Football: Crusader in the middle

'Unfortunately, I think a climate is being created where routinely abusing the referee is acceptable'; Stephen Brenkley finds the Premiership's only World Cup referee is ready to make a stand
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The Independent Online
IN ONE of his early matches as a football referee Paul Durkin booked his younger brother. It might have been an unequivocal indication of his refusal to be influenced by anything other than the laws of the game. "Actually, it was an easy decision," he said. "It was a dreadful tackle. Graham took this guy off somewhere around the waist and there couldn't be any other choice but to issue a caution. The trouble was that he got home first and told our mum. When I arrived back she gave me a lot of stick."

This seems to be not only conclusive evidence that referees do after all have mums, and indeed dads, but also that they can be as wrong in their eyes as in those of the rest of the world. Durkin recounted the incident with enormous glee last week. It still tickles him 24 years on but it is probably an enduring reminder too that refs, no matter what their parentage, were born to be criticised.

"It goes with the territory," he said. "But the insults that are going round so often these days do hurt. It's all changed so much. Ten years ago the average fan might be able to name five refs if they were lucky. Now most of them could probably go through all 19 of us on the Premiership list and where we come from.

"This reflects not just football's popularity but the intensive coverage. Unfortunately, I think a climate is being created where routinely abusing the referee is acceptable. Of course, there are errors of judgement, there always have been, there always will be, but I maintain we still get far more right than we get wrong."

The onslaught on their judgement is unabated. If Gordon Strachan and Joe Kinnear are noted exponents of the figurative art of sticking the boot in to the ref, virtually the last act by Ruud Gullit as Chelsea's manager was to attack Durkin's friend and colleague Dermot Gallagher. According to Gullit, Gallagher should have sent off Steve Bould when the Arsenal centre-half pulled Gianluca Vialli's shirt as the Italian striker bore down on goal. "The referee wants to do it his way and is not on," he said.

Gallagher is one of eight England referees on the Fifa list so they must be pleasing somebody somewhere. Durkin, 42, is probably now the leading member of the octet. He got a lucky break when the unfortunate Gallagher limped out of the France-Bulgaria match in Euro 96 with a calf injury and coped well as the replacement. The title of England's top ref may be unofficial but since he was chosen as the country's representative for the World Cup finals nobody is arguing. Not that this status or his inexorable rise up the ranks before that will stop him copping flak from managers increasingly ready to hand it out. It is not simply that he has already been involved this season in two controversial sendings off or that he will determinedly defend the corner of what used to be the men in black.

There is also his demeanour on the pitch, which has been misinterpreted as arrogance. This is partly because as a 5ft 6in tall red-head, vaguely reminiscent of Alan Ball, it can look distinctly ridiculous when he is ticking off a centre-half nearly a foot taller and partly because of the way in which he delivers yellow cards. He is charmingly candid about these aspects of his game.

"I have tried to change my body language this season. I'm aware that I was tending to thrust the card at players which they tend to do on the continent. And I try to stand back a little now instead of looking directly into a player's chest. But I get on all right with them. I talk to them during games, I worry about their welfare when they're injured.

"I think there could be changes. For example, it might be an idea to try an experimental law perhaps in a selected lower league under which teams dissenting from a free-kick decision are automatically penalised another 10 metres like in rugby union. It might work, it might not but what we need above everything else is dialogue. That's how we're going to get things better than they are."

His first foray of the present Premiership campaign into long- running back-page headlines was at Bolton where he dismissed Gary Pallister of Manchester United along with the home side's Nathan Blake. United protested, Durkin briefly stuck by his decision, saying he could only adjudicate from what he saw on the pitch, before viewing the video and amending Pallister's punishment to a caution. Then came Emmanuel Petit's push on him in Arsenal's match against Aston Villa at Highbury. It looked innocuous enough but contact, indubitably, there was. Petit was off.

The phrase "thin end of the wedge" was much used in the days that followed but Durkin rather stoked the controversy by saying that he had sent off the Frenchman not for himself but for the country's other 34,000 referees. It was emotive stuff which he now seems to rue slightly but you can see what he meant. Millions were watching the game on television. Had Petit been allowed his shove, then refs on park pitches everywhere might have been suddenly subject to assault.

