Football: Durkin is ready to toe Fifa's tough line

The referees: England's representative in France tells Clive White how he will have to change his conciliatory approach
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WHEN Paul Durkin talks only half-jokingly of how England's success could jeopardise his chances of refereeing the World Cup final, he is under a slight misapprehension.

It is not so much his native country who stand in his way of realising his lifelong dream as the favourites Brazil, or to be more specific, a certain old Brazilian and an alledged feud which dates back to a game between Brazil and Sweden in the 1978 finals.

The score in the first round group game stood at 1-1 when, with the last kick of the match, Zico turned a corner for Brazil into the net just as Clive "The Book" Thomas, the Porthcawl referee, blew for full time. To the amazement of the Brazilians, not least among them the then Fifa president Charles Joao Havelange, the fastidious Welshman disallowed the "goal".

As a consequence of that draw Brazil ended up in the group they most wanted to avoid, that of the hosts Argentina, and narrowly failed to make the final. Whereupon Havelange is alleged to have vowed that no Englishman would ever referee Brazil again in a World Cup game as long as he was president - overlooking the fact that Thomas was as Welsh as the Rhondda - since when, in 25 World Cup ties involving Brazil, no Englishman ever has. With Havelange's tenure ending yesterday, it remains to be seen whether things will change.

The youngest ever to officiate at a Wembley final - he ran the line in the FA Trophy at the age of 24 - Durkin, now 42, came to the fore during Euro 96 when his friend, Dermot Gallagher, pulled up with a calf injury 25 minutes into the France-Bulgaria game at St James' Park. Players are notorious for trying it on with substitute referees, but Durkin quickly stamped his authority and earned a high mark from the match observer.

With the injuries suffered by Gallagher keeping him out for a year, Durkin has emerged as England's No 1, coming with "a late run up the rails" to overtake the referee whom many assumed would be going to France, Graham Poll. In the season just ended Durkin refereed the FA Cup final, in which, thankfully, he was virtually invisible, as well as two European Cup semi- finals, which is almost unprecedented. But the match that may have clinched it for him, he believes, was a Champions' League tie last year between Rosenborg and Real Madrid, played in near treacherous conditions in Norway. Durkin scored nine and a half out of 10 from the Swedish observer, who also happened to be on Fifa's referees' committee.

All of which makes this refereeing game sound rather competitive these days, and Durkin is unable to resist the temptation to talk about it in player-speak. "My main aim in France is to referee the one game I definitely get, to the best of my ability, which I am quite confident of doing. After that, it's a case of taking one game at a time," he said, suddenly realising what he had said. "And if I get another one I'll be over the moon. If not, I'll be sick as a parrot."

Some referees nowadays, perhaps due to these high-profile games, cannot resist playing to the gallery and Durkin, to his credit, recognised such a failing in his own demeanour earlier in the season and rectified it. The Fifa style of refereeing is very much "in your face" and Durkin admitted that he fell into the trap of doing it all the time. "I was perceived as this 5ft 6in officious little sod which I'm far from being," he said. "I think what brought it home to me was the Petit incident in October [when the Arsenal player shoved Durkin and was sent off]. He shouldn't have put his hand on me but looking back I could have done certain things to prevent the incident happening."

Durkin's willingness to downgrade a red card which he had given Manchester United's Gary Pallister to yellow on video evidence was further example of his new style conciliatory tone. Similarly, he was more than happy to answer Glenn Hoddle's request to come down from his home in Dorchester, where he works as a fleet administrator for a housing association, to spend a week at Bisham taking the players through the new Fifa edicts, notably the tackle from behind.

But Durkin knows he is going to have to be tough in France if he is to travel far in this competition. Fifa, obligingly, have warned the 34 referees that any who do not toe the line will be on the first plane home. "I know it sounds horrible, but if there's any doubt about whether it's a yellow or a red, I'll bin them," said the officious little so-and-so.

Durkin, in fact, is nothing of the sort, although he takes a hard line on dissent. That, he has discovered, is the major difference between continental games and Premiership ones. "Abroad I have the total respect of the players," he said. "I think English referees are highly thought of. But it's always the way, you're never appreciated as much in your own country. I don't know whether it's because we're not paid enough or what, but they tend to look down their nose at you in this country."

Having grown up in a footballing family - his father was a professional - and played the game at junior level as a winger, he can empathise with the problems of players better than many referees. "I know what it's like to be kicked up in the air as well as kick someone else up in the air," he said.

He once booked his own brother during his first season as a teenage referee. "He took this player out with a thigh-high challenge," he said. "I just called him over and asked him his name. He said: 'You know my name'. So I asked him again even though I'd already written it down and warned him he'd be off next time. But he got home before me and told mum, so when I got home I got a bollocking. But it did make me realise that I might be cut out for this game, I knew I could be impartial."

As a player himself he was also once suspended. He remembers it with great clarity and not a little shame.

"I was fined pounds 4 and suspended for 14 days. It was for three bookings, one for a physical challenge," he said. And the other two? "Offering improper advice to the referee," he replied sheepishly.