Howard Webb: The other Englishman with dreams of the final

Fifa is demanding a fresh crackdown on dangerous tackles. England's top referee tells Sam Wallace why he's the man for the job

One of Howard Webb's earliest childhood memories is witnessing first-hand an infamous clash between the public and figures of authority – an occasion when some who were supposed to be upholding the law failed to do so. Perhaps it is not so surprising that he became a referee.

It was June 1984 and Webb, brought up in Rotherham, was 12 years old. He still remembers clearly the day when he and his friends rode their bikes to a hill overlooking the stand-off between police and striking miners at the Orgreave coking plant that eventually turned into one of the most notorious episodes in the miners' strike of 1984-85.

Many of the miners were sunbathing or having lunch when they were charged by the police and, in some cases, badly beaten. Compensation was later paid out by the South Yorkshire Police to picketing miners. Five years later, Webb refereed his first ever game in the village of Orgreave.

Webb, who will be the Premier League's representative at the World Cup finals this month, had a father who worked in the mines, but he went on to become a policeman for the South Yorkshire force. "South Yorkshire Police were fine during the strike," he said. "They looked after their miners, but there were stories told about what other policemen did [in front of the miners]... burning tenners."

Having refereed the Champions League final last month and now among the 24 who will officiate in South Africa, Webb, 38, has come a long way from those days of strife in South Yorkshire. He ticks all the boxes for Fifa and Uefa's criteria for a top referee: sharp, quick-witted and – with the build of one of those Yorkshire miners who were brave enough to eyeball policemen on the picket line – he looks the part on a field of athletes.

With his team of assistants, Darren Cann – a former Crystal Palace youth team player – and Mike Mullarkey, Webb will fly to South Africa this week where he will be based with the rest of the tournament's officials outside of Pretoria. They will be assigned their games later this month and will be expected to attend debriefings with their fellow referees in which the details of every single game will be combed over.

Webb said: "The topical issues seem to be the same things: holding in the penalty areas, simulation, dissent towards match officials. But the really important one for us is serious foul play, tackles which are dangerous. Those using excessive force.

"The executive committee thought the decision to send off Franck Ribéry in the Champions League semi-final was a really good one, because it was clearly a tackle which endangered the safety of the player [Lisandro Lopez]. Those are the sort of tackles they want to cut out. In my experience Ribéry is not a malicious player, but he's gone in such a way to endanger the safety of the opponent."

Being selected to referee the Champions League final was a major endorsement for Webb, who has been ineligible for the previous five years because of the presence of English teams. As always when he takes charge of a game, be it at the Reebok Stadium or in the Bernabeu, he was just glad that the match was not remembered for any of his decisions.

At Euro 2008 he was probably best remembered for giving Austria a last-minute penalty against Poland, which earned him the outrage of the Polish. "I think the penalty was the right decision, it was the timing of it that caused the controversy," he said. "It was late in the game and Poland were close to winning. I understand the disappointment that it created. Reasonable people in Poland understand that and those who reacted extremely, well that wasn't a Polish thing, it was a football thing.

"Two days later I asked if I could go to the fanzone in Zurich to watch a match on one of the big screens. Uefa said it was OK but we recommend that I wear some sort of disguise. With my bald head, my disguise was simply a hat. Later in the tournament I had a game in Salzburg and was met by the head of police off the plane. He said: 'Mr Vebb, you will not be killed in Salzburg.'"

There were 30 refereeing teams selected by Fifa and two from Egypt and Algeria have already been sent home for failing fitness tests. Six will act as back-ups and 24 will take charge of the games. While the English trio are yet to be told officially that they will referee, they go to South Africa as one of Europe's most highly regarded teams.

Webb, Cann and Mullarkey have formed a close bond and Cann is now recognised as one of the top linesmen in Europe. Previously he worked at a bank near his home village of Poringland in Norfolk and refereed his first game 19 years ago at the age of 22 before switching to being an assistant the higher up the ladder he went. During a game the three talk all the time over their headsets, reminding Webb about everything from who committed a foul to which player is in an offside position.

"We have a sports psychologist who helps us cope with the ups and downs of the game," Webb said. "It comes down to luck as well. You can make a mistake and it doesn't affect the result of the game. On another day, exactly the same type of mistake can cost a team three points. Every game is important, we understand the stakes and how important it is to everyone involved. But also, we try to put it into some perspective as well."

He will admit that he can lie awake in bed turning a bad decision over and over in his head. The ease with which he recalls the details of those he has got wrong this season – the penalty against Spurs when Heurelho Gomes had pushed the ball away from Manchester United's Michael Carrick – suggests that he has given them a lot of thought. He laughs when he recalls how the German Wolfgang Stark once told him that players in the Bundesliga address him as "Herr Stark".

"As I have got older I have worked at looking after myself," Webb said. "I didn't want to put on weight. I didn't want to look like an old fart. I want to look as if I still belong on a field of athletes. I want to be able to show that I take this job seriously and that I train hard. I might not get every decision right but I want to be able to show that at least I am doing everything I can to be as accurate as I can."

The official line: What Fifa is asking referees to clamp down on in South Africa

Holding in the penalty area

Obstructing and holding players at corners and free-kicks will be scrutinised. Argentines and Italians perfected the "art" long ago, but are by no means alone in cheating this way – witness San Marino. Fifa also called for harsher penalising of these offences in 1994.

Dissent

Failing to respect the referee is also likely to be punished more stringently than at previous World Cups. England's Wayne Rooney will need to keep his volatile temper in check.

Simulation

Michael Owen twice earned penalties against Argentina after going down easily, while Rivaldo's histronics – after being hit by a ball – against Turkey in 2002 came weeks after Fifa had also made stamping out simulation part of their pre-tournament directives for referees.

Serious foul play

Defined as using excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball. Studs-high tackles, Rooney's stamp on Ricardo Carvalho four years ago and the German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher's unpunished felling of the French defender Patrick Battiston, who both lost teeth and consciousness, in 1982, are prime examples.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin