Shea Hughes found affinity with the beautiful game as a player but all that changed in the blink of an eye as he approached his 12th birthday.
"I played until I was in Year 6 but in Year 7 I didn't play because I went to trial for a [Napier City Rovers 11th grade] team and no one actually turned up for it so I had a break that year," says Hughes, before he was to run the lines of the Central Federation League match between the Building King Havelock North Wanderers and Hokowhitu FC at Guthrie Park, Hastings, in a 2.45pm kick off today. While he was a little disillusioned he didn't despair when his father, Gerry Hughes, suggested why not pick up a flag and a whistle.
"I thought that would be a pretty good way to sort of keep fit and see if I enjoy it or not," says the St John's College Year 11 pupil, revealing he had brushed his skills with the help of his father to sit a level one refereeing examination successfully a few weeks later.
Shea Hughes, who turned 16 on Thursday, now has a level two referee's badge — which enables him to control division two men's matches) and level two assistant referee's accreditation that qualifies him to run the lines of Central League and Central Federation matches.
The enormity of today's game wasn't lost on the youngster in his fourth season. Gordon Harris, of Hastings, would have joined Hughes on the lines while Englishman Ben Eeles would have blown the whistle in today's encounter.
However, ninth-placed Manawatu side defaulted yesterday to gift the Wanderers the Fed League crown, considering the undefeated villagers needed only a draw to secure the bragging rights. Havelock North have earned the right to play home-and-away matches against the Capital Premier winners, likely to be Petone FC, on the way to returning to the elite winter competition, the Central League, next season.
The Chris Greatholder-coached Wanderers have won all their 15 games in the 11-team Fed League to date, scoring 74 goals conceding 12 for 45 points on the ladder.
Alexander Electric Napier Marist are second, nine points adrift with two losses, albeit from 13 outings, while Palmerston North Marist are third with six defeats on 27 points. Marist will host the dead-rubber derby, the final match of Havelock North's season in a fortnight.
Hughes' maternal grandfather, Peter Stiles, of Napier, was a referee. So was Hughes' brother, Sean, 18, for four years but he stopped officiating when he started at Canterbury University to pursue a degree in engineering this year.
No doubt the encouragement came from Gerry although the teenager doesn't have much recollection of his father or grandfather controlling matches.
Hughes' first game as an assistant — when he had acquired his level two qualifications somewhat quicker than the first one — was between Rovers and Eskview United premier sides with Sean running the lines on the other side with Harris in the middle.
"I enjoyed it so I decided I was going to keep on going," says the former St Patrick's School pupil who picked up a whistle for the first time to control a secondary schoolgirls' match at Park Island, Napier.
When there's a collective groan or heckling any time he raises his flag in the top leagues for an offside, Hughes has learned to build an intangible cocoon to shut out such noises.
"You have to understand that they are just passionate about the game and you know that you're making the right call at the time.
"You always go on to make one of the teams disappointed," he says with a chuckle.
It's never a dull moment on the park.
Once a goalkeeper picking up the ball to kick it back to the centre of the field for a restart after a goal had clipped him on the head. Another time he had fallen on the seat of his pants on a slippery turf after indicating a goal.
He tends to take those situations in his stride but there are times when players try to push the boundaries of tolerance.
"Sometimes players try to take it too far so that's when the card comes out," he explains, disclosing he had only flashed two yellow cards in his tenure for reckless tackles.
Hughes realises some older players try to play mind games with him because he looks young so a bit of back chat kicks in.
He hopes to take his officiating as far as possible in chasing the Fifa World Cup dream to emulate the feat of retired police officer and referee Bruce Grimshaw, of Hastings.
"The end of the dream is sort of the World Cup final."
Hughes trains with other officials at the Napier Boys' High School grounds on Tuesday and Thursday nights, working on fitness as well as simulating and polishing drills on highly charged areas for an hour.
Ask him what advice he has for other youngsters wanting to be referees, the schoolboy replies: "Just give it a go but if someone gives you any back talk you do have powers you can use if it becomes [excessive]. Also understand that they are also passionate about the game. Stay calm and take a deep breath to get all the time you need."
Gerry retired from officiating six years ago, having accomplished four years at the national summer league level, including as a referees' coach.
"I stopped because I had some health issues," says the 55-year-old network designer who arrived in Whanganui 21 years ago from Belfast, Ireland, to the impending Boxing Day before moving to the Bay.
With Sean easing into refereeing as well, Gerry felt it was time to blow the whistle on his 16-year career.
He rules out returning to the park at the same time as his two sons for a milestone of three-point control the Hughes way.
"I couldn't cope with players today," he says. "I just watch how they treat referees these days and the respect has gone."
He welcomes the introduction of sin binning two years ago — he suspects at premier and federation levels — but argues players will always dispute refs' decisions.
"It seems today it's a common place that every refereeing decision is questioned by players, spectators and coaches but, in the end, if the referees get abused it's really the ref's own fault because he has got all the tools in the toolbox to deal with that.
"If he chooses to ignore that then all he's doing is creating more problems for the next referee who comes along."
Gerry says he didn't collect that level of abuse in his tenure because players knew where the line was and when not to cross it.
"I think that line has moved and referees have caused that themselves."
He says he would have loved to have the sin bin during his time because it would have saved players a lot of money.
"If you can turn around to put someone on the sidelines for 10 minutes so it's a fantastic thing Central Football have brought in but I don't think referees make enough good use of it."
So what was Gerry thinking in introducing his two sons to the kiss of weekly abuse?
"I think because of their age they don't get that much disrespect or abuse from players," he says.
"I can remember one player looking at Shea and saying, 'God, I just can't argue with him because he's so cute'."
The father has impressed on his sons to build a rapport that commands players' grace over grief. Failing that, place the flag with their arms across the chest to summon the ref for redress.
Gerry believes Shea is relishing his time and has shown enough resolve to stamp his authority over the belligerent types to stop the rot.
He says the "young factor", as a deterrent, will only last so long because at some point Shea will be treated like any other ref.
"What I miss about refereeing — apart from that it keeps you reasonably fit — is the crack with the players, you know, the banter and the jokes.
"If you distance yourself from the players then it's very to control the game."
From where Gerry set his mark, there were refs who were there for the players and those who were there to feed their egos.
"The referees who are always there for themselves will always have problems.
"I can remember being told years ago that a referee should be seen and not heard. If they [teams] are playing football then leave them alone to do that. When they stop doing that then you become the referee."
For the best part, he says officials should enjoy the best seat in the house as a spectator inside the cauldron.
Gerry said his father, Edward Hughes, died in Belfast when he was 8.
Gerry tends to assume a defacto mentor role after matches with Shea with appropriate reinforcement amid critical appraisal but has no interaction with his son at Central League, Fed League or prem level.
For the record, he says Grimshaw is related to Stiles through their grandfathers and gave Gerry's some timely tips when he hit a brick wall.
"He used to tell me, "Oh leave it, that was last week so just move on to this week'," says Gerry.