Howard Webb [1296x729]
Howard Webb [1296x729] (Credit: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) and the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) have announced a new scheme to provide 10-12 former players with a route into refereeing, which could see them reach the Premier League in a shorter timeframe.

A pilot scheme saw 120 former players indicate they would be interested in becoming referees. Chris Birchall -- who played for Port Vale, Coventry City, the LA Galaxy and the Columbus Crew -- was among those who took up the initial offer and, at the age of 39, refereed his first qualification game in April.

Now a small group will be invited to apply to enrol on the new three-year refereeing scholarship "player to match official" programme -- intended to provide opportunities to those with potential to progress to the higher levels of the game more quickly. It's part of the Elite Referee Development Plan, which is wholly funded and supported by the Premier League and aims to revamp refereeing in English football.

Participants will be offered the chance to "officiate games at a variety of levels in line with their performance, with possible refereeing opportunities across England's professional leagues within or on successful completion of the three-year programme."

Chief refereeing officer Howard Webb said: "We've made no secret that we are looking to broaden our pool of officials and entice people from other areas of the game and society into refereeing who may have historically not been well represented.

"Alongside our commitment to developing our current officials, we aim to create the best possible environment to support and encourage current and former players to enhance their skills, knowledge and, ultimately, their qualities as match officials through this programme.

"It's been fantastic to collaborate with the PFA on this programme and the level of interest from their members strongly indicates they feel this is an exciting opportunity to explore an avenue which could potentially lead them to the highest levels of our game -- this time as a match official."

The group will begin working later this summer by undertaking a referee course, which will include both technical and practical-based training, and will be expected to commit to two days a week on a paid basis.