Official seal of approval: Worldwide Webb keeps the peace
From mass brawls to accusations of racism, Premier League's imposing referee has seen it all: now for Euro 2008. By Simon Hart
Sunday 06 April 2008
For a man whose aim is to be "competently anonymous", Howard Webb can only feel half-satisfied. The competent bit he has down to a tee, but the Premier League's leading referee may find anonymity increasingly elusive; he will be the only Englishman treading the turf at Euro 2008 after succeeding where the players failed by earning a place among the 12 referees.
"I was desperately disap-pointed England didn't qualify but it was a big, big consolation that I got there," said the 36-year-old who, fresh from his firm handling of the Merseyside derby last Sunday, took charge of yesterday's FA Cup semi-final between West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth at Wembley.
Given his week also included a trip to Munich for Thursday's Uefa Cup tie between Bayern and Getafe, it is easy to understand why, last Tuesday, he began a five-year break from the South Yorkshire police force which he has served for 15 years. He will miss the "view of real life" it provides but is determined to "concentrate on refereeing at a very important time in my career".
If his stature – 6ft 2in and 15st – commands ready respect, he believes the "management skills" gained as a bobby on the beat proved key to his burgeoning reputation. "I was a young man of 22 dealing with some quite difficult situations and that has stood me in good stead," he said.
Webb has faced tough situations on the pitch too. Last season's Carling Cup final, his biggest assignment so far, saw him issuing red cards to John Obi Mikel of Chelsea and Arsenal's Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor after a late mass brawl. "I walked straight down the steps, through the boiler room to the dressing room and I threw the medal against the wall, I was that disappointed. One of the big games in my career had finished in controversy and what appeared to me like mayhem." Support was plentiful "from inside and outside the refereeing fraternity, who reassured us it wasn't our fault and what we did was appropriate".
Laments about player conduct are louder than ever, and Webb says work is required to protect the sport's image. "We have the job of doing that, but we need help from people. The game is lightning-quick, and if players want to get away with things it is quite possible. There is responsibility on both sides to make sure standards are maintained, with player behaviour and referees being strong but having a feel for the game at the same time."
He has mixed feelings about the Football Association's "Respect" pilot scheme whereby team captains alone can question referees' decisions. "Anything that helps is worth exploring but it would depend on the nature of the captain. Sometimes he can be the worst offender.
"I don't mind players questioning a decision in a reasonable way. I am happy to explain why I've given a decision or on occasion to say, 'I think I've got that one wrong, sorry about that'. Sometimes that happens with free-kicks around the box and you think, 'Don't score'. Whenever I think that, they always go and bloody score, don't they?
"I've got to try to make players see things my way and generally I can do, although there are some that you can't win over. I've done over 100 Premier League games and I know with some players no matter what I said, I wouldn't be able to win them over."
Another topical question concerns goal-line cameras. While the game's law-makers, the International Football Association Board, decided recently to suspend testing of the technology, Webb would support its introduction provided it was "totally reliable and instant", acknowledging the difficult task of an assistant referee who can be "miles away and has a post and players to look through". He would also welcome the use of television monitors in the technical area to pick up violent incidents missed by the referee, "so that the player is punished there and then and the team offended against gets immediate benefit".
As a youngster Webb trained with his beloved Rotherham United – whom he has seen at 80 League grounds – but followed the lead of his father, Bill, the Rotherham Referees' Association president, after realising he would not make it as a player. "My dad said to me when I was about 17, 'Have you thought about becoming a ref?' I said, 'Forget about it'. In my eyes referees were old, bald men – and that's what I've become now!"
His League debut came in 2000; three years later he was a Premier League referee. "My first five games all finished goalless. In my sixth, Wolves against Fulham, Paul Ince scored and I almost felt like celebrating with him."
His rise since has been swift, and the learning curve steep. Webb was accused of racial bias by Nigeria's coach, Ladan Bosso, after his team's quarter-final defeat by Chile at last summer's Under-20 World Cup. "There were some really tight offside decisions by my assistant and a penalty and a sending-off as well, which were all deemed quite right by the Fifa referees' committee," recalled an "astounded" Webb, who received a written apology.
Just as players learn from inter-national exposure, so do referees. "Maybe it has toughened my game up at home a little bit," said Webb, who, as well as picking up swearwords in several languages – "just in case I hear it" – has developed "strong body language" needed when officiating abroad.
Body language of a different kind was on show when Bolton's Stelios gave him a peck on the cheek after scoring the winner against Derby in December, proof that player-ref relations are not always frosty. "He thinks I'm his lucky referee. When he came on with 10 minutes left, I said, 'I don't think you're going to score today'. He said, 'I'll show you', and in the last minute he latched on to a mistake and scored. He walked towards me and gave me a big kiss on the side of my face. I thought, 'What do I do here? People are watching'." As our man at Euro 2008, he had better get used to it.
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