An email conversation with...Jeff Winter: 'David O'Leary and Sir Alex could have had a clip to put them right'

Ferguson too long in the tooth to change now; Different ways to top in referees' cut-throat world; Scapegoat for manager's wrong team or tactics; Got on with 'rogues' but didn't like the fly players
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The Independent Football

Were you surprised to see Alex Ferguson in the news again recently for using obscene language in questioning the integrity of your old mate Steve Bennett? Did it bring back any fond memories for you?

I find it quite ironic that a couple of weeks before my book comes out, containing a chapter about Alex Ferguson being fined after I reported him for swearing during a match against Newcastle in 2003, he appears to have used exactly the same words about another referee. No further action was taken on this occasion, so I can only assume the referee didn't include it in his report. It obviously seems to be in Ferguson's character to react that way, and some of his players react that way if decisions don't go in their favour. I wouldn't think he'd change now - he's too long in the tooth.

You were the fourth official in that match when you witnessed Ferguson allegedly calling the linesman a "f***ing cheating bastard." You point out in your book that the tape of television footage presented to the subsequent FA disciplinary hearing did not include that bit. How do you explain that?

I leave it to the readers to decide what they think.

Referees. We thought they were all upstanding gentlemen - but from what you write it seems like they are a nest of vipers. Is this correct? How did you survive?

Refereeing is a very cut-throat business. If you are a player, you can play in a cup final on the left or right of midfield. There is only one position for a referee, and different people have different ways of going about getting to the top. Having said that, the best friends I have ever made have been fellow referees.

Referees are all masochists, aren't you?

There are times when you do get abuse, and for some referees it becomes physical as well as verbal. I think the saying that applies is, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Referees love the game. Otherwise why would they do their job?

They do say that if you don't notice a referee, he's done a good job. Do you agree? And if you do, isn't this a bit frustrating for the average ref?

I think that used to be more true than it is now, when the demand to fill TV time and newspaper columns is so great that it has a magnifying-glass effect on the game. Every refereeing decision is challenged, sometimes by people who don't know the laws of the game - and quite a lot of ex-players fall into that category. If I picked up a newspaper report of a game I had refereed and my name wasn't mentioned then I was happy. But all too often the referee is an easy scapegoat for managers who have picked the wrong teams or applied the wrong tactics. At its worst, that mindset leads to the situations we saw when Anders Frisk [referee of Chelsea's Champions' League tie at Barcelona last season] and Urs Maier [who took charge of the Portugal v England European Championship quarter-final in 2004] were hounded out of the game. It worries me that our children are learning these attitudes.

Would every referee prefer to have been a footballer in a different life?

If I could have scored goals for Boro and played for my country, it would have been better than refereeing. Referees are people who love the game but don't have the ability to get to the very top as players. You may say it's a poor substitute, but it's an excellent way to get involved at the highest level of football.

Mike Newell has caused quite a stir with his recent comments about dodgy payments within football. Was this something you were ever aware of? Have you ever been offered a bung yourself?

Hand on heart, I have never encountered anything like that. As David Elleray once said to a player accusing him of cheating - "I may be useless, but I'm not a cheat".

The title of every referee's autobiography seems to be on the same lines. Back in the Seventies, to quote from my private collection, we had titles like Oh Ref! and Whose Side Are You On, Ref? Yours is Who's The B*****d In The Black? (Ebury Press, £18.99). Do you think we'll ever have ref's book entitled Spot On! or You Were Right After All! It was going to be called "A Winter's Tale", but the publishers decided that wasn't quite what was needed.

Who are the worst type of players? The moaners, like Graeme Le Saux, Darren Anderton, Patrick Vieira and the Neville brothers, or the brutal ones, like Garry Flitcroft and Neil Ruddock?

I always got on with the "rogues" like Dennis Wise, Robbie Savage and Neil Ruddock. With them, what you saw was what you got, and you could have a decent conversation with them. It was the fly players I didn't like - all innocent on top, but trying to undermine you. With players like Danny Mills, Lee Bowyer or Wayne Rooney, it would not matter if you were right or wrong - you were a victim of their vitriol.

