Howard Webb: the truth about Premier League referees

Top football referee Howard Webb, who took charge of the 2010 World Cup Final, opens up to Telegraph Men about the life of a professional referee, from pre-match rituals and angry dads to cheating players and managers’ mind games

All referees want to be footballers too

“As a kid I wanted to be a football player. I wouldn’t expect anyone to harbour ambitions to be a ref aged 8 or 9. It would be a bit strange. I was no different. I wanted to be a World Cup-winning captain maybe, which is not easy for an English lad, is it?

“I tried hard and I suppose there was a certain point in my early teenage years when I thought I might be good enough but looking back I was miles away and I was never going to make it.”feree Howard Webb retiresPlay!00:37

I didn’t want to be a bald old referee

“My dad was a referee and when I was about 17 he asked me if I fancied taking a ref course. I wasn’t interested because I thought all referees are bald old men. And that is what I became, I guess. But I thought that I would be quite a young ref and so I would be a bit different. After some persuasion I decided to do a course and qualified as a ref in late 1989.”

Never hand over the match ball until you’ve been paid

“It was a steep learning curve when I was a young ref because I was out there on my own in my late teens and early 20s and I was still developing my personality. I had to make my own way to the ground and get changed by the side of my car or under a tree. There was no guarantee I would get paid at the end. Dad used to tell me to keep hold of the match ball at the end until I had been paid. That was my insurance.”

A parent threatened to punch me

“I was never threatened with physical violence, apart from once at a junior kids’ football match when a parent reckoned to hit me. But that is not common. Sometimes when you get unfair stick you feel like packing it in but you’re back out there the following week. It actually gets easier the higher up the pyramid you go.

“When I started refereeing in the Northern Counties East and Conference I had a proper changing room and shower. The desire to get higher got a lot stronger when you could see the improvements in the facilities and you felt a bit more protected. It became addictive to keep pushing on and seeing how far you can get.”

You know you’ve made it when you see a Peter Crouch wonder goal

“The special moments I’ve seen are many and numerous and being a referee feels like you’re in the best seat in the house. Individually the best performance I ever saw was by Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal’s 2014 World Cup play-off qualifier against Sweden in Stockholm (in November 2013, when Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 win). The game was slipping away and he just grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and drove his side through to the finals with an outstanding performance of strength, skill, power and determination.

“The best individual goal I saw in the Premier League was by another legend: Peter Crouch. It was against Manchester City (in March 2012) when Asmir Begovic booted the ball up and Crouch took it on his chest, swivelled and hit it from 40 yards out and it went over Joe Hart’s dandruff-free head. The stadium was still buzzing ten minutes later with people texting their mates.”

I suffered from OCD before games

“I am not a particularly superstitious person but I have always suffered from OCD and as a kid it was at quite an extreme level. For me it wasn’t the number of times I did something or putting a certain boot on first, it was just about having positive thoughts when I put my kit on. So when I put my shirt on I would want to have a positive mindset and if I didn’t get that feeling or I thought about a mistake in my last game, I would take my shirt off and put it back on.

“It sounds really strange in the cold light of day and even though I knew it would have no bearing on the game, the rational mind doesn’t help. I still felt compelled to take my shirt off and on to lower my anxiety levels. Being on the pitch was actually a refuge from my OCD as I had no time to think of other things. I just had to get on with it.”

Managers always try to intimidate you

“Different managers had different ways. It might be at the team sheet exchange an hour before the game when they would look you dead in the eye and try to impose themselves on you. Others might tell you things at half time that were not true as if you had got something blatantly wrong which they had seen on TV.

“They would try to get into your head so subconsciously you might give them the benefit of the doubt next time something happens. We saw the comments about Anthony Taylor before the Liverpool v Man United game which were not helpful. But once it is out there you can’t ‘unhear’ it as a ref and you just try to shut it out and be as strong and resilient as you can.”

Always get the captains on side

“I would often say to the teams’ captains: you know your players better than me, you work with them day in, day out, and you understand their reactions better than I do so if your player is losing it, step in and intervene and influence the situation. Don’t leave it to me. We saw it in the Chelsea v Arsenal game last year when Diego Costa had an altercation with Gabriel. If Per Mertesacker had been captain he would have stepped in.

“I think it was Santi Cazorla who was an unusual choice of captain and he didn’t do what a good captain would do and recognise the need to step in and sort it out. You would get guys like Patrice Evra who would come up and say: ‘Don’t worry, Howard, I will sort him out.’  Guys like Frank Lampard and Phil Jagielka are lads with sensible heads on their shoulders too and they would get hold of their player for me.”

You can’t judge players by their reputations

“It is part of the skill of a referee to be aware of the people they are officiating but don’t close your mind. If you do, you are setting yourself up for a fall because if in your mind someone always dives that player could be fouled in the penalty area and you might get it wrong. You have to be aware of the possibilities but keep an open mind.

“Some players had a reputation for being difficult to manage but I found them okay. I enjoyed guys like Joey Barton and Robbie Savage because they engage with you and you get a dialogue. It’s the ones that look at you with disdain that can be hardest to deal with.”

Referees get angry at five-a-side matches too

“All the refs would sometimes play football in training sessions. We would try to make it non-contact but often there would be contact. A few refs can put their foot in. But it was helpful if someone was refereeing and gave a decision I did not agree with as I would get really quite irate. The personal injustice would burn through me. How can you possibly think that was a foul? That is helpful so you remember what it is like on the other side of the fence.”

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