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Uriah Rennie: The Premier League’s first and last Black referee

In his new football novel 'Your Show', Ashley Hickson-Lovence explores Rennie’s legacy and the shocking lack of diversity in British refereeing.

March 02 2023, 13.37pm

With the sun beating down on an emptying ground, Uriah Rennie trudged off Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane turf on May 11th 2008, having blown the whistle on his final game as a Premier League referee. Almost 15 years on, Rennie remains the only person from a Black, Asian, or mixed heritage background to referee a top-flight match in England. 

'Uri' remains a figure of both inspiration and representation for many. His officiating style was bold, confident, and guided by a great sense of humour — reputedly, he laughed when players took poor shots, and once told a benched Paul Gascoigne he should have been starting. In 1999, he sparked outrage by showing Newcastle legend Alan Shearer a controversial red card in his 100th game for the club. Those big calls never frightened Rennie, one of the most distinguished disciplinarians in Premier League history. But he is still most notably known for being not only the first Black referee, but also the last. 

"It's ridiculous that Uriah Rennie retired in 2008 and there hasn't been a referee of colour in the Premier League since," says author Ashley Hickson-Lovence, whose novelisation of Rennie’s life, Your Show, is published today. "It's embarrassing and terrible, because football is a beautiful, rich, colourful, diverse game, and we need to see that across coaches, managers, and referees. But it's definitely changing. Good appointments are being made, lots of training is going on. I've been to many conferences and meetings over the last year where the right people are doing the right things."

"You had to work really, really hard if you didn't look like the homogenous ilk of referee, which is an older-ish white man"

While there's no lack of qualified referees of Black, Asian, or mixed heritage at amateur level, further up the pyramid diversity becomes a massive problem. Out of a workforce of around 200 referees for England's top seven divisions, just four (2%) are Black or Asian: Sam Allison, Joel Mannix, Aji Ajibola, and Sunny Gill. And it's not much better in management, coaching, administration, and other non-playing roles: the Premier League and English Football League are failing to meet their  own targets to miserably that hires of black and mixed-heritage candidates for these roles is going down instead of up

"There are many factors that have stopped Black referees, referees of colour, or referees from particular socio-economic groups, from progressing," says Hickson-Lovence, himself a qualified referee with firsthand experience of these obstacles.

Author Ashley Hickson-Lovence


"When I was coming up through the system, I felt that being a Black referee was a massive hindrance. I'd go to a game and they'd comment on my hair, they'd comment on my earring, which I took off anyway, they'd comment on my age. You had to work really, really hard if you didn't look like the homogenous ilk of referee, which is an older-ish white man, and that was demoralising." 

There are also financial hurdles. Most basic FA referee courses cost upwards of £140, and standard match fees of £40 for several hours' work and travel aren't always sufficient. Hickson-Lovence is confident the FA is moving in a positive direction; however, the pace of change has been painfully slow, and there's still plenty of work to be done.

Despite the additional burden placed on Uriah Rennie by being the sole top-level Black referee in England, there's way more at play in Your Show than just race. In fact, one of the few pieces of creative input Uri himself had was the veto-ing of its original working title, ‘The Bastard Is Black’. “I don't think he liked that label much, I don't think he wanted this to be solely on race," says Hickson-Lovence. “When I tried to probe a bit more about the racism he encountered, he didn't really want to focus on that too much, he was very stoic." 

That being said, the harsh realities of his upbringing on the “tough, tough” Wyburn estate in Sheffield, a place that helped strengthen and shape a young Rennie, aren’t glossed over in the book. Similarly, the challenges that impact the path toward the top flight for young officials, and the way those things can build character, are explored adeptly. 

"Football by its very nature is theatrical. The shenanigans on the touchline, the diving, the celebrations… it's like theatre"

"Being a referee was one of the most life-changing things I've done,” Hickson-Lovence says. "I was a very shy teenager, I didn't even like talking to the shopkeeper until I became a referee, and then I grew in confidence, became a teacher… I owe it all to refereeing, to be honest." He recently called time on a decade-long officiating career, although he still observes matches for the FA, and the enthusiasm he retains for the referee's role is largely what makes 'Your Show' so striking. His vivid portrayal of the much-maligned "man in black" is particularly important within a literary world that often dismisses the football novel.

Hickson-Lovence's novel is a highly poetic fictionalisation of Rennie's life that cuts from high-tempo descriptions of footballing drama to evocative flashbacks of his upbringing in Jamaica and Sheffield. Penned over lockdown in Norwich, where the author is currently completing his PhD, it's a testament to the power of the football novel as an art form.

Your Show reimagines the typical football novel


"Football by its very nature is theatrical," says Hickson-Lovence. "The shenanigans on the touchline, the diving, the celebrations… it's like theatre." The novel's title, a nod to a genuine quote from Preston North End stadium announcer Adam Catteral ("Welcome to the second half of the Uriah Rennie show"), reaffirms this notion. Hickson-Lovence turns the idea that Rennie's imposing personality took the limelight away from players and onto himself into a positive, as the "performance" of the referee takes centre stage. The book's second-person narration – "You're watching and waiting, stood to attention… You get side-on" – transports the reader to the immaculate, floodlit turf of the football pitch, allowing you to experience the challenges that come with officiating. 

"The lazy generalisation is that football fans don't read, and that if they do, they're used to the formulaic structure of an autobiography," Hickson-Lovence adds. "With 'Your Show', you do have to work harder, because the poetry comes through, and the repetition can get a little jarring perhaps, but I think there's an under-appreciation for what readers can handle, and what football fan writers can write." Certainly, those who are used to devouring the ghostwritten tales of Sam Allardyce or Graeme Souness may be surprised by the poetic language, line breaks and fragmented structure of sections like:

                                                        "Lee sprints 

                    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sprints  

       You sprint"


"The goosebumps as you emerge into the sunlight, never lie.

The stands a sea of red, giant flags swishing left to right in great swathes, New Labour, Tony Blair, D: Ream 'Things Can Only Get Better' red."

What rankles Hickson-Lovence is that while football fans are often pigeonholed as being unintellectual or uninterested in literature, people in so-called artistic circles don't show football literature the respect it deserves either. "People are put off by the fact that it's a football novel, which is a shame, because it's about the human as well,’ he says. “I still think there is a way to go in terms of how readers think of football novels." But Hickson-Lovence can take pride in the fact that his tribute to Uriah Rennie is helping to bridge that gap. 

Poetic and evocative without ever being inaccessible, and rooted firmly in the universal sensations and emotions that unite football fans across the world, 'Your Show' is a fascinating glimpse into the world of an iconic character within English football. Guided by a deep sense of respect for Rennie's personality, achievements, and motivations, it's a unique football book that manages to capture the game's poetry, drama, and emotion in a way that many works of fiction struggle to do.

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