Cohen: now it's payback time
I'm in charge: Neal Cohen
Neal Cohen has made the surprise transition from MSFL manager to referee in just a matter of months.
Over the years, Cohen was renowned for verbal attacks at the man in black but he is something of a reformed character these days, especially with the recent arrival of twin boys.
His decision to step down as the long-standing manager of Zig Zag last summer led to the club folding, but he is not looking back after 10 years in charge.
So what made him make a complete U-turn and want to become a referee? "It took a lot of time to run a team and with the imminent arrival of the twins, I felt that refereeing would give me more freedom on a Sunday as I wanted to stay involved in the Maccabi League," he said.
Cohen explained that the process to qualify to officiate in the MSFL took "in the region of four months," with the nine-week course followed by an exam. This was followed by covering six matches to obtain a certificate as well as a child safety course.
I'm not sure how some of the older ones do it
Cohen now sees the role of a referee very differently to his playing and managerial days. He said: "Some were very good, but some were very poor. I admit I was awful as a manager towards referees. I would have sent myself off many times.
"It's a hard job but it's fun and I'm really enjoying it. I have found that if you are able to keep up with play and make an instant decision, you get respect from the players.
"You need to be firm but also be able to have banter with them. Some referees round the players up before the match and give them instructions but that is not my way.
"I don't treat them like schoolkids. Giving long speeches is not for me. I prefer to have a quick word with the managers and captains as well as the assistant-referees who have a horrible job. I try to let the game flow and play the advantage."
Cohen was a much-maligned character on the circuit as Zig Zag boss but is clearly winning over the teams in his new role.
"The reaction has been very good except for one team who moaned like old women for 90 minutes," he said. "They were the only team that I didn't get a handshake from at the end, but you can't please everyone. Of course, it was my fault they lost.
"To be a good referee, you need control, organisation, common sense and to know the laws of the game. I also think some players need a refresher course on the laws."
Looking back on his time as a manager, he said: "I thought very differently. I only thought about my players and not the ref. To be fair, I only had a go when they were giving decisions 100 yards from play.
"On reflection, I think I deserve a bit of credit by admitting I was wrong and have now taken it up myself. All the referees in the MSFL are lovely guys. I was only ever sent from the touchline twice, both times fully deserved.
"But from what I've heard from colleagues on my course about what happens in non-Jewish football, we're all saints."
A lifelong Spurs fans, Cohen suggests that more ex-players and managers should follow his lead. "Why not," he said. "I think we need some younger lads like Luke Eppel and Warwick Blake. I'm 43 and a fat boy but I can just about keep up with these 18-year-olds on a Sunday. But I have to say, it's not easy trying to run upfield from one end of the pitch to the other from a goal-kick. I'm not sure how some of the older ones do it."
Cohen took a brief sabbatical from matches when his wife, Shelley, gave birth. He was forced to pull out of a match on the morning his boys, Dexter and Archie, arrived but was back in action to take charge of the match between Catford & Bromley Maccabi and Los Blancos seven days later.
He said: "I'm doing night feeds so I came back sooner than expected. My wife is delighted that I've taken the plunge to become a referee. She's proud of me."
Referees Secretary Martin Fox said: "Neal is full of confidence and very keen. He's always asking for advice and is keen to improve.
"He's told me he's ready to do the Premier Division. He's taken to it like a duck to water and I've had no complaints about him."
North London Raiders C manager Oliver Shorts was impressed by Cohen in Sunday's match against FC Team C in Division Four. He said: "It was the third time he's taken charge of us this season and he's been pretty solid every time.
"He's not perfect and on occasion will make decisions that we disagree with, but overall, as referees go, he's definitely one of the better ones."
Cohen believes that MSFL referees deserve a pay increase. "Now that I'm a dad, the £35 match fee doesn't buy many Spurs bibs and nappies."