By week Ian Gosling is boss of Kent broker Blackmore Heath but, when Saturday comes, he joins a select group of assistant referees officiating at the top level of English football. He tells Danny Walkinshaw how he manages his double life.
Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Coventry City, 18 October. This West Midlands derby at Molineux, home to Wolves since 1889, started like any other match. Little did broker Ian Gosling know that he’d find himself smack in the middle of a controversy that would spread across English football.
The sides were tied 1-1 heading into the second half. But in the 58th minute, Wolves striker Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, whose momentum had carried him past the goal line, ran back on to the pitch and headed his team into a 2-1 lead.
Because Ebanks-Blake had been out of play before he put the ball into the net, it wasn’t clear whether the goal would be allowed. All eyes from the crowd of 25,893 people were on Gosling, director of Kent broker Blackmore Heath, and one of two assistant referees running the line that day. He didn’t raise the flag.
“I had a difficult day,” he says now from his office in Sittingbourne, Kent. “It was a decision that I have never had before in my life. Interestingly, at the end of the game, no one queried it.”
It was the kind of moment every match official dreads. After the encounter, the Professional Game Match Officials board sent a note to all Premier and Football league referees and assistants to confirm that, in future, a goal scored in that way should be ruled offside.
“There are decisions you look at and think, I wish that was someone else,” he says. “Colleagues would have seen that and thought, ‘Thank goodness that was not me.’ You accept that you occasionally are going to be in that spotlight, which is the nature of what we do. We can’t hide.”
Gosling, an assistant referee in the select group of the top 39 officials in the country, has a somewhat lower profile in his day job as boss of a £5.5m gross written premium (GWP) broker.
It’s the best of both worlds, he says. “I love my day job. I have a fierce loyalty to this business, to Jon [Jenkins, his business partner] and my staff. I love doing the insurance, but I love doing my football and all the time I can keep that balance, that is fine by me.”
Maintaining that balance is not easy, however. He has less than a week’s notice about the following weekend’s fixture and can end up travelling to any part of the country. “Last season I went to Sunderland and Newcastle one week after the other,” he says with a sigh.
“It is tough and I try to compartmentalise my life. When I am here, this is my focus. When I step out of here and go to football, I focus on the football. Obviously there are crossovers. If I’m travelling midweek, I get work phone calls. Likewise, when I’m here I will get calls about football. You can’t escape but you do try to compartmentalise your life so you focus on it.”
His 25-year career in insurance began in September 1983, when he joined Commercial Union. He stayed for 13 years, working his way up to area manager. He then bought in to a broking firm that later became Canterbury Insurance Practice, which was sold to Towergate in the early days of the consolidator’s expansion.
After deciding to test his luck elsewhere, he thought about buying in to Blackmore Heath in May 2003. But he ended up purchasing the whole business with Jenkins, a friend and director of Stenning Insurance Services.
The deal created a broking company with two arms: Blackmore Heath in Sittingbourne, and Stenning Insurance in Lyminge, near Folkestone in Kent. The two businesses control a combined £11m GWP but are run separately.
“We tried to reinvigorate this and grow this,” says Gosling. “We have plans but we don’t want to be massive.”
The company, which has bought three small books of business, targets clients in Kent and Essex and is now looking to achieve growth of between £12.5m and £15m.
“We will look to do that organically over the next three to five years,” he says. “We have some plans afoot to take us to the first step and hope to have those completed in the first quarter next year. We are not acquisitive in terms of buying brokers – there are not that many left.
“We are looking at different routes of using the template that we have already – maybe adding individuals as opposed to businesses. That is our preferred route. If they come off, we will be a long way towards where we need to be.”
His other career has lasted 24 years, yet it’s a gig he fell into. “I just happened to referee a match for a friend one day, did it a couple of times then I took the exam,” he says.
“If I do anything in life I do it to the best of my ability, and I found I enjoyed it and had a bit of an aptitude for it. So I kept applying for promotions and worked my way up.
“That was 12 years ago. I ran the line on the Football League for nine years and three years ago I was promoted to the Premier League.”
