referees, Richard Storey and Gareth Eakin as well as additional Assistant Referees Mervyn Smith and Raymond Crangle and Fourth Official, Stephen Bell.

“Obviously UEFA trusted me and the team and it’s a good sign for us, from a small nation, that we were chosen.” Reflecting upon the game he said: “The game itself was a good spectacle; there was a crowd of nearly 18,000 there. They were two very good sides who really wanted to play attacking football. The teams respected each other’s style of play and Villareal scored four goals. There was a low foul count and thankfully no discipline sanctions required. Things went really well for us and hopefully we’ll get another call up in the group stages.” With the game being beamed around the world, there were more than a few interested spectators in the Hunter household, he admits: “My brother Ian was watching in San Francisco, he was on a half day from work. All the family and even all the referees were watching as well. Obviously I didn’t check my phone during the game,” he laughs, “but when I looked back at it, at half time people were texting me and that means a lot to know you have that support.” Arnold has been a familiar face on the local scene for many years now and is regarded as one of the most senior referees in the country. His latest achievement marks a huge step for the local dairy farmer. Last week, Arnold was on official duty again, this time in Macedonia. He was refereeing at the U19 European Qualifiers where the youth teams were competing for a place in the 2015 finals.

With the responsibility of being the man in the middle also brings with it a lot of expectation. It’s certainly not a case of turning up on the day. Arnold’s physical preparation and the time he dedicates to his job as a referee is substantial, he says: “Pre-match preparation, regardless of what league you are officiating in is essential and can include doing your homework on the teams by going to watch them in a game or watching the Irish football league show. With the European teams, I’d watch them online or on TV. You also have to be physically fit for your matches. Each referee has their own training regime and we also take part in weekly physical training with other referees. My training involves three to four sessions a week, plus match day. My job as a farmer also keeps me active.” With regards to the travel and amount of time it takes up, he says: “For a European appointment you are usually away for three days. You travel the day before the game, then it’s match day and we travel home the day after. The time flies by as you have a very busy pre and post-match schedule. You are involved in security meetings involving UEFA delegates, venue directors, police and you also have training sessions and paperwork to complete. Everything is highly efficient and extremely well organised, right down to having our watches synchronised to a controlled satellite for kick-off.” Is it not a thankless job? “Personally, I find it rewarding. As a player I would never have gotten to where I’ve got today- no chance. There is definitely more pluses than there is negatives. I would encourage anyone who was thinking of becoming a referee to do it. The courses, whether they are three day courses or six week courses, are the easy bit though. The hardest part is having the courage to go out on the pitch and blow the whistle.” The father-of-two has been refereeing for 13 years. The former Lisnaskea Rovers goalkeeper began refereeing after he sustained a collarbone injury. In 2011, he was promoted to the FIFA Referee and Assistant Referee list and having had a taste of what the European competition has to offer, he would like to experience it again: “I hope we get another opportunity to referee at a Europa League group level match again and that I can progress to be a FIFA Category 1 referee. Category 1 referees are mainly used in Europa League group matches, Euro and World Cup qualifiers and may also have the chance of refereeing at Champions League games” says Arnold, hopefully.