A depressing, but utterly predictable, bout of paranoia has followed the decision by Gary Willard to send off three Barnsley players last weekend. On Tuesday, an innocent post-match question prompted a 20-minute rant by Joe Kinnear, whose side had just drawn 0-0 with Newcastle. Later in the week, on a local radio station which he presumably thought was outside Football Association airwaves, Colin Todd, the manager of Bolton, questioned the honesty and fairness of referees. Todd's side are sliding out of the division and his chairman is starting to fiddle with his abacus.
When Graham Taylor referred to the management of England as "the impossible job", he clearly had not seen the job description of the average Premier League referee. "Wanted: masochist, hide of rhinoceros and extra-sensory perception essential, experience of GBH, verbal and physical, preferred; ability to tunnel way out of grounds and read Greek (or latest Fifa ruling) an advantage. Some domestic travel, no rewards. Must have own whistle." Referees earn pounds 320 a match plus expenses, about a minute's worth of David Beckham's time. So, at the business end of a torrid, ill-tempered, season, with livelihoods of managers, players and stockbrokers riding on their split-second decisions, why do they bother?
"It's the buzz," Wilkie says. "I played non-league football and now, every Saturday, I'm on the field with these superstars. I can honestly say I've never questioned my involvement in the game." But he does question the time away from his family. Last week's itinerary included two round trips, Newcastle-London, for West Ham v Leeds on Monday night and Spurs v Everton yesterday. Today, he travels to Birmingham on business for his employees, British Telecom. Wednesday night was back to Leeds for an FA Youth Cup tie. He did manage to snatch one evening to watch his son play football. Yet, after 22 years as a referee, the little envelope with the FA postmark bringing news of his fixtures for the next month still prompts a flutter of anticipation. No less than players, good referees are born not made.
Referees are fitter, better prepared, more professional than ever, but the perception, supported by the evidence of technology, is that the game is moving away from them. "The pace is unbelievable," Wilkie says. "That's the main difference between now and 10 years ago. I don't think the level of skill has increased greatly. But players like Rodney Marsh wouldn't have time for their tricks these days."
In the days leading up to a big game - "and there's no such thing as a small game" - Wilkie goes through a psychological preparation every bit as thorough as the players'. Everton v Spurs meant Ferguson v Campbell, an aerial duel to note. He might adjust his positioning accordingly. For Manchester United v Arsenal, he shortened the length of his diagonal runs, correctly anticipating a midfield scuffle. "The great fear at the back of every referee's mind is that he makes a complete cock-up. I do my soul- searching the day before, travelling down or over a meal. I think, 'Everton v Spurs, this is important, I mustn't make a mistake'. But once I've got my blazer on in the morning, I'm totally focused on the job."
Of the 35,000 referees in this country, only 19 are qualified to referee in the Premier League. But notoriety comes with the exclusivity. Referees are no longer football's faceless men; they have names and are invited to dinners and on to talk shows. Their fondness for red and yellow cards is tabulated into a league of officiousness, which fuels the prejudice of managers, players and spectators. They have become marked men, part of the circus. Wilkie has refereed Leeds five times this season, about one over par. "At one or two clubs in the country, that could be a problem," Wilkie says. "But I don't have a problem with them and I don't think they have a problem with me. I always give them a number of cautions, that's the way they play and the way I ref. It's just tiresome hearing the same voices: 'Oh no, not you again'."
Wilkie would like to see more contact between club and referee. But what would he want to show the players? "First, that I can run; second, that I can kick a ball and, third, that I can kick a player." And his message to them would be: cut out the diving and the moaning. "I'd say to them, 'Trust me, I'm doing my best.' That's all." He would ask managers to think before they speak at press conferences.
For all the evidence to the contrary, cries of "crisis" have fallen on deaf ears in the offices of the FA and the Premier League. The official word is that this is just a blip. But the season has not reached boiling point yet and already confidence in the ability of referees to cope with the conflicting pressures has been undermined. From now on, mistakes can be measured in seven figures, each one of them strengthening the case for technological aid. Referees can suffer from loss of form just as seriously as players.
Wilkie has a phrase which acts as his comfort blanket in times of trouble. "I never make a mistake during a game," he says. "Only afterwards."