Durkin, who is a fleet administrator with the Magna Housing Association in Dorchester and is ambivalent on the subject of professional referees, talks about football as passionately and enthrallingly as any manager. He was brought up with it. His father, Billy, is a Yorkshireman who played at inside- forward for three league clubs before ending up at Weymouth which is how young Paul came to be born in nearby Portland, where he still lives and which still appears in parentheses after his name in match programmes.

With that background he started playing early. He was, by his own admission, an occasionally fiery, loquacious left-winger. After passing the referee's examination at 16 he spent three years playing one day at the weekend and officiating on the other. "I was advised that something had to give when I received three cautions and found myself up before the disciplinary panel," he said, relishing the likelihood that almost all players and managers in the Premiership would love to hear of this. "They suspended me for 14 days from all football and fined me pounds 6. This isn't the sort of record a ref wants and it was time to make a choice.

"I got on pretty well reffing straightaway. It definitely helped in those days that I'd played and the players knew me. I think I was good at man management and could read the game. But my dad unquestionably helped. He was an ex-pro so he knew what pros could get up to, told me what I might look out for."

Durkin's rise was meteoric though not entirely uninterrupted. For instance, he had advanced to the Western League and thought, cockily, that everything was hunky dory after a regulation match one Saturday. Until, that is, he received an assessor's report which read: "You ambled through the game. Get fit. Have a good night's sleep before the game. Treat every game the same - 100 per cent effort, 100 per cent concentration." He stopped going for a few beers on Friday nights.

The prestige matches came quickly thereafter - he ran the line in an FA Trophy final at 23 - and by 1987 he was on the league list. He has been in the Premiership since the start but he is fairly certain that the match which clinched France 98 was that on a dodgy surface in Norway between Rosenborg and Real Madrid last November. His mark was 9.5.

He is addicted to football and wishes the players, let alone the pundits whose unfamiliarity with laws and directives he despairs of, could sometimes see more clearly that referees are merely carrying out Fifa instructions for the greater good of all. And despite what his brother may think, he is on the players' side. His philosophy should be universally adopted: "Laws yes, respect yes, but always remember that swearing or industrial language never broke anybody's leg."

The whistle blower: Durkin's official viewpoints on the game

Professional referees

Nobody has yet worked out a structure which would benefit the whole game. How would referees begin a professional career? And then a Fifa ref is finished at the age of 45, one on the league list at 48. What happens then? Dig a big hole and shove us in, perhaps. There are attractions. Full timers would be fitter, and probably therefore a little more alert, but the human element would still provoke debate and dispute. Irate managers would still exist.

Too many cards

Many cards are issued because referees are merely complying with Fifa mandates - if a player kicks the ball away it has to be an automatic booking. Now managers might complain about this, as George Graham of Leeds United did last week, but they know there is no room for manoeuvre. It's all aimed at keeping the game moving. In getting at refs the managers are just indulging in the old habit of shooting the messenger.


It's funny how referees seem to be regularly castigated, often instead of players. Fans seem to ring up these days to have a go at us even if their centre-forward misses 10 open goals. Not many of us refs listen to the programme now.

Post-match criticism

A climate has developed in which abusing the referee has become acceptable. This can't be good in general because it goes from players, through managers and on to fans, more of whom appear to be running on to the pitch - though it's assistants who bear the brunt. I think there has to be more dialogue between all of us. There's a lot of money and a lot of pressure in the game and it really shouldn't keep going as it is. Referees do make errors, and they always have, but far fewerover 90 minutes than the players.

The Third Eye

Some day off-the-pitch technology will be used in making close decisions. But who will decide when it's needed; the ref on the pitch or a fourth official off it? It would also stop the flow of games when so many directives are aimed at ensuring they flow more freely, and wouldn't be infallible, as cricket has found. A ref in each half is another idea that gets an airing, but then there would be two opinions, more inconsistencies and expense. A non-starter.


The game's quicker so we have to be. I run and do upper-body work in training to make sure I keep up. I'm always working on shedding that elusive half-stone.