The day Elleray went to the Cup final in disguise

The whistle blower: Errant boys brought to book by a 'beak' of disarming honesty
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"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." Even the great G B Shaw, however, might have been given pause for thought by David Elleray, Harrow housemaster and international football referee (retired). Elleray could - referee, that is - and did.

"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." Even the great G B Shaw, however, might have been given pause for thought by David Elleray, Harrow housemaster and international football referee (retired). Elleray could - referee, that is - and did. There was no thought in his mind of geography essays and pastoral care in the days when he would dress up in refereeing kit to enjoy Match of the Day all the more. His only ambition at that stage, formulated as a teenager watching England's Jack Taylor take charge of the 1974 World Cup final, was to do the same 24 years later.

But that was a time when "professional referees" were merely a topic for a newspaper column on a quiet day. The men in black needed another trade, and with no inclination to follow Taylor by working in a butcher's shop, the young Elleray undertook work experience at a primary school and decided teaching would fit the bill. A constant struggle to balance that career with the demands of refereeing all over the world is one of the themes of an entertaining autobiography* that he wrote during last season, his first after retiring at the compulsory age of 48.

Those who have the stereotypical view of him as a public-school man pompously lecturing the muddied oafs will be surprised to learn that another of the book's motifs is a rather touching vulnerability that emerges from time to time - often, for some reason, at White Hart Lane. A third is the eventual frustration involving what should have been triple peaks of the 1994 FA Cup final, Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.

It was at Tottenham that Elleray sat in the dressing room at half-time during a game against Luton Town in 1990 feeling "completely broken" and seriously contemplating asking a linesman to take over. In a wild first half he had sent off the home team's Pat van den Hauwe and Nayim, and might have done the same to Paul Gascoigne for verbal abuse in the tunnel but "could not find the courage to dismiss him".

In a derby against Arsenal on the same ground in 1999, even with another nine years' experience behind him, he experienced the frightening feeling of simply not being able to control the players. "That was pretty well the only game I officiated in where I just felt the yellow card wasn't having any effect," he recalled last week. "It was like a teacher having a class who are not interested in your authority, no matter what you do."

And what does a teacher, or referee, do in those circumstances? "You just have to keep going. It really is you or them and if you buckle, you've lost it. If it means sending three players off, you've got to do it." (In that instance, he settled for two, Martin Keown and Fredrik Ljungberg.)

The image of a beak summoning young miscreants for punishment has proved irresistible to football commentators and caption-writers down the years, but Elleray feels there are some useful comparisons to be made between the two jobs, which he has used advantageously in both: "There are lessons you can learn about handling a group, spotting the troublemaker or the one whom the group will follow. Then there's the whole balance of disciplinary sanctions, and sacrificing short-term popularity for long-term respect. If you're respected, you can become liked and popular; if you start off being popular, you often end up not being respected."

For all Elleray's teenaged ambitions, refereeing eventually became secondary to teaching, if only because he was forever at the mercy of (remarkably sympathetic) Harrow headmasters being asked to agree to yet more time off. So a month at the 1998 World Cup in France, which he had once set his heart on, became impractical. Euro 96 proved possible, but was a dreadful anticlimax, as he fell between the two stools of British and European standards of officiating when booking 10 players in the group match between Germany and the Czech Republic: the press lambasted him as card-happy, Uefa's observer said some of the yellows should have been red, and did not recommend any further games.

For most English referees, the FA Cup final is the pinnacle. Imagine then the chagrin of one who reaches it before his 40th birthday only to find it becomes the answer to the question, "What was your worst mistake?" The error was awarding Manchester United a penalty against Chelsea, when Andrei Kanchelskis fell over. "Somehow in my memory, the whole day comes down to one decision," Elleray says sadly. The fact that Chelsea conceded three other goals did not deflect the fury of their supporters, one of whom spat in his face from the VIP area as he went up to receive his medal. Then came the telephone calls to his bedroom at night, every hour on the hour.

Any lingering gratitude from United supporters failed to survive the red card in a critical championship game at Anfield shown to Denis Irwin, who therefore missed the 1998 Cup final. This time there were death threats and, having promised to attend the final with close friends, Elleray did so in a bizarre disguise of false beard and moustache, baseball cap and sunglasses.

Not surprisingly, he lists personal abuse as one of the things he does not miss in retirement, along with training and sitting on the M1 or M6 on a Friday evening. "But I do miss the adrenalin rush and waking up on Saturday morning with that little knot in the stomach."

Free at last to speak out, in a manner frowned upon for practising referees, he is pleasingly prepared to name names in conversation and in print. The three worst tackles of his career were by Van den Hauwe in that Luton game, Jürgen Kohler for Germany against Brazil, and Roy Keane on Manchester City's Alf Inge Haaland, which almost caught a stunned Elleray out: "It was a game where nothing had been going on, there hadn't been a single card, and suddenly I'm thinking, 'Is that as bad as I thought it was?' "

Gary Mabbutt and Gianfranco Zola were a gentleman's gentlemen, while Gascoigne, Dennis Wise and Robbie Savage come into the category of "enjoyable rogues"; but Irwin and Nigel Winterburn were the most miserable players to handle and Darren Anderton, unexpectedly, is the top moaner, closely followed by Gary Neville and Peter Schmeichel. It takes all sorts. "I have been very lucky," his book concludes. And who among us would not like to make those the final words of their life story?

¿ 'The Man In The Middle' by David Elleray (Time Warner, £16.99)