Former top-class referee Graham Poll was almost lost to the world of football – because he was so successful in his day job.
After leaving school he began working in sales, and took up refereeing local football matches as a hobby. Like many boys, he had dreamed of becoming a professional footballer but found refereeing offered him a more realistic opportunity for a close involvement with the sport.
“My first selling job was with Canon, selling photocopiers, which was pretty hard work – commission only – and if you didn’t sell in two months you didn’t even bother getting fired. You just knew to leave,” he recalls.
But Mr Poll proved himself a strong seller and, after moving to a new company, quickly worked his way up the management chain. By the age of 26 he had proved himself in regional and national management, and became a general sales manager.
At the same time, he was experiencing similar success on the pitch – the hobby was becoming a vocation – and he was refereeing at semi-professional level. He says it was excellent experience, but a logistical challenge.
“I would be refereeing games on Tuesday evenings, so had to make sure I wasn’t too far away from wherever the game was, and that dictated my work life. For example, if I was refereeing in Liverpool but was supposed to be visiting Boots in Nottingham that day, I would ask for a noon appointment and would offer them two tickets to see Liverpool against Coventry that night.”
It was an example of Mr Poll’s sharp negotiating skills, which he learned to apply on the football pitch, too.
“The thing I’ve learned from football is that if you’re slavish to law, you won’t get a good game of football,” he says. “There are minor infringements which you can turn a blind eye to, to allow some momentum. The same applies to the workplace. If you’re able to negotiate you’ve got more of a chance of making a sale.”
But in 1999, Mr Poll reached a crossroads. He had just refereed his first international game and there was talk of refereeing being made professional; he was tipped as a prime candidate to make it his career. He took the plunge and put his name forward. His day-job manager understood his passion and offered him the opportunity to continue with consultancy work until his contract came.
But it didn’t: 18 of the 20 Premier League chairmen voted against professional refereeing, and Mr Poll decided to set up his own consultancy business.
Two years later, the Premier League changed its mind and agreed to make refereeing professional, with Mr Poll becoming England’s top professional referee.
It was a challenge he relished: “If you are in a position where you’re going to referee the big match, you know everyone is going to scrutinise that. They’re all looking for you to do badly. Now that is a fantastic challenge, and if you can come out of that game unscathed, you’ve done a great job.”
He was trusted with refereeing important top-level matches and, inevitably, there were controversies.
But perhaps his most high-profile mistake, which brought his international career to an abrupt end, came at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, when he refereed a game between Australia and Croatia – and failed to send off a Croatian defender after cautioning him twice. The error cost him dear and he was withdrawn from the refereeing rota for the rest of the tournament.
“If someone had told me at the start of Germany 2006 that I would give up refereeing within a year I would have just laughed. It would have been ridiculous to contemplate. It was what I did, what I loved doing. I was only 43,” he says.
Experiencing the greatest high – and the greatest low – of his career in that World Cup was bitter-sweet, he says, but support from friends and family made it a positive period of reflection and change.
He continued refereeing domestic English matches but hung up his whistle after 26 years of officiating in May 2007, his final game being an end-of-season promotion decider between Derby County and West Bromwich Albion.
Referees have always been the target of football fans’ frustration and abuse, and while many people would find it hard to handle the negativity aimed at the match officials, Mr Poll remains philosophical.
“You have to have faith in your ability,” he says. “You’re not there to be popular, you’re there to be right. If you make the right decision, given the information you have to hand, then you can sleep well at night.”
He says the importance of communication is paramount, along with being prepared to make tough decisions – two attributes that have continued to bring him success in his latest role as sales director for Catch, a recruitment company.
Where once he had to balance the opposing claims of two teams, and where there could only be one winner, his role now is ensuring that both client and candidate find the best possible outcome.
But he retains links with the sporting world, having become a media pundit and making occasional television appearances and speaking engagements. He also manages his son’s under-13 football team.
It might be a far cry from the World Cup, but whatever happens on the pitch Mr Poll is there “making sure all parents respect the referee”.
Any role models?
In my refereeing life, George Courtney, because he is a brilliant man and manager. In business, Phil Barker at Catch. I would call him a machine. He has a tireless enthusiasm, work rate and desire to get the job done.
If you could do any other job?
I would like to be the question master on Question of Sport [the BBC quiz series, currently hosted by Sue Barker, the former British tennis player]. Once she’s ready to step aside I’d love to do that.
Interests outside work?
Golf and skiing. I normally ski twice a year, once with family and once with friends.
Best career advice to others?
The key is portability of skill, and that applies whether you’re moving from a high-profile role or not. When I was going from one sales position to another I made sure there were synergies so I could take my skills with me. To start from scratch is nigh on impossible.
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