Ref Watch: Forest Green Rovers (A)

Credit Graham Burrell

Assistants: Mark Derrien and James Vallance
Fourth Official: Thomas Harty

Ah, Forest Green are a team I love to hate. Everyone needs a rival, the one team you just utterly despise, and mine are the little club on the hill. Everyone thinks they’re this paragon of virtue, a story worth telling over and over again, when in fact, they feel to me like the epitome of what middle-class hippies think a football club should be.

Anyway, this isn’t about my hatred of Forest Green; it is about referee Craig Hicks, a man we first encountered in 2013/14 when he officiated our 2-1 win at Salisbury. In 2016/17, he took charge of our 0-0 draw with Aldershot and the 2-1 win at Torquay early in the season, where he awarded us a second-minute penalty. He was promoted to the Football League in the summer of 2017 and was in charge as we lost 1-0 to Exeter City. He has been good to us since then in terms of results, overseeing our 4-1 win at Crewe in 2017/18 and the 3-0 win at Crawley during our title-winning season.

Hicks, lurking as we lose to Exeter City – Credit Graham Burrell

There was some controversy in 2019/20 as he failed to award us a ‘stonewall’ penalty in the defeat at Doncaster, with then-manager Danny Cowley feeling we should have had three. Likewise, when we lost 1-0 to Shrewsbury in 2020/21, I claimed he should have given us a couple of penalties which he did not. He did seem to like to let the game flow, and in some instances, that saw petty fouls get missed or players get let off. Is that a good thing? I suppose it depends if you’re fouled, fouling, pushing or being pushed.

Our paths crossed in May 2021 when he was in charge of our Play-Off Semi-Final win against Sunderland, a memorable evening for all concerned. I felt he had a decent game then, and he did the same last season, as we won 2-1 away at Burton. In that game, I commented: “Craig Hicks, a referee I had no cause to talk about at all, blew the whistle and delivered us a much-needed three points.” He didn’t even get a mention the two more times we’ve had him; he was in charge as we lost 1-0 to Accrington, and we drew (somehow) with an excellent Sunderland side in March.

He did get a mention when we had him last at the Bank earlier in the season in our 1-1 draw with Plymouth. “I thought referee Craig Hicks was brilliant as well – he didn’t flash many cards, but he had great control over the game,” I wrote. “Once or twice he played advantage and pulled the game back when one didn’t transpire, and he never once had me believing he’d lose control. It helps when there are two teams who want to put on a show, rather than Accrington of a week or two ago going down with cramp on 47 minutes, but even so, a bad referee can turn a good game into a bad one. Hicks ensured that the focus remained on the players, not him, and that should be credited.” It must also be noted there’s a certain irony to having him when we played the team top of the division and again when we travel to the team in bottom place.

Credit Graham Burrell

He is a referee I obviously like; it’s rare I start these articles and found I’ve praised an official more than once. I’ve praised him for letting the game flow, but in his nine League One matches so far, he’s ninth for fouls per game and ninth for fouls per tackle. What that does show is consistency, which I like. If a referee is high up on one but down on the other, it shows a disparity between tackles and fouls awarded, but Craig Hicks is bang on. It suggests when the game demands, he will award a foul, but when the game isn’t nasty, he isn’t picky.

He does like to keep his cards in his pocket – he’s only 20th in the division for yellows per game, showing a slight tendency towards leniency. Be warned – it appears he won’t let things go in the area and is seventh in the division for pens per game, 0.44. That comes from nine matches, and all the officials above him have fewer games, making his average one of the more consistent. Mind you, two of those four penalties came as Derby hammered Morecambe 5-0, and in 17 matches across all competitions, he’s still only awarded the four.