The integrity of the matches played in all four leagues of the JCR college football structure is maintained by a small but well-known group of qualified referees that range from current University of Oxford students to long serving local officials. Come rain or shine, the men in black are an ever-present in college football, and their absence in JCR reserves fixtures often highlights their contributions to first-team games.
One of the most experienced is Nigel Lambert, a retired policeman and government security officer who has refereed matches for nearly four decades. Always keen to debrief teams on their performance following matches, and enjoying friendships with longer-serving players and the groundsmen of Oxford, he is not someone whose humility or warmth players need reminding of. In February 2020, he was praised in a national Referees’ Association article for helping to save the life of a Women’s Blues defender who had swallowed her tongue in a match against Southampton Ladies. From his refereeing style to recollections of drunken pitch invasions in Cuppers matches, these are his memories.
How long have you been refereeing? When did you start refereeing college football matches?
I qualified as a referee 38 years ago. I started refereeing college football 12 years ago.
Has anything changed since you have started?
Little has changed in college football in that time – it is more likely that it is me that has changed! In the prime of my refereeing career I was very strict. As a senior police officer I expected people to comply with my decisions, consequently bookings and sending-offs featured prominently!
What are your favourite sorts of matches to referee?
My favourite matches are the league games, which are usually conducted in a very civil manner. Women’s Blues were great as the ladies were so kind to me!
What would you say is your refereeing style?
My refereeing style is non-confrontational (unless this style fails). I will always try to show respect for the players and I value the many friendships I have made over the years.
Do any games stick out in your memory as being particularly notable?
Whilst I have officiated at many cup finals and representative games the most vivid memories are when things have gone wrong. Cuppers at Pembroke over the years has been a nightmare! The worst was a pitch invasion by drunken supporters intent on abusing me, aggravated by an obnoxious young man running the line for Pembroke who loudly disputed my decisions. He was a qualified referee, which made his behaviour even more distasteful. The Sabbatical Officer, who was present at the game, instructed Pembroke that he must never run the line for them again. Since then, Pembroke and I have been on the best of terms. The good memories are of outstanding sportsmanship when opponents were struggling through bad times, highlighting the strong values we all try to achieve in college football.
What are your favourite pitches and grounds to referee at in Oxford?
My favourite pitch must be St John’s, the Wembley of Oxford. I look forward to going to a number of other grounds through establishing friendships with groundsmen over the years. It means a lot to receive a warm welcome.
What do you enjoy doing outside of refereeing?
My other sport is running, with success as County Champion in my age group over decades. I have run about a hundred marathons, including fifteen in London and ten in New York. I am involved in the church, being Churchwarden of my parish church. I participate in pilgrimages, both in the UK and in Europe. I have walked five different routes on the Camino de Santiago, some in excess of 500 miles.