Bodenham glad to swap whistle for a white coat

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The Independent Online

Amid all the passion of a 112-year-old local derby, a man who has sent off Vinnie Jones, been harangued by some of the world's leading footballers and called most names under the sun by furious supporters might have expected a tough time maintaining control.

In fact, a points deduction for a poor pitch and one player taken to hospital made the County Championship match between Warwickshire against Worcestershire at Edgbaston that finished yesterday controversial by cricketing standards. Martin Bodenham, the only man to have been a Premier League referee and first-class umpire, still finds a quieter sporting life one of the pleasures of having exchanged a whistle for a long white coat.

Sitting in his seaside home near Worthing, he says of his new charges: "I've had to speak to a couple of players but not had to officially report them. Sometimes they get a bit het up but that's where you've got to manage them and overall they're absolutely fine, a good bunch. If you do make an error, generally they accept it."

It was at cricket, not football, that his last experience of violence occurred. Playing league cricket in Cornwall – as a referee he was a long-distance commuter based in Looe – there was a nasty spat over a catch involving one of his team-mates and he vowed never to play again. Forced to hang up his whistle at the then compulsory age of 48, he had already decided to move back to his native Sussex, where it was suggested he might take up umpiring more seriously.

As a keen club cricketer, he had often done his stint in the middle and enjoyed it. So after gaining experience in the Sussex League, he made the ECB reserve list in 2006 and the full list two years later.

Progress as a referee had been equally swift, from being a 16-year-old in local parks in 1966 to League football within 12 years, then Fifa level. He handled the 1997 League Cup final, and replay, between Leicester and Middlesbrough, and was the reserve for Milan's 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the 1994 European Cup final.

Many will remember him better as the man who sent off Wimbledon's Jones for threatening to break Colin Hendry's leg and booked Roy Keane as Manchester United's captain was carried off on a stretcher after round one of his war with Alf-Inge Haaland.

Despite three FA Cup semi-finals, he missed out on a final – which is usually regarded as the pinnacle of an English ref's career. "There's an element of disappointment but nobody has a divine right." He is not one for regrets, and remains philosophical about having had his judgment occasionally questioned by TV cameras or FA commissions. Surely there must have been some long car journeys back to Cornwall wondering what Match of the Day's replays would show?

"You make an honest decision," he says. "It's just that everybody focuses on the one decision perhaps you got wrong. The same with cricket. You can have 15 appeals in a day and get 14 right, that's not a bad percentage, but everybody seems to want to focus on the one you got wrong."

He is happy with cricket's approach to technology and believes Fifa will have to give in to the growing demand for something similar, but only with goalline decisions. "There must be some system, given the way technology has progressed over the years, that can tell you whether the whole of the ball has crossed the goalline.

"But I wouldn't want to see a stop-start game through the whole 90 minutes. Goalline is a matter of fact, everything else is an opinion. I could set a situation up today with 20 referees, manufacture a tackle, and 10 would say it was a foul and 10 would say it wasn't."

As well as cricket duties, he is head of refereeing in Sussex, charged with identifying talent and mentoring 11 semi-professional refs, with the opportunity to pass on his basic principles. "My great belief was to be strong on the physical aspect, and players will respect you. Then you can manage the more technical things. On bad language, if people screamed and shouted from a distance or ran at me, I'd send them off." No swearing back at them like some of the old stagers? "No, terrible. It's something we train referees not to do."

At 60, he has five more years as an umpire, provided he continues to pass the tests for eyesight, hearing and general fitness. If and when more leisure time comes, he is sure to spend much of it with his beloved veteran cars. In the garage are a 1903 Humber three-wheeler and a 1904 Crestmobile, both beautifully restored and each worth something over £50,000.

Sport may have taken him round the world, but the journey he appears proudest of is the London to Brighton run, which he has completed for the past 11 years.

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