IF you’re taking charge of the most famous domestic football fixture on the planet, it’s useful to have a sense of perspective.
It’s worth realising that there are more pressurised jobs than refereeing the FA Cup final in front of half a billion TV viewers.
And when Anthony Taylor blows the first whistle at today’s clash between Arsenal and Chelsea, he’ll have just that.
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For as this fan of non-league Altrincham made his way through the lower reaches of the football pyramid to reach the Premier League’s professional ‘select group’, Taylor, 38, juggled refereeing with work as a prison officer.
So it is unlikely that a raging Diego Costa or a seething Arsene Wenger will make him crack.
Not after Taylor’s challenging, sometimes harrowing, previous job instilled in him a sense of calmness under fire.
He said: “Working in a prison meant I needed a lot of communication and management qualities to deal with daily situations.
“I specialised in control and restrain techniques, educating staff on the best ways to control violent individuals and difficult situations that arise.
“I spent a considerable number of years working with those who suffered severe mental health problems, a lot of attempted suicides, that kind of thing.
“And experiencing all that can lend a massive amount of perspective when you’re refereeing and in life in general.
“I’ve seen the depths that people can reach, sometimes through no fault of their own . . . ”
Referees are often perceived as robots and Taylor even uses the word himself during this rare interview. It’s the sort of perception which led to mockery when news of Taylor’s Marbella stag do hit the news — before he and guest Kevin
Friend both made high-profile errors the following Saturday.
But during our hour-long conversation, Taylor’s likeability shines through. He said: “There are skills which are interchangeable between working in the prison service and refereeing.
“It’s not about red and yellow cards, it’s about stopping things happening as much as you can.
“Trying to be proactive if you see a potential flashpoint between two players. It’s a lot like my experiences as a prison officer, you can almost head a problem off before it starts.”
Taylor is the patron of ‘Prison Me! No Way!’, a charity which educates young people on the causes and consequences of crime.
And he added: “The power of sport to influence behaviour is massive for me.
“And it’s under-used sometimes. You can use football as a vehicle to communicate to kids about hard work, respect, aspirations and overcoming difficulties.”
After being awarded the once-in-a-lifetime honour of taking charge of the Cup final, Taylor took the famous trophy back to his old primary school, Heyes Lane in Timperley, Cheshire.
His appointment has also been an opportunity to reflect on his route to the top — a journey which started when his mother told him to either stop moaning about referees at Altrincham games or give it a go himself. Taylor did the latter.
He started with Partington Working Men’s Club v Station Flixton in the Altrincham Sunday League.
Then came many fixtures at Wythenshawe Park, with “20 or 25 matches all crammed side-by-side” and many semi-pro players turning out for Sunday pub sides.
He was once physically grabbed while refereeing on the parks but claims that parents and club officials are far more dangerous than players for grassroots officials.
And Taylor, who referees in the Champions League and took charge of the League Cup final and Community Shield in 2015, admits that he had to put in some hard yards.
He said: “I look back at when I first refereed in the Football League in 2006-07 and think, ‘How the hell did I work a 40-hour week, including night shifts, in a prison’?
“I’d often start a shift at 6am then finish at 1pm, drive from Cheshire to London, do the game, drive back, then in to work at 6am after two hours’ sleep.
“A lot of lads are still doing this and people lose sight of that. It’s important to look back at those times, though getting the Cup final makes all that worthwhile.”
Taylor’s self-proclaimed calmness under pressure came in handy in March — when it was revealed that he had held his three-day stag do with fellow refs before he wrongly awarded Burnley a penalty for handball at Swansea.
He laughed: “It’s not the only bad weekend I’ve had and I haven’t been on that many stag dos!” Taylor marries fiancee Anne-Marie next month and claims he is not nervous about either of his big days.
He had originally agreed with boss Mike Riley to hold his stag party last summer, only to be called up as an additional official, alongside Mark Clattenburg, at both the Champions League final and the Euros.
Taylor said: “Contrary to popular belief, refs are normal people.
“We have families, friends and social lives.
“I was fourth official at Everton on the Saturday, we flew out for the stag do on Sunday, came back Wednesday.
“We’d got bit of sunshine, golf and, believe it or not, we were training there.
“So preparations for the following weekend were as normal.
“But I’m big enough and ugly enough to say that, for a ref of my experience, I made a really poor decision (at Swansea).
“I got it wrong because I was too static at a corner and the more static you are at a set-piece, the less you’re going to see.”
And this decision would have been pored over at one of the elite group’s fortnightly meetings at St George’s Park.
There, Taylor says, the analysis is ‘forensic’.
But good decisions are highlighted as well as bad, while a sense of camaraderie is hugely beneficial.
He revealed: “There’s a massive amount of reflection and analysis post-match and no one hurts more about getting things wrong than we do. If there’s a really poor decision, it can take days to get over it, mentally.
“Of course you have to be thick-skinned. Nobody likes having abuse directed at you but, if you’re focused on the game, you often won’t even hear it.
“I’ve had a couple of encounters on trains with supporters, saying, ‘Taylor, you cost us’. I say, ‘Grab a coffee and let’s chat, we can talk about your failings in your job too’!
“People still don’t always agree with you but they have a bit more understanding.”
Along with assistants Gary Beswick and Marc Perry, fourth official Bobby Madley and reserve assistant Adam Nunn, Taylor will hope to go totally unnoticed on the greatest day of his career.
He said: “We have no desire to be the centre of attention.
“Our focus is on getting decisions correct and letting everyone enjoy it.
“This is the pinnacle of my domestic career but you don’t want anyone to talk about you.
“I’ll just be saying to myself, ‘Imagine you are at Wythenshawe Park again — and don’t speak to people any differently than you did there’.”