Saturday, 17 December 2016



  "I sometimes dreaded my stints on the pitch. I often spent that 90-minute period wavering between fear and loathing.  . . for me too many games would be endured, not enjoyed."

Astonishingly, this is the reflection on the last days of his refereeing career of Howard Webb, the man who was so highly regarded in the middle that his numerous high-profile achievements included the most illustrious appointment of all - a World Cup final

Of his last season in the  Premier League, Webb says the "vast majority" of matches wore him out "mentally and sometimes physically".

He found his enthusiasm of earlier, happier times being sapped (especially after "a  bad decision or a poor performance") by the flak that inevitably ensued - "mobbing by players, taunting from the terraces, intimidation by managers, pastings in the media and lost sleep".

On top of that there was the toll, not least from constant travel home and overseas, on his domestic  life.

When he was making his way in the game and climbing the refereeing ladder, the benefits outweighed the disadvantages, but now it seemed the balance had shifted.

Ironically, almost from the days he quit, moments of regret set in.

"I found it tough," he confides."I struggled a lot."I missed the spirit and camaraderie.

"Sometimes I found myself yearning for my old life in middle."

Webb's  candid revelations come in his deservedly-acclaimed  autobiography The Man in The Middle.

What shines through, in a world of sports celebrity ego, is his personal modesty, his refusal to blow his own trumpet, his willingness to admit to mistakes and regrets, his gentle humour and his generosity in speaking highly of others - not least his parents, Billy and Sylvia, and his own family - wife Kay and children, Lucy, Jack and Hollie.

Among those in the game, past or present,  who receive his plaudits are  Glenn Hoddle and Ian Wright.

Wright, for example, is described as being "among the nicest people in sport - a top, top fella".

Meanwhile, he says that Hoddle  is "ridiculously friendly, humble and down to earth".

Other notably good guys in the game, at least in Webb's book, include Patrice Evra, Per Mertesacker, Phil Jagielka, Scott Parker, Frank Lampard, the late Gary Speed, the Italian goalkeeper, Gianlugi Buffon, and (to a extent!) even Robbie Savage and Joey Barton.

Of the hundreds of footballers he has met, he says "the vast majority" proved to be "decent people and model professionals".

He notes: "They did their job and I did mine, and we tried to work together as best we could."

But Webb is particularly glowing, repeatedly so  in his praise of two unsung assistant referees, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey, who ran the line for him in many matches, both domestic and foreign, including the Spain v Netherlands World Cup Final on July 11, 2010.

He reckons that it was their ability, professionalism and moral support that helped propel him to the pinnacle of the game.

Unlike other referees who have penned their autobiographies, Webb mostly holds back from the temptation of settling scores - except in the cases of David Moyes and Craig Bellamy.

He recalls how the former once described him as a "f-ing disgrace" in the tunnel and how the same manager "appeared to have a deep loathing for refs and would often send in his assistants to harangue us on his behalf".

Bellamy, meanwhile, once yelled at him "you, f-ing sh-house" in full earshot of everyone in both technical areas.

Says Webb "I remember thinking, at the time, there weren't many more obnoxious players around than Craig Bellamy."

Other tricky characters, probably for all referees, include Neil Warnock and Steve Evans - both of whom, ironically, have managed Rotherham United, Webb's hometown club which he has supported since childhood (and of which he is now an honorary ambassador).

He also recalls an "awkward" moment once while shaking hands with player-turned-pundit Alan Shearer in the Match of The Day studios. "I noticed that while his mouth was smiling, his eyes were not."

What also makes the book so impressive - valuable even - is that the author "comes out" on his ongoing struggles with the part-psychological/ part neurological  disorder OCD  - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Had it it had been known about by the domestic and international football authorities during his time as a referee, it is quite possible this condition - possibly reflecting inner insecurities - would have delayed or even halted his  career.

He describes how  negative thoughts  which would intrude  into mind prior to matches could generally (but not aways) be banished if he tapped on doors, walls or floors  or even kept removing and replacing  his shirt, sometimes as many as six or more times.

Recognising that this was potentially distracting to his assistant linesmen  who were themselves geeing themselves up for the match, he would even lock himself in the loo while performing his strange rituals.

He says: "Given time and inner strength, I'm sure that I will be able to talk publicly about my OCD.

