A footballer who knocked a Luton referee unconscious nearly two years ago has been sentenced to a 12 month community order.
Luke Nicholls, 28, of Ashcroft Road, Luton, appeared at Luton Crown Court today to plead guilty to the assault on referee Henry Ifesi at Stockwood Park on December 11, 2016.
After Nicholls’ brother was sent off during an argument with the referee which also involved their father, AFC Stopsley player Nicholls punched Mr Ifesi in the back of the head before fleeing the scene.
Rival team AFC Enterprise were left to tend to the unconscious man.
Mr Ifesi has suffered ongoing health problems since the attack, including headaches, bouts of blurred vision, ringing in his ear and anxiety. He was forced to quit refereeing after serving 24 years.
Judge Lynn Tayton QC told Nicholls that his behaviour had been “utterly disgraceful”.
She said: “Mr Ifesi was providing a service... in any sort of football or sports match, a referee is needed.
“If you disagree with the referee’s decision, the way to deal with that is not to attack them.
“A football match or any event can’t work if you do that.
“You also don’t know who’s standing on the sidelines. You’ve got a six-year-old daughter yourself and as a father, you’ve got to understand the effect seeing this sort of thing has on children.”
The court heard that Nicholls has stayed out of trouble since the incident.
The judge imposed a 12-month community order of 200 hours of unpaid work, a three month curfew and £250 compensation awarded to Mr Ifesi.
Luton Today carried a story of the attack in December 2016 in a bid for witnesses to come forward, and Mr Ifesi was later interviewed by both ITV and BBC Three Counties.
Mr Ifesi described receiving a tirade of abuse from several Stopsley AFC players before the blow landed. He said: “I’ve been a referee for 24 years and I’ve never experienced anything like it.
“These people were threatening to hound me and Luke Nicholls actually did it. They did not so much as give a thought to assist me, they just walked away.”
Mr Ifesi told Luton Today he was deeply disappointed by the sentence, which he called “a travesty of justice”.
He said: “I had no prior knowledge of this sentencing and I am truly shocked that the man walked free.
“He moved behind an unsuspecting football referee, aimed and landed a savage blow to the back of my skull.
“This individual used every trick in the book to avoid the police for over seventeen months, despite their numerous visits to track him down.
“But for the faithfulness of the witnesses and everyone involved, he would have walked free without so much as being prosecuted.”
Nicholls was brought in by police for questioning in February 2017. In his interview with police, Nicholls denied being at the match and claimed that another player was using his name.
Prosecutor Sean Sullivan said that Nicholls’ untruthful statement had complicated matters by forcing an identification process.
Judge Tayton noted that a number of witness statements were dated April 2018 and criticised the year-long delay in gathering them.
She said: “In any identification case, to allow that length of time to pass is surprising. I understand the problems with resources, but in another case this could have had a very significant impact.”
Removal man Nicholls represented himself and claimed to the probation service that Mr Ifesi had exaggerated the impact of the assault, although he later accepted the victim impact statement in his guilty plea. He stated he had been drinking the night before at a Christmas party with just two hours sleep, and he had not expected to be called up to play football.
Nicholls had arrived late in court after sustaining a punctured tyre on his van. Two men were also removed from the public gallery by the judge for grinning during sentencing.
Judge Tayton warned Nicholls: “You’ve had a delay and kept yourself out of trouble, which has been a big factor in my decision.
“If you do anything like this again, you can expect to go to prison.”