Gosling now spends most of his time running the line at the top level, including Premier League, Football League, FA Cup and Carling Cup matches.
He often finds himself teamed with Steve Bennett, one of 20 professional referees, and Martin Yerby, a senior assistant referee. “We are known affectionately on the circuit as the Kent Mafia,” he says with a smile.
The pressure on officials has risen in recent times and they are now as much in the spotlight as the players themselves. But it’s Gosling’s love for the game that keeps him going week after week.
“My wife often says if I’m not doing football, I’m training for football, or eating for football, or recovering from football. Or if none of them, I’m watching football, because it invades your life. When you get to the professional game level, you have to be committed.”
Gosling’s life philosophy is based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. The beginning is especially fitting for a referee: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ...”
He applies the same philosophy to insurance. “You have to think logically and you have to stick to the rules. In this industry we have the FSA rules. When I put my refereeing kit on I have to think clearly, I have to stay calm and I have to apply the rules. There are real similarities between the two.”
The Kent broker has been part of some big games in recent years. He has run the line at the new Wembley stadium twice, has worked at Cardiff’s Millennium stadium and, last August, travelled to Hungary for his first Champions League game – a qualifier between MTK Budapest and Fenerbahce.
“The highlight has to be walking out at Wembley,” he says. “One other would be my first Premier League game, Spurs versus Everton. That was a special moment because it had been my ambition to do it with my family watching me.”
But there are times the high points are overshadowed by the low. While he has never felt intimidated at the top level, he says there have been moments that could have turned nasty further down the football pecking order.
“I was running the line on one non-league game where the referee had issued three red cards and 10 yellow cards – and all the reds were for the home team. A player wanted to ‘meet’ me in the car park afterwards, so the police had to be called and we had to be escorted to our cars and down the motorway.
“Then at Southend United, a spectator got on the pitch and attempted to assault me after I disallowed an equaliser for Southend. He was arrested and went to court over it. But that’s very rare.”
His worst moment came last season in a game between Fulham and Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage. With Fulham losing 2-1 and the match nearing full-time, David Healy fired a shot that appeared to be saved by Boro goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. But Schwarzer caught the shot from behind the goal line – something Gosling failed to see. The equaliser was not given and the home team lost.
“I lived in a media storm for most of that week and it was like watching your own car crash,” Gosling says. “To find yourself on BBC news, on the back pages on the newspapers, on the radio, you think, what on earth is all this? That is when you need people around you. My colleagues within the game were fantastic, my colleagues here were brilliant and my family was fantastic.
“But I could show you that it was humanly impossible for me to get that decision right. The ball was over the line for about two inches for 0.1 of a second. I would have had to guess and I’m not into guessing. I was proved wrong by technology.”
At 41, Gosling can spend another seven years in top-flight football – and could appeal and stay on longer. So when will he hang up his flag? “At 48, if I am still doing this, that will be it, that will be enough. I will have done nearly 20 years and my body will have had enough – my family certainly will have had enough. It will be time to step aside and let somebody else have a go.
“Hopefully I will have achieved everything I’ve wanted to achieve and that will make the decision easier.”
Gosling's top 10 matches
Manchester United vs Portsmouth
Community Shield, Wembley, August 2008
Stevenage Borough vs Kidderminster Harriers
FA Trophy Final, Wembley, May 2007
(first final at the new Wembley)
Tottenham Hotspur vs Everton
FA Premier League, August 2006
(first Premier League game)
Gillingham vs Preston
Division 2, August 1997
(first Football League game)
MTK Budapest vs Fenerbahce
Champions League qualifier, August 2008
Swansea City vs Carlisle United
Johnstoneâ€™s Paint Trophy Final,
Millennium stadium Cardiff, April 2006
Manchester United vs Liverpool
FA Premier League, March 2008
Arsenal vs Tottenham
FA Premier League, November 2006
(first North London derby at the Emirates)
Kingstonian vs Bristol City
FA Cup fourth-round replay, February 2001
(first live TV game)
Manchester City vs Manchester United
FA Premier League, May 2007