You were a Boro boot boy in your youth, and proud of it. Who have you most wanted to boot as a referee?

If I had to go back to my bad old ways, then of the managers, probably David O'Leary and Sir Alex. They could have had a little clip to put them right. Of the players, Mills and Tomas Repka would have been the top contenders...

Would you like to see referees given more scope to express their views?

At the moment, referees have to have every statement vetted by the Premier League or the FA. But they are just as entitled to their views as players, and sometimes they could provide a balancing view. I'm 50, and the FA felt I was capable of being in charge of an FA Cup final, but they didn't think I was responsible enough to speak my mind. I think a lot of confusion in matches could easily be cured by asking the ref to explain decisions. He could either say, "I gave the penalty because of this", or even, "Upon reflection, having seen the video, I'm sure I got that decision wrong".

How much new technology would you be comfortable with in the game? Goal-line sensors? Video opportunities for difficult calls? Where would you draw the line?

I would draw the line at goal-line technology and independent timekeepers.

Has any footballer ever surprised you with his politeness?

I have had plenty of run-ins with Scottish managers such as Alex Ferguson and Gordon Strachan, but whenever I refereed a Scottish team I found the players had the habit of calling the referee "sir". They would say things like, "That was never a handball, sir." I don't think I could ever see Wayne Rooney saying: "Are you sure you have got that right, sir?" I worry about him in the World Cup. He carries so many hopes on his shoulders, but it would just take some Johnny Foreigner to wind him up and he'll get sent off.

In your book you mention a couple of bone-shuddering encounters between Garry Flitcroft and Duncan Ferguson, and between Neil Ruddock and Harry Kewell. What's the worst challenge you've seen - and would any of our "hard men" match up to the Ron Harrises of yesteryear?

I think we've eradicated most of the cloggers from the game now. You get after-dinner speakers telling tales of how they kicked so-and-so up the arse, but it was heavy tackles which ended the career of Marco van Basten early. There is no place for it in the game now.

You also mention that the former referees' chief, Philip Don, imposed a sex ban on referees on the nights before big games. Surely this was a little excessive?

Philip wanted referees to be completely professional, and he wanted them to become completely consistent, which led to lots of red and yellow cards being issued. That's where the problems come. If a referee today sent of Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney off in successive matches, you'd find someone had a quiet word in his shell-like. The big clubs, and the fans, and the managers would be saying "You're spoiling the game". People criticise the lack of consistency, but they don't like it when the card count goes through the roof.

Which three words best sum up your character?

Mad. Proud. Honest.

Which three words best sum up the most vital characteristics of a successful referee?

Cool. Calm. Collected.

Attachment: The Jeff Winter lowdown

* April 18 1955: Born Middlesbrough.

* Education: Middlesbrough High School.

* Teenage excesses: Got into fights as skinhead Boro fan.

* 1979: Career as footballer for St Cuthbert's Boys Club stagnating. Passes first referees' exam. First match - Yarm FC v Cleveland Nomads, Cleveland Sunday League Fourth Division. No one cautioned or sent off.

* 1984-85: Promoted to Northern League.

* 1986: Makes Football League debut as linesman.

* 1991: First Football League game as referee.

*1995: Fourth official debut in Premiership. Refereeing debut in Premiership.

* 1996: Display as referee in Manchester United's 6-3 defeat at Southampton annoys Alex Ferguson. Does not referee United again until 1998.

* 2001: In Philip Don's squad of élite, fully professional referees.

* 2003: As fourth official, reported Ferguson for swearing at linesman. FA fines Ferguson and bans him from touchline for two matches.

* 2004: Last match, Manchester United v Millwall in FA Cup final. Of Ferguson, Winter says: "There seemed to be a genuine warmth in his smile, suggesting our fallouts had been no more than part of his mind-games."

* 2004-05: Accepted as Football League refereeing assessor. Dropped by FA because of increasing media commitments.

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