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Football: My fleeting minutes of fame with flag in hand

IN THE Black Country derby between West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers a week ago, the referee Kevin Lynch had to leave the field injured. There was quite a delay while a linesman assumed the referee's duties and the standby took the line.

I once acted as an emergency linesman myself. This was many years ago, when I was assistant secretary of the Football League. The venue was Deepdale, where Brighton and Hove Albion were holding out for a creditable point against Preston North End.

With 10 minutes to play, referee Don Shaw was laid low and I answered the call to assist linesman Kevin Kiely, who took Mr Shaw's whistle. Then a Class 3 referee, I was confident I had the qualifications.

Poor Mr Kiely must have had mixed emotions. Here was his big moment to show that his talents were sorely wasted in the Central League. However, what if he overlooked a signal and a League official were left flagging forlornly? In one moment he could be slithering down the refereeing snake rather than climbing the ladder to stardom.

Sensibly, he put me on the far side, away from the trainers' benches and in charge of the Preston offside trap. This was unlikely to be sprung as the visitors had only ventured into the opposing half on two occasions since the interval.

Unlike the occasion when Jimmy Hill had earlier taken the line at Highbury, there were no Match of the Day cameras to record my performance. There were no cameras at all in fact, so I was unable to conduct the self-appraisal which is so popular among officials nowadays.

Suffice it to say that I don't recall actually flagging at all during my fleeting minutes of fame. Not because I made no decisions, however. I did, in fact, consciously decide not to flag twice. As a dedicated Blackpool supporter, there was no way I was going to give any opponents of North End offside.

After a hasty shower I left Mr Kiely and a downcast Mr Shaw to their curled-up sandwiches and returned upstairs for a refreshing drink with the Preston directors who little realised how close they had been to seeing their team's efforts sabotaged by a ringer from the seaside.

Like Mr Hill, I didn't claim the pounds 5 which the League usually sent to watching referees who stepped into the breach in those circumstances. Jim did, however, complain bitterly to me many years later about his non- remuneration and the resultant cheque is still proudly displayed, uncashed, in the smallest room of his house. The likelihood of him receiving anything of value from the then League boss, Alan Hardaker, with whom he disagreed on virtually everything, was as high as Alan Sugar sending Terry Venables a Christmas card.

These days all top matches feature the ubiquitous fourth official, a referee of equal qualification to the man in the middle. His, or her, duties are laid down by the International Board, the body responsible for the laws of the game and comprising four representatives of Fifa along with the four British associations.

He assists with administrative duties as determined by the referee. For example, it is the fourth official's job to collect the team sheets before the match indicating the players' names and the functions of those officials on the bench. In international games the teams have to fill in the form 75 minutes before kick-off. Many's the time I've waited in a corridor as a Uefa delegate while a coach pored for ages over the task as the deadline passed and the assorted media clamoured increasingly frantically for the line-ups before the fourth official emerged clutching the precious piece of paper.

The fourth official also supervises the replacement footballs in grounds where the multiple-ball system is not employed. In the second half of one World Cup match in the United States in 1994 I realised that there were only two instead of three balls under the fourth official's table. The gentleman concerned feigned innocence so I trudged back to the dressing rooms some hundreds of yards away. The missing ball turned up in his locker, a valuable but unauthorised memento for him.

Whenever you see a Premiership fourth official on television, he will, in fact, be just that - the fourth official. However, the standby in a Nationwide fixture will usually not be the `fourth official' but the `reserve official', perhaps a local referee who is not attached to the stipulated authority and will find it more difficult to exert control over the benches.

The task which most frequently brings the standby official to our attention is that of supervising the technical areas. This must be the worst job in football.