Sixteen years after taking charge of his first game in the Barnsley Sunday League as a teenager, Darren England is delighted to have been named on the list of Premier League referees for the 2020/21 season.

The 34-year-old from Little Houghton, who took charge of his only top flight game in January when Southampton met Wolves, is now expected to be a regular at that level either as a referee, fourth official or video assistant referee (VAR). 

England was previously in the Premier League as a linesman but his last game in that role was the 2015 FA Cup final, before he decided to become a referee and work his way up from non-league football to the top flight. He began his refereeing career as an 18-year-old in the Wragg League for over 35s and the Barnsley Sunday League. 

He told the Chronicle: “I made a tough decision five seasons ago to come off the line, after working in the Premier League and in European competitions, and work my way back up as a referee because I wanted to be the leader of the team. So to achieve that, and be in the top 19 refs in the country, is an unbelievable feeling and a privilege. 

“I remember my first game at Royston in the Sunday League. I sent someone off for a headbutt. It was a tough start but I kept going. It isn’t easy when you are on your own in the middle as a young kid on a cold Sunday morning. But I hope that story can inspire other people who want to take up the whistle because you can get to the top level with a lot of hard work.

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“The Championship is a high-profile league but the Premier League is a step up in terms of the exposure and profile of the league. It will bring more pressure, with millions watching across the world, but I am looking forward to that. The first season will be about getting experience and establishing my reputation with the clubs and within the group of referees. I won’t be refereeing Man United v Liverpool straight away.”

England is likely to work with another Barnsley man Scott Ledger, from Royston, who is a long-serving linesman in the Premier League. He said: “I am sure I will work with Scott at some point. I have been fourth official on games when he has been on the line. I have no doubt he will be on my line at some point this season, so it will be good to have a Barnsley representation. Barnsley has a good tradition of referees and it’s sad that someone like Trelford Mills isn’t around to see me in the Premier League.”

England’s last Championship match was West Bromwich Albion’s draw with Queens Park Rangers on the night that his club Barnsley won 2-1 at Brentford to stay up. He said: “What a great end to the season. It was unbelievable. I came off the pitch at The Hawthorns and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I can’t referee Barnsley games so that won’t be a factor in the Premier League next season but, as a Barnsley fan, I hope one day they do get back there.” 

England used to work for Barnsley FC’s Reds in the Community charity then the EFL but has been a professional referee for the last two years. Having grown up as a Reds supporter, he knows football is very different now games are being played behind-closed-doors. 

“It’s a shame. We would love fans to be back because they make football what it is. Some would say that we don’t get any grief now but I definitely want them back. It was strange at first but we all have to adapt. It is more difficult to concentrate in an empty stadium but you have to come up with strategies to cope with that. In a way it has probably been quite good for the fans to hear what the players say to each other and to the officials because there is a lot of positive communication.”

One major difference in the Premier League is VAR, which was introduced this season. England said: “It’s there to help us and protect us. None of us want to make big mistakes, which impact the game and hurt us a referee. It’s an extra pair of eyes and a safety net. 

“It’s improving with new changes all the time. It will get better and better. It’s only been used for one season and it is new to us all. It will be different from refereeing in the Championship where you know your decision is final. It’s another skillset I have to learn quickly. Although walking over to a screen on the side seems quite simple, you have to think about your body language and other things.

“I have done six Premier League games as a VAR and I’ll probably do a lot more this season. You are making massive decisions in a small office in London which is a sterile environment and very different to what we’re used to. It brings a whole new pressure, especially when you have to change the decision of the referee on the pitch.”