"I am aware that there are thousands of fellow-sufferers who may identify with my situation, and I think I'd like to help raise awareness of what can be a much-misunderstood and much-maligned  condition.

"I spent years believing  I was a crazy weirdo, and I'd hate to think that others with similar symptoms are feeling the same."

Webb's frankness, albeit preliminary, in describing his strange disorder, which he may never totally overcome,  will doubtless  encourage others who face the same challenge and may also lead to progress in how it can best be treated.

Throughout the book, the author has only the warmest words to say about the support from his mum, Sylvia, and his ex-miner father, Billy, himself a former , who encouraged Howard to take up the whistle, aged 18.

An undercurrent of the book, of which Webb is probably unaware, is that much of his motivation may have been prompted by a desire to please his father, a collier who spent a decade underground.

Webb was not always kind to his son when watching him play for such boyhood clubs as Bethel Rovers.

Unimpressed by his lad's readiness to shy away from tough tackles and shirk  headed challenges, Webb Senior would describe him as a " big girl's blouse" - hardly the best way to inspire a young player.

"I hated getting stuck in and tended to shy away from crunching tackles,"confesses Howard. "Unusually for someone so tall, I was pretty cr-p in the air and dreaded going up for headers."

But despite the brickbats, a strong  bond always prevailed between father and son, such that the former would often travel with him to matches, later dispensing post-match encouragement in times good and bad.

On one fateful journey, Billy fell asleep at the steering wheel  and their car ended up in dyke at the side of the A1 road near Worksop.

The book will be fabulously helpful to other referees especially those starting out in the game because the author is so forthcoming about his stinkers and about the challenges of managing the pressure (and often downright spitefulness) from players, managers, fans,  media pundits and sometimes even from fellow referees.

He recalls a "particularly troublesome" match in December, 2004, at Goodison Park between Everton and Bolton where he allowed himself to be swayed by the febrile atmosphere.

At around about the 30-minute mark - often a critical point in a referee's match control - he found himself "starting to hide which is a cardinal sin for my profession".

He says: "Rather than being intimidated by my surroundings, I should have. maintained the courage of my convictions, but I failed to do so.

"I was, to coin a phrase, bottling it. The game went from bad to worse, and I just wanted to go home."

Later, Webb refers to an observation from a respected Scottish ex-referee, Hugh Dallas, who compared refereeing to "riding a horse you've never met before".

Either it will prove docile or it will misbehave - and only experience will tell you how to handle the reins.

Advice from another referee,George Courtney, was along the lines of "to succeed as a ref, you've got to be prepared to be a b-stard without being a c-nt".

He notes that the midpoint of the first half can be a good time to show a first yellow card and he emphasises the importance of alertness from the very first second of the match - otherwise a situation can "slap you in the face when you're not ready for it".

Another referee, Graham Poll, also offered wise advice. In European matches, players tend not to respect referees who seek to communicate too much. They see it as a sign of weakness. What they respect is a card.

"If I was to keep UEFA happy, I needed to adjust my style and adapt my mode of communication,"says Webb. No more blah, blah, blah, essentially."

The author is also revealing about the cliques, factions and rivalries that existed in the refereeing world in his early days as a Premier League official.

On the one side, there was the so-called "red wine club" consisting of southerners such as Graham Poll, Paul Durkin, Rob Styles, Mike Dean and Andy D'Urso, while, on the other side, were (from the Midlands and the North) Jeff Winter, Mark Halsey, Mike Riley, Neale Barry, Steve Bennett and Barry Knight.

In the middle were the likes of Webb, Alan Wiley, Dermot Gallagher, Matt Massias and Uriah Rennie.

On one occasion, simmering tensions between Poll and Halsey turned particularly nasty, resulting in an unseemly ruckus between the two which only ended when Rennie dragged them apart.

Mike Dean is revealed to be something of a "prankster" while Lee Mason is a joker with a knack for impersonating players, managers and officials.

However, at the referees' Christmas party at St George's Park in Staffordshire, the latter  tends to specialise in impressions of Bruce Forsyth and Leslie Crowther.

For much of his career, Webb combined refereeing with serving South Yorkshire police, first as a constable, then (he was promoted in June, 2000) as a sergeant.

