Your Show – Pitch perfect novel about the Premier League’s first and only black referee

– In conversation with Ashley Hickson-Lovence

Ashley Hickson-Lovence grew up secretly wanting to become a poet. He also wanted to be a football referee. In Your Show, a novel based on the life and career of former football referee Uriah Rennie, Ashley got to embrace both passions, and hopefully inspire children from marginalised backgrounds to break down barriers in their own right. 

Headshot of Ashley Hickson-Lovence
Photo by Iggy London.

“Why would anyone do this? And why would anyone do this as a black man?”
These were questions Ashley Hickson-Lovence (Creative Writing and Publishing, 2017) asked himself when he first began to referee football matches at the age of 16. These were also questions that sparked the idea for his recently published novel Your Show.
“This book has been a long time in the making,” Ashley says, mentioning he’s about to turn 31.
“I found it really difficult to be a young black boy refereeing predominantly white men. Football referees are probably one of the most hated figures in the game of football, they get sworn out, they get cussed. They get criticised.”
Your Show, published by Faber, is the novelisation of the life and career of Uriah Rennie, the Premier League’s first and only black referee, and one of Ashley’s childhood heroes.
“To be the most hated figure is hard enough in the game of football, but to be one of the most hated figures as a black man, in a society where the depiction of black men can often be very problematic in the media, was an interesting dynamic for me to creatively explore.”

For Ashley, it was important to have Uriah Rennie’s permission to write the novel and keep him updated on the writing process.
“He’s actually quite a private man. He’s a man who likes to keep himself to himself,” Ashley says. “Even though during his career, people said oh, he’s a bit of a showman, he makes sure all the attention is on him and that’s not what a referee is about.”
Ashley interviewed Rennie on several occasions, and they still keep in touch, but it was clear from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a ghost-written autobiography.
“Even though this is about a real person who’s still alive, it’s very much a novel, which draws on my own experience of being a black referee and having to deal with certain issues because of the colour of my skin.”
Ashley was also keen to play with the style and rhythm of the text.
“I tried to make it quite emotive, but also be quite experimental on the page, which comes from my love of poetry. I wanted there to be repetition and alliteration and sibilance and movement and dynamism, and all of the things that make for a compelling page-turner, but I also wanted to try and replicate the action and dynamism of a good football match.”
Ashley and Uriah Rennie both agreed it was important for the novel to be engaging and inspiring to young people from marginalised backgrounds who might want to break barriers and become pioneer figureheads like Rennie.
“The Premier League started back in 1992, we are now in 2022 and we’ve only had one black referee. It’s not good enough. When you think about all of the richness and colour and diversity of English football; you’ve got [Marcus] Rashford and you’ve got [Raheem] Sterling who’ve done great things on and off the pitch, to then only have one person in that role, you know, for me, is not good enough.”

Ashley and Nels Abbey sit behind a desk talking to an audience.
Author Nels Abbey and Ashley in conversation at City.

Ashley knows first-hand how important it is to have and to be a role model. As a teenager, he secretly loved poetry and wanted to become a poet but went to a school where reading and writing weren’t the done thing amongst his peers. It was an English teacher who showed him what was possible.
“I had a teacher called Mr. Fowler, and he was an author,” Ashley explains. “And I think from a very early age, I was quite struck by that dynamic of being an educator and a creative. And I think that was such a formative moment for me. From there, I knew that that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach. And I wanted to write.”
Ashley went on to become a secondary school English teacher, often in rather tough neighbourhoods.
“It was a very character-building experience, but an experience that I really, really loved, and even though I’m not a secondary school English teacher anymore, I still do a lot of work in schools; I do poetry workshops, I do creative writing workshops, I do assemblies,” he says.
“The secondary school environment is definitely an environment that I flourish in and hopefully can use as a platform to inspire future writers and educators themselves.”

While working as a teacher, Ashley embarked on his MA in Creative Writing and Publishing at City. He made new friends and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“I was over the moon. To do an MA is massive. I think to become a master of your specialism is quite something,” he says.
“For me, the most important thing was to have the qualification. At this point, my teaching was going well, I was getting promotions, I was becoming Head of Department, and I thought: This is great. I’ve now got a Master’s and I’m doing well as a teacher.”
Turns out he’d also done well as a writer on the MA.
“Within a few months, I started to get emails from literary agents saying that they had read the first few chapters of The 392 which was originally called Journey, which is a rubbish, rubbish title, and they really wanted to read more.”
Ashley talks to a City student who is holding his novel. Ashley soon found an agent and The 392, written as part of his MA, was published by OWN IT! in 2019. At this point, Ashley decided to continue his post-graduate education with a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia and now also works as a lecturer and tutor in Creative Writing.
“I’m still finding my feet as a fledgling academic. It’s tough because the quality of the work is so good. Sometimes I think, I don’t know how to make this better,” he says.
“It’s been fantastic because I’m around people who love words, around people who love writing, and around people who want to become better writers, and I want to become a better writer.”

As a Creative Writing lecturer who not too long ago was a student, what advice does Ashley have for budding writers?
“I tell them to enjoy the craft of writing, to enjoy the cathartic element of writing. I have to write because if I don’t write, I’m not happy, so enjoy that process. And first and foremost, have belief in your ambitions. If your ambition is to finish a novel, then have belief that you can do it. If your ambition is to get published, believe that you can do it. If your ambition is to win the Booker Prize one year, have belief that you can do it. I think belief is so important. Never let that belief die. I want to win the Booker Prize one day and I’m never going to lose that belief.”


A big thank you to Ashley Hickson-Lovence for sharing his story! Ashley returned to City in April for the launch of Your Show and discussed the novel with author Nels Abbey and members of the City community. More about Ashley’s work can be found here.