It’s fair to say that being a referee is no easy task.
Any tiny mistake is scrutinised repeatedly by beleaguered managers, bitter players and incandescent fans, and there’s nowhere to hide and little credit to be earned from taking on such a profession.
But Howard Webb has stood tall and is seen by many across the globe as currently the best referee in the business, having taken charge of the last two major international finals – Spain v Holland at the 2010 World Cup and Spain’s triumph over Italy at Euro 2012.
Speaking at the FA Carlsberg Refereeing Awards at Wembley Stadium, Webb explained how he has never let the criticisms that face match officials bother him, and he is still full of enthusiasm for the job he loves.
“A love of the game is important to become a referee and we need to recognise that a lot of people who do become involved in refereeing do so because of their love for the game, because they’re so passionate about the game of football.
“I think you need an awful lot of self-discipline, self-belief. You need good communication skills and you need to be able to manage people.
“When you combine all these things together, you’ve got the recipe for someone who can do a job in refereeing.
“As long as I’ve still got that same excited feeling at five to three, that same desire to do well in the game, the same emotions, as long as the same positive feelings are there, I’ll keep doing what I do.
“I’m a privileged guy; I’ve got a great seat in the house, every Saturday or Sunday afternoon, taking charge of Premier League games and Football League games as well. It’s a great place to be and I would recommend it to anybody who is thinking of getting involved in the game.
“It’s something that has developed me as a person, it will enhance your personal characteristics and attributes, it’ll keep you fit and will give you a real sense of satisfaction to contribute to the game in such a positive way.”
High-profile former referee Graham Poll told Footy Matters earlier this year he believed officials should have managers with them at games, just like the players do.
But Webb believes that system has been in place for years, with so many different mentors and volunteers around to help improve the standard of officiating.
“Mentorship is really important, it’s important for referees when they start out and still learning the skills to become a professional referee that they have someone that they can share their experiences with,” said Webb.
“Somebody who can look at the game with them, talk about situations, and that coaching continues right up to Premier League level and we look at our performances post-match with refereeing coaches with the intention of developing our skills and always improving. Coaching referees is important.
“As somebody who has benefited so much from volunteers in my career – and I started 23 years ago and benefited from people to get to the top of the game - I’m happy to be here to support this initiative (FA Carlsberg Refereeing Awards) and hopefully it will highlight how important this is to helping create the next generation of Premier League referees.”
The RESPECT campaign is often used as a stick with which to beat footballers, but Webb is of the belief that there has been a significant change in the attitude of players on the pitch.
However, he believes that it is impossible to stamp out arguments on the pitch, due to the level of emotion that football creates; something Webb would hate to see disappear from the game.
“I feel that they are a lot more mindful that they need to show the field of play as a positive place to get involved, be it match officials, players, coaches, spectators. We’ve seen clear evidence over the past few years that player behaviour has improved.
“The FA introduced the RESPECT programme a few years ago, the Premier League introduced their Get On With The Game programme, and I’ve a really strong view that we’ve seen a real strengthening of relationships on the field of play in the last few years.
“Football’s an emotive thing, it generates emotions. That’s the beauty about it, people care. They want to win of course, they care about decisions that are made, they care whether they win or lose.
“We expect some emotions of course, but we’ve got to keep working hard together - players, coaches, referees, administrators - to make sure the game keeps moving in a positive way forward, while enhancing the emotions that football creates.”
Arguably the highlight of Webb’s career came in 2010, when he was selected to officiate in the World Cup Final between Spain and Holland in South Africa, which proved a real challenge due to the unsavoury tactics of the Dutch in particular.
But again the Rotherham-born referee came out of with a lot of credit, and claims he enjoyed the entire experience.
“The World Cup was an unbelievable experience when you consider how I started back in 1989, doing Under 10s football locally in South Yorkshire, as someone who had been introduced to refereeing by my father, who was also a referee.
“I’d never held an ambition to become a referee, but decided to take it up. That night when I passed my exam back in 1989, I knew somebody somewhere would take charge of the 2010 World Cup Final and it turned out to be me! It’s amazing what can happen in refereeing and it was a great honour, a great responsibility to be in charge of that game.
“As match officials, we always hope we can be anonymously competent, that we are affecting the job we have to do, but we’re never spoken about, which is fine.
“Sometimes a game lends itself to that kind of review post-match, sometimes it doesn’t, and you have to step up to the plate and make decisions that the game demands upon. It was a difficult game, for sure, it was important for everybody involved, the biggest game of everybody’s career, including mine.
“It was a challenge for two hours. For me it was important to try and be a calming influence, try and keep people’s intentions on the football, trying to do the job I was there to do, to protect the players, protect the game and it was a testing match, for sure.
“But looking back, it was a great honour to be asked to take the game, to referee the match, and it’s something that I hold very fond memories of.”
Webb may be the pinnacle right now for all aspiring referees, but he’s looking to the future and believes there is a lot of hope for match officiating for years to come.
“There are lots and lots of young referees. It’s quite different now from when I started back in the late 80s; there weren’t many young referees involved in the game. That’s one of the things that attracted me into refereeing.
“When we compare that to now, we’ve got a lot of good young people getting involved in the game from the mid-teens to late teens, male and female, and I think it’s really good for the game, it’s good for the future of refereeing.
“There are strong, positive numbers involved for the future of refereeing and it’s good for the future of the game. We need as many games as possible covered by qualified referees up and down the country.
“That enhances the enjoyment of the game and it ensures that fair play is respected and players are protected as well.”
The game has played a pivotal part in Webb’s life for the best part of a quarter of a century and on the question of why it matters so much to him he added: “It’s everything to me. I’ve been asked to write down my hobbies in questionnaires and you know what? Football is everything.”
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Tags: Carlsberg, Howard Webb, Premier League, referee, World Cup