Football: Men in the middle of an official revolution

Football's question: Problems will not just disappear if referees go full-time, says David Elleray

AS YOU stroll past Harrow School, the faint echo of soprano voices hymn-singing in the wind accompanies a scene that could have been immortalised on canvas a century or more ago. It evokes a world of classics, of gowned masters and pupils who wear straw hats to lessons, of tradition and privilege, all a haven from the polluted spread of compressed humanity that is London below.

David Elleray, the housemaster of Druries - old boys include Lords Byron and Palmerston - has been part of this domain for 21 years. Yet, life for "Lord Elleray", as he is known within the fraternity of football referees, would not be complete without a curious complementary existence where one day he can be listening to the Head of School's Contio, in which a pupil delivers a speech to the governors in Latin, a tradition which dates back to 1674; the next, turning a deaf ear to the rabid profanities of petulant Premiership players.

Certainly, the country's No 1 ranked Fifa referee does not find any incongruity in his alter egos. Indeed, he finds them thoroughly compatible. "If you're in a boarding house it's very easy to get things out of proportion," he explained. "If little Johnnie's broken a window, here it can be very important, but if you've been to Old Trafford and 60,000 people have sworn at you for 90 minutes, that window is not so important. And vice versa. I can do a game, come back to Harrow and switch off completely. One of my concerns about full-time refereeing is that there's no escape from the pressure."

If the day arrives when it becomes mandatory for Premiership officials to be full- time, then it will do so without many referees of Elleray's calibre. That is just one of the reasons why he believes it will not be the panacea that everyone imagines. "There's going to be huge pressure on full-time refs," said Elleray, who has five years left on the Premier League list. "Managers will be saying, 'Well, bloody hell, we're paying them x-thousand pounds. We used to get this poor decision-making when they were on only pounds 375 a game'." He is also concerned that, when an official's entire livelihood is at stake, his decisions could be influenced by the teams he is refereeing. "There is the danger that if you upset the Manchester Uniteds, the Liverpools and Arsenals they'll have more clout than the Coventrys and Southamptons. That's probably a false perception, but it will be in his mind, none the less."

Elleray added: "Necessarily, the overall standards would go down. If 10 years ago, the only way I could have become a Premier League referee was by going full-time I would have probably stopped because I couldn't have got to the top. It seems to me that this is just one of those nice one-line solutions to a complex problem."

Football and its followers have, of course, always been fond of such innovations in a futile determination to make referees infallible. "You're trying to eliminate human error from the game and that's impossible," he said. "You could even say it's not desirable. Do we really want a sterile, perfect game, where there's no room for mistakes, and no room for debate afterwards? People like controversy." As Elleray, who bears a resemblance to Christopher Lee and, like Dracula, has become immersed in his share of bad blood, well knows.

Depending on your stance, he's the referee whose penalty decisions contributed to Chelsea's 1994 FA Cup final defeat and the man who gave John Duncan sleepless nights by denying Chesterfield a crucial goal in their 1996 FA Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough. And there have been myriad other occasions when managers have come hammering at his door. "I do understand what managers go through," insisted Elleray, who acts as spokesman for all his Premier League colleagues. "I'm like it myself when I'm watching a school game and somebody gives a poor decision against my house. Obviously, in my position I can't rant and rave, but I do see the inside. I'm not a great loser."

Nor the majority of Premier League managers who are rarely capable of accepting a defeat with equanimity and concede that it might actually have been the result of their own failings. Roy Evans's outburst on Thursday night was a typical instance and, invariably, such moments coincide with calls for video aids to be employed. While Elleray has no objection to technology being used to clarify whether the ball has crossed the line, he is opposed to any further use of an "eye in the stand".

"What decision would it be used for?" he asked. "People say it will only be for the important decisions, but what are the important ones? In the Chelsea-Arsenal game last year, Arsenal scored their winner from a corner. TV showed it should have been a goal-kick. But people would say that corners and goal-kicks are not important decisions. Every decision changes the course of the game." However, he is a staunch advocate of clocks in the stadium being linked to the referee's watch so that spectators can see how long a game is stopped for, and why. He would also like to see an experiment with sin-bins.

His book Referee! A Year in the Life of David Elleray (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99) will never acquire the notoriety of Glenn Hoddle's diary, but it should be required reading for all managers and players, not to mention all those disaffected fans who regard him and his ilk as les betes noires. Contrary to popular prejudice, he reviews videos of all his games, sometimes with fellow officials at regular referees' meetings when contentious issues are debated. "You look at incidents involving yourself with a certain vicarious pleasure," he said. "If you've got it wrong, it's pretty awful. But there's no point in any mental self-flagellation; you've just got to try to analyse why you've got it wrong."

While mistakes are inevitable, Elleray maintains that inconsistency is an area where there are continual attempts at improvement. Intriguingly, he says he takes a more rigid stance in Europe than domestically. "Take the David Beckham incident against Argentina. In Europe, where the players and the authorities expect you to be tougher, I would have sent him off; in the Premier League, where we try to give the player the benefit of the doubt, I would have given him a yellow card."

Elleray was something of a William Hague of the whistle, officiating at men's football matches from the age of 13. "There was no way then that I could wag my finger at grown men and be bossy or demonstrative and I like to think I've continued like that." In his book, he gives an insight into how he prefers prevention rather than punishment. "We try to talk to players and have a bit of a joke to establish communication and show we're human," he said. "Like the time I bet Dennis Wise pounds 10 he wouldn't score from a free-kick. If you get that relationship going, it allows you to admit errors." Similarly, when Manchester United played West Ham at home last season, Beckham began reacting to the visiting crowd because of crude attempts to rile him over his relationship with Posh Spice. "I told him 'Just ignore them. I get it in the neck all the time. At least you've got 45,000 on your side, and only 5,000 against you. I've got the whole bloody lot against me'. He laughed and I think that helped."

Sometimes, though, perhaps after a goal, or sending-off, he can feel the temperature rise and there is a need for action. "There are occasions when you say to yourself, 'I need to give a yellow card here to re-establish my authority.' That's where it gets like teaching. When it gets a bit lively, you need a sacrificial lamb."

The strain can tell, even on a veteran. Elleray, who became a League referee in 1986 and has officiated at more than 60 international matches, twice contemplated retiring after games last season. One was after Liverpool v Chelsea. "I didn't feel I'd refereed very well, I'd taken a lot of criticism and I thought 'Do I need this in my life?' But a week later, I was going off abroad somewhere to referee and enjoying it. So I carry on. But if I ever get to a season where there are more negatives than positives I would stop."

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