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Illustration series about the football referees life, from training and Sunday league game to the World Cup.
I met Webb in December at the PGMOL offices, where we discussed the reasons why he became a referee. His story is familiar. As a kid, Webb’s great interest was football, but his ambition to play professionally was misplaced and ultimately unrealised. “The bottom line was I wasn’t good enough,” he told me across a conference room table. “Didn’t have the talent.” His father, who had become an amateur referee in 1969, encouraged Webb to attend an FA course, which he eventually did in 1989, aged 18. The decision changed his life. He quickly began to enjoy being responsible for successful Saturday and Sunday league games, and he welcomed the feeling of satisfaction that flooded over him in their aftermath. “I recognised quite early that the more I did this thing the better I got, and the more I learnt about myself,” he said. “Getting to a high level as a footballer wasn’t going to be a possibility. [But] here was a chance to get to a good level a different way.” Later he mentioned an additional motivation: to stand out among officials as a young referee. “They all seemed to be bald old men,” he said, laughing. “Which is what I am now.”
Webb is bald, but, at 44, he is not old, and neither does he look it. He is tall and impeccably trim, and he has a deep, baritonal south Yorkshire accent that makes him seem at once approachable and authoritative. When we shook hands on first meeting, he grasped firmly and looked directly into my eyes, as if trying to make an immediate and lasting impression. Habit, perhaps.
While he climbed the rungs of the refereeing ladder, Webb worked as a policeman in Doncaster, and later as a sergeant in Sheffield. (The similarities between the two professions – identifying potentially troublesome situations, taking appropriate action, diffusing situations with body language and targeted later as a sergeant in Sheffield. (The similarities between the two professions – identifying potentially
troublesome situations, taking appropriate action, diffusing situations with body language and targeted man management – are obvious and not lost on him.) He worked a 40-hour week, leaving space to train and oversee matches during busy weekends. “You had to be good with your time management,” he said. “[And] you had to have sympathetic supervisors.”
There are just 17 professional referees in England today, and around four professional assistants. Until officials reach the Select Group, making a living in the business is tough, so most hold down other jobs. Football League referees are also teachers and salesmen and postal workers. A number of Pettitt’s students are pilots – calm heads prepared for difficult situations. Most referees with Premier League- level ambitions hedge their bets; if refereeing doesn’t work out, the theory is they’ll have a supplementary career to fall back on. Webb quickly moved his way up the chain in the police force, “but the football would almost come first,” he said. “That was the one that was a real passion.” It is the same, he thinks, for all referees. “That’s what keeps them going,” he said. “Otherwise why put yourself through two careers? It’s no different to fans who travel the length and breadth of the country on a Saturday. Because they have a passion for it.”
PGMOL was created in 2001 to improve refereeing standards. Some are unsure as to how effective the organisation has been, particularly over the last few months. In early January, Keith Hackett, a former referee and ex-PGMOL chief, publicly criticised decisions made during the busy Christmas period, and subsequently called into question the role of the organisation and the ability of its incumbent chief,
Mike Riley, another ex-referee. PGMOL reacted by releasing stats – minor percentage improvements in the accuracy of major decisions – meant to provide proof of a development in refereeing quality since Hackett’s exit five years ago. They did, but a question lingered: do standards need to improve, and how might that happen?
Webb, who last summer became Technical Director of PGMOL, a multi-disciplinary role that involves coaching high-level referees and liaising with the media about pertinent in-game incidents and issues, considers refereeing in England to be a success story. But he’s aware that maintaining quality, and improving it, is an ongoing effort. “Can we do better?” he asked, before nodding. “We can always strive to develop. The challenge for me is to make sure the next generation are there to replace the ones that are there at the moment. And to make sure that as the game gets faster, and the scrutiny gets even more intense, if that’s possible, that they’re able to cope at that level.”
Near the end of our conversation, Webb told the story of a friend who took the same referee course he did in 1989. As soon as they qualified, the pair began refereeing amateur games. Webb’s matches went without major issue, but in his friend’s second game, a scuffle arose, and the referee was struck in the face. “He packed it in,” Webb said, still disappointed. “That was the end of it. Who knows where that journey would have taken him.”
Webb understands his business can be tough. In the early days he changed behind cars and refereed four games in a weekend; as a pro, he regularly experienced high profile moments of public criticism. But, he said, the rewards associated with refereeing can be huge, and “by and large it’s a positive experience”. Later, he added, “You’ve got to get through the shit.”
When he was ready to leave, I asked Webb, who could still theoretically referee in the Premier League, whether or not he missed being an official.
“I don’t wish I was out there,” he said. “I miss certain parts of it, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But I don’t wish I was on a game tomorrow, particularly. I look back with fondness at most of what I did. I miss that feeling when it’s gone well, that high, because nothing really quite replaces it – the walk out before the game, the buzz.” He stopped and thought for a second. “And then that feeling of satisfaction when you’ ve done a job well.”
When Alex Clubb and I met in the pub in December, he stumbled over the question of whether or not he actually enjoyed refereeing. He could not answer positively. In fact, he could barely answer at all. Whenever I brought the issue up, our conversation would unravel into moments of prolonged silence. I got the impression it was a question with which he’d wrestled previously.
In late January, I asked him again, one final time.
“I guess that implies it’s fun,” he said, “and, as you can imagine, it’s not always a stroll in the park.”
By that point, Clubb had passed the FA course – “Was straightforward enough,” he wrote in a text message the next day. “Been revising for the test ever since I started watching football!” – and he had been refereeing games as a fully-fledged official for six weeks. He had continued for the same
reasons: the money, the exercise, to be part of the game. That last point – the being involved – is what tied together all of the referees I spoke to, the answer to the question, why? Each official craved a pivotal role in a game for which they share an inordinate passion. “I do gain satisfaction from being involved,” Clubb told me, “and ensuring the game is played in the right way. If there are particularly good players on show, then of course, there are times it can be a pleasure to watch… As long as it’s not pouring down with rain.”
When Clubb made a decision on that penalty, he did so swiftly and with extreme confidence. It was not a ruling half of the players on the pitch were happy about, but still, the game went on. As the match ended, and players shook hands, Clubb began walking towards the sidelines, readying himself for the cycle home. In a couple of weeks he would likely repeat this whole experience again – similar location, similar players, similar decisions – but for now, the game was done. As Clubb reached the edge of the pitch he paused, turned, and looked out. When he moved back towards his bike, he was smiling.