On his first day on foot patrol, based in Doncaster (the most enjoyable period of his policing career), he recalls his attempts to restrain a drunk which, until back-up arrived,  culminated in both men grappling on the ground in the town centre - watched by onlookers, many of whom were cheering on the drunk!

On another occasion, there was even more danger when he was part of a team dealing with an armed robbery.

Often, his police training helped him on the football field. As he says: "I don't think it's a coincidence that many refs are coppers or teachers adept at managing discipline resolving conflict and enforcing rules and regulations."

What is required is the mettle to make quick decisions within tight frames, the self-control to keep calm when the heart is thumping and the capacity to take action without dithering.

Between school and joining the police, Webb also had a five-year spell working for the  Rotherham branch of Yorkshire Bank (where he first met Kay whom he married in July, 1995, at Whiston parish church).

But he founded banking work humdrum and left under a cloud after a particularly foolish escapade involving what he scribbled in complimentary diaries provided for customers

But back to the football - specifically the World Cup Final.

Webb provides fascinating insights both into the pre-match preparations in the dressing room and into the match itself.

With four yellow cards in the first 22 minutes, it proved to be a difficult and draining match - one he does not look back on with any pleasure.

But, in his assesssment, he is almost certainly too hard on himself. Most of the millions who watched the match on TV will probably have felt that it was not the officials but the players, especially some of the Dutch, who let down both themselves and the integrity of such a showcase occasion.

The book is also full of amusing anecdotes - for instance, the occasion when Peter Walton forgot to take his disciplinary cards on to the pitch.

When it came to cautioning Jordan Mutch, then with Birmingham City, he flourished an imaginary yellow card - then continued the charade by putting the "card" back in his pocket.

He is also illuminating on the apprehension experienced by match officials (including assistant referees) in advance of TV's Match of The Day, especially if they have made one or more serious errors. 

What about now? Webb  could have enjoyed another couple of years in the middle  but felt it was correct to get out while still at the top.

For a while, he worked for the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Ltd) but found his role unsatisfactory because it was ill-defined. He used to find himself "mooching about like a spare part".

In particular, he says he became increasingly "hacked off" that officials were seen - and often verbally battered in the media - but were never heard. The PGMOL offered officials no platform, often  for fear of ruffling the feathers of Premier League managers.

Webb is happier in what he does now, combining studio work as  a refereeing analyst for BT Sport with working 12 days a month (he is  midway through a three-year contract improving refereeing standards for the Saudi FA).

What about the future. Webb has twice been asked to stand as a prospective Labour MP - for Barnsley Central and for Rotherham - but declined

His ex-miner dad had been a paid up member of the National Union of Mineworkers, and the pair had always held socialist values, but he felt a life in parliament would have consumed his whole life and that nailing his political colours to the mast might have alienated some friends and colleagues.

This review of an exceptionally readable book would not be complete without a word of praise for Stockport-based ghostwriter Joanne Lake who played a key role in the project.

Her imaginative and colouful  knack with words, phraseology and structure is impeccable  - as evidenced in the opening paragraph of Chapter Nine where Webb is at pains to quash the rumour that he had a soft spot for Manchester United.

"Let's get something straight once and for all,"he says."Contrary to what you might have seen on the internet, I have never shared a bed with Sir Alex Ferguson. There is no statue of me outside Old Trafford. My kids are not called Rio, Wayne and Christiano. There is no Red Devil tattoo inked on my left buttock. The only United I have evcer supported - hand on heart - is of the Rotherham variety. And that's the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

Marvellous stuff! This title surely deserves to be voted Sports Book of The Year.

An FA Trophy match between Droylsden FC and Belper FC. "It was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end.Within minutes of kick off I had lost total control. It became one of those games - all refs have had them - where my performance slowly, painfully and publicly nosedived. I was out of my depth. That match gave me cold sweats and sleepless nights for weeks afterwards."
Darlington v Exeter City on Aug 19, 2000.

Fulham v Wolves on Oct 18, 2003.

Hull v Everton on May 11, 2014.


Hull. He likes the people, and his sister, Claire, went to Hull University - and it is not far from his home in Rotherham. By coincidence, he refereed the last match to be played at Hull's former Boothferry Park ground and the first to be played at the KC stadium.


Raleigh Grifter.

Howard Webb: Man in The Middle is published at £20 by Simon & Schuster:


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