The impossible job: inside the world of Premier League referees - Players, pundits and fans complain bitterly that referees are getting worse each season – but is that fair?

Six minutes into referee Darren England’s fourth Premier League match of the season, he found himself with a decision to make. A Fulham midfielder, Nathaniel Chalobah, had made a late challenge and caught a Newcastle player, who fell to the ground with a yelp so loud it cut through the noise of the Geordie away fans. “That’s $#@!ing red,” an old-timer seated in front of me yelled.

It was a moment that could determine the course of the match, and Darren England’s season. Competition among elite domestic referees is fierce. Their performances are meticulously dissected, reviewed and ranked by their bosses at Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), the body that runs officiating in English professional football. Among the 19 referees who work predominantly in the Premier League, the best performers are appointed most often, and they are the ones who get the most sought-after matches, those between the top-six clubs, which officials call “golden games”. If, as senior PGMOL figures like to say, the Premier League officials are the 21st team in the division, then its star players are Anthony Taylor and Michael Oliver, who are appointed to most of the big matches. “Just like Liverpool will always play [Virgil] van Dijk in a big game, we’ll appoint our big hitters,” Martin Atkinson, a former referee who now works as a coach for PGMOL, told me.

England was just starting his third season in the Premier League and, at 36, he was among the youngest referees in the division. He hadn’t yet been assigned a golden game, but his target this season was to get himself in contention. He knew that major mistakes could lead him to being temporarily demoted to lower leagues and might set him back months, even years.