Earlier this season, referee Sunny Singh Gill became the first British South Asian to referee an EFL fixture since his dad, Jarnail Singh, over a decade ago.
History was made back in August, when referee Sunny Singh Gill took charge of the Sky Bet League Two game between Northampton Town and Hartlepool United, becoming the most senior referee of British South Asian heritage in the country.
As part of the EFL’s ‘Together’ month, we take a look at his journey so far.
“It’s an absolute dream come true, it really is,” Sunny told the EFL back in August.
“Every time I think about the fact I’m now refereeing in the EFL, it’s a bit overwhelming, emotions start running through my body.
“I get to wear the EFL badge that I’ve wanted for the last 14 years and to be the first British South Asian referee since my dad all those years ago makes me even more proud. It’s massive and it’s important to have that representation.”
Last season, Sunny joined the highest-ranked black referee Sam Allison to preside over the League Two game between Swindon Town and Leyton Orient, in what was a landmark moment for officiating in English football.
The season before, Sunny and brother Bhups Singh Gill also made history by becoming the first pair of match officials of British South Asian heritage ever to preside over a fixture in the Sky Bet Championship.
Their father, Jarnail Singh, was also the first turbaned referee in the history of English league football and took charge of almost 200 games across the divisions between 2004 and 2010.
“Football has always run in the family,” he added.
“Me and my brother grew up loving the game and like most young kids, we just wanted to play but in our household it was a bit different because when we were going to primary school, we knew our dad was going out to referee on a weekend. There were times he was a fourth official in the Premier League and our friends would say they saw him on Match of the Day!”
💭 “When I first started refereeing, the dream was to make it to the #EFL”
📺 Watch the inspiring story behind the success of trailblazing refereeing family Jarnail Singh, Bhupinder & Sunny Singh Gill, on demand via Amazon Prime Video.@FA_PGMOL pic.twitter.com/gAeFC4QUBZ
— EFL (@EFL) February 21, 2023
The early days
Like many young children, Sunny grew up with dreams of becoming a professional footballer. As an 11-year-old he was scouted by Queens Park Rangers before having trials at the club’s youth academy. However, he was released not long after but his love for the game never wavered.
“I remember when I was nine years old we went to watch Arsenal play Everton, that was our first Premier League game,” Sunny continued.
“Dermot Gallager was the referee and dad was the fourth official. At that age you don’t really think about being a referee. In fact I remember looking around Highbury and watching Ian Wright for Arsenal thinking, ‘wow, this is what I want’. We took a picture on the pitch underneath the goalposts and all I thought about was how amazing it would be to score a goal there, not give a penalty there or something!”
A few years later, after watching dad Jarnail referee a game between Wolves and Burnley in front of 35,000 fans at Molineux, Sunny’s focus switched from playing to officiating.
“After watching him walk out of the tunnel that day that’s when I thought, ‘yeah, I want to be a referee’. I was a little bit older and more realistic and I knew what it was like to go through that matchday routine as a referee. It felt pretty amazing to watch that and I knew I wanted it too.”
After completing a referee course at the age of 15, Sunny and his brother, Bhups, would help Jarnail referee pre-season fixtures for the Asian Football Federation.
“We used to run the line for dad. It was all good experience, one time I remember running the line for Andre Marriner!”
At the age of 17, Sunny took charge of his first Sunday League game and looked to be on the ladder, but a change of heart six months in saw him return to playing football and stop refereeing.
“I got put off it,” he admitted. “Part of it was because I wanted to play football with my friends, but also I was only 17 and refereeing was hard. Players behave in a certain way, I was young, perhaps a little bit immature and I didn’t have the man management skills to cope with that.”
Sunny reflects on the five-year break from refereeing as his “biggest regret” to date, before being convinced to try again.
“When I was 23 my dad sat me down and almost challenged me to go and do it and I’m glad he did.
“I joined Middlesex Academy and from there got promoted in the first year, then did a double jump the following year. It made me even more hungry which is when I started enjoying refereeing more than ever. I felt like I was chasing something and had a purpose.”
Following in dad’s footsteps
Jarnail Singh was the first turbaned referee in the history of English League football and took charge of 200 EFL games across the divisions between 2004 and 2010, before retiring in 2011. Now a referee assessor, he also advises the FA while occasionally refereeing in the Combined Counties League.
Sunny has already followed in his father’s footsteps by refereeing in the EFL and, despite already making history, now has aspirations to go one further and become the first British South Asian referee in the Premier League.
Jarnail previously told Sky Sports that as a parent he was “very proud the boys to have followed in my footsteps”, adding that they are “doing themselves and the community proud.”
“It’s great hearing dad say he’s proud of me and my brother,” Sunny added. “It’s probably the first time I’ve heard him say things like that and that makes me even more proud. He refereed for a long time, but I think I might surpass his number of games, I’m going to try anyway!
“I want to officiate as high as I possibly can and now I know that’s possible. All the hard work has paid off and my wife will be pleased because now I can help her with the school run! I love football, I love refereeing and I can’t wait to see where it takes me from here.”
Since his promotion to the National Group, Sunny has reduced his hours to part-time in his role as a prison officer, with the extra time allowing him to focus further on his matches, analysis, education and physical training as a referee.
“It was tough, doing full-time shift work during the week then going off officiating at the weekends, you have to think how it will affect your life but I knew it was what I wanted to do.
“I asked my family to just stick with me because I knew it would be worthwhile one day when I could have a professional career in football and I did.”
Sunny and his brother are among a small yet growing number of match officials from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
Although he has never faced discrimination of any kind during his time in football, Sunny said being the only South Asian referee at this level shines a “spotlight” on him, leaving “no margin for error”.
“I’ve always been in the minority,” he said. “It was always unusual to see an Asian referee, I didn’t look like the others and that’s the challenge, because if you make a mistake, you’re remembered. But if you want to be successful you need to be resilient, that’s part and parcel of the game.”
However, with the PGMOL committed to increasing representation in refereeing, a more diverse work force is actively being encouraged with refereeing talent being identified at an early stage, ultimately creating a pathway for referees in training to progress.
Setting an example
There was an added sense of celebration when Sunny took charge of the game between Northampton and Hartlepool this weekend, with the match taking place during South Asian Heritage Month.
Humble but proud, the married father-of-two said it sparks “real emotion” when people call him “an example to follow”, but there’s no doubt that the 38-year-old has emerged as a role model in his own right.
“It’s such a big achievement for me, but I know I’m going to have to be more thick skinned and resilient than ever. I’m officiating in the EFL, in big games that mean something. Society is going to be looking at me and I might face challenges that I’ve never faced before but I’m ready for those challenges.
“I want to be a role model and to do that I have to lead by example which means I might have to work that little bit harder.”
Dad Jarnail previously said he wanted to inspire all ethnically-diverse referees and Sunny added to those comments, saying he also hopes to inspire the future generation of match officials.
“We are encouraging a more diverse work force because that’s what our country is, diverse, and that’s what football is promoting and trying to do.
“It’s also about normalising that diversity. We want the younger generation to grow up and watching females referee or black people referee and for me to be the first British South Asian referee since my dad, it normalises the diversity in the game and that’s amazing.
“Instead of breaking down barriers, I want to be talking about how I’ve inspired others from a similar background to go on a similar journey. I want to be in a room telling my story to 200 people and inspiring them. If that happens, I’ve